Computers in the classroom: Opportunity and challenge
Applications most frequently incorporated into teaching practices
Information and communications technologies (ICTs) are both pervasive symbols of modern society and essential business tools. Households have embraced them too for a variety of uses, from entertainment and shopping, to paying bills and searching for information.
As of 2002, 86% of businesses used computers and 76% used the Internet; 65% of employees in the private sector had access to personal computers at work. These rates were even higher in government, where nearly all institutions used personal computers; 90% of their employees had access to a personal computer. By 2002, 60% of Canadian household had a personal computer and more than half of Canadian households (51.4%) had at least one member who regularly connected to the Internet from home.1
With the wide use of computers, equipping students with computer skills has become an important goal of school systems across the country. The development of these skills forms part of school curricula. Appropriate goals are set at each grade level, much as with knowledge and skills in other subject areas.
Of course, having the capacity to teach computer skills presupposes that computers are available for students’ use. A key role in this regard has been played by SchoolNet, an initiative of the federal government in partnership with provincial ministries of education and school boards/districts. Through its Computers for Schools initiative, SchoolNet has been instrumental in equipping tens of thousands of schools and libraries with computers. According to data from the 2000 Programme for International Student Assessment, Canada ranked second among OECD countries in terms of access to computers at schools for 15-year old students.
However, availability of computer equipment does not necessarily mean that students and teachers make effective use of it, that it is easily accessible or that it is of good quality. This article draws on a new study based on the Information and Communications Technologies in Schools Survey (ICTSS). The ICTSS targeted all of Canada ’s 15,500 elementary and secondary schools, asking principals to provide information on ICT infrastructure and access to computers and computer applications for the 2003-2004 school year. Of the schools targeted, 47% responded to the survey.
The ICTSS found that over 99% of all elementary and secondary schools in Canada had computers during the 2003-2004 school year. More than one million computers were available to students and teachers and slightly more than 90% were connected to the Internet. This extensive availability of computers offers students not only access to a wide range of information on the Internet, but also the potential to use information and communications technology (ICT) as a learning tool. However, based on data from the ICTSS, it appears that there has been limited success in the use of computers to enhance learning in the classroom.
The top five software applications available to students in schools were: word processing; Internet browsers; educational, drill and practice programs; spreadsheet and database programs; and presentation software.
Word processing software was the application most often incorporated into teaching practices, with 78% of the principals reporting that it was used either “most of the time” or “always”(Table 1). This was followed by Internet/Intranet (34%) and software for special needs students and/or remedial programs providing individualized learning (29%).
Source: Joanne Plante and David Beattie (2004). Connectivity and ICT integration in Canadian elementary and secondary schools: First results from the Information and Communications Technologies in Schools Survey 2003-2004. Culture, Tourism and the Centre for Education Statistics - Research Papers. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 81-595-MIE20040017.
Developing computer skills, like other learning activities, is a cumulative process. Skills and abilities expected of students at the secondary level are more advanced than those expected at the elementary level. This is reflected in differences in the types of computer applications incorporated into teaching practices, particularly the use of presentation software, use of spreadsheets and database software for simple data manipulation and statistical analysis, and use of software supporting creative works. All these applications are much more likely to be used at the secondary school level than at the elementary level. Large schools also provided access to a wider range of software than small schools.
The majority of school principals (76%) reported that more than 75% of teachers possessed the required technical skills to use computers for administrative purposes - preparing report cards, taking attendance and recording grades. However, fewer than half of school principals felt that the majority of teachers had the necessary skills to integrate computers into their lesson plans or to engage their students in the use of computers to enhance learning.
There was no real difference across elementary and secondary school teachers with respect to the percentages able to use computers for administrative purposes. However, a smaller proportion of principals of secondary schools (39%) felt that 75% or more of the teachers possessed the required technical skills to foster students’ effective use of computers, compared to 49% of principals of elementary schools. This may partly reflect the fact that computer applications tend to be more advanced at the secondary school level.
Private, small and rural schools were less likely to report that many teachers possessed the required technical skills for preparing report cards, taking attendance or recording grades than their public, large and urban counterparts.
Teachers, particularly at the secondary school level, are primarily subject-matter specialists and are not necessarily skilled in using specialized computer applications themselves. But, with the widespread use of computers in a variety of fields, it can be expected that the need for teachers to acquire the skills and abilities to incorporate computer applications into the curriculum will continue to grow.
ICTSS reported that mentoring/coaching activities with other teachers or ICT professionals was the most common strategy used to help teachers learn how to use computers. Other strategies where principals placed “some” to “a lot” of emphasis include professional development, information-sharing among staff members, training sessions, and personal-learning activities. However, only relatively small percentages of principals reported placing “a lot” of emphasis on any one of these strategies. In terms of effectiveness, the largest proportion of principals ranked coaching/mentoring activities as being highly effective, but even that was cited by only slightly more than one third (38%) of principals.
Small schools and private schools were more likely to place “no” or “little” emphasis on these strategies than larger schools and public schools.
ICT products evolve quickly, with new and improved hardware and software frequently being introduced to the market. Maintaining systems that are current therefore can be a challenge for users.
Indeed, financing the purchase of computers and related electronic equipment was a major concern for most principals, with two out of three reporting that having sufficient funding for technology was an extensive challenge to using computers in their schools. Principals of large schools were more likely to report financial computer-related issues than those in small and medium-sized schools. Other important challenges include ensuring that computers and peripherals are up to date, obtaining sufficient copies of software for instructional purposes, having enough training opportunities for teachers and obtaining a sufficient number of computers.
Many principals reported that the computers that they had in their schools used dated technology. Fewer than 25% of elementary and secondary schools in Canada had the majority of their computers running on the most recent operating systems in 2003-2004. Over half of school computers ran at medium processor speed and nearly a third at low processor speed. Elementary schools, particularly small ones, were more likely to have low processor-speed computers compared with secondary schools. Principals of secondary and private schools, on the other hand, were more likely to report that the computers in their schools were equipped with higher processor speed than their elementary and public counterparts.
Principals overwhelmingly agree that computers allow teachers to broaden and enrich the curriculum and that computers enable students to go beyond the prescribed curriculum, thereby deepening their knowledge base.
But, incorporating computers into education programs poses challenges for schools. School systems must address multiple priorities that include imparting to students knowledge and skills in a number of important subject areas. Teachers, who are subject-matter specialists, do not necessarily have the knowledge or training to incorporate computers into the curriculum. With widespread access to computers in the home, students’ computer skills may be superior to those of their teachers. Schools themselves may also find that maintaining an adequate number of computers that are up-to-date in terms of both hardware and software is a struggle in the face of competing demands for financial resources.
In some respects, these challenges are the same as those faced by organizations in all sectors. What sets educational systems apart is the scale of the challenge. Ultimately, it is a question of balancing competing demands for scarce resources. Part of the solution as seen by many principals is to provide more training opportunities for teachers to assist them in developing their computer skills.
Adapted from the report Joanne Plante and David Beattie (2004) . “Connectivity and ICT integration in Canadian elementary and secondary schools: First results from the Information and Communications Technologies in Schools Survey 2003-2004 ”. Culture, Tourism and the Centre for Education Statistics - Research Papers. Satistics Canada Catalogue number 81-595-MIE20040017, free.