Friday, February 1, 2013

The Technology Fix

Karen Hamilton May 17, 2010

Reflections on Technology

The five schools in Part 1 of the Technology Fix (2004) from author William Pflaum’s point of view illustrate American schools that have strong leadership and focused use of technological resources. Mostly the K-12 schools’ cultures include students from low income and not necessarily diverse backgrounds. Some of the schools use analysis of performance data.

In many respects the culture of my college, in Toronto Canada is quite different from those presented in Part 1. My college is a large downtown city college spread across five campus locations. Like the city of Toronto, the make-up of the student body is extremely diverse. Post secondary students come from many cultures and economic backgrounds studying in many different faculties to obtain certificates, diplomas and degrees. Because of this diversity of programs, it is difficult to categorize the overall culture of the college. Management and their view and understanding of technology differs within faculties. In this overview, the best I can do is reflect on the culture within my division, a division I am partly seconded to. I'll  use these two to share  my view of how those divisions experience the overall administration of the college.

In the American K-12 system, it is apparent that there is a lot of focus on preparing students for standardized tests. At my college, students take programs that have standards and outcomes. A small number of students after completing programs go on to complete standardized tests in their particular fields. The area I teach is general education so there are no standardized tests but all courses must have approved outcomes. One of the jobs of a college teacher is to develop curriculum and to ensure that students meet outcomes. Within that framework teachers have much more latitude in the ways that they do their jobs compared to prescribed K-12 education. While the college as a whole seeks to be forward leaning in technology, it would be easy to find teachers who are decidedly high tech and those who are low tech within the same division and even teaching the same course.

Like some of the K-12 schools in Part 1, my college does use analysis of performance data. Since 1998, Ontario colleges have used Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure the following: graduate satisfaction, student satisfaction, employer satisfaction, employment rate and graduation rate. ( )

As well every semester students complete evaluations for every class/teacher. The data is used to make improvements to programs and systems and is used as a basis for college funding.

Overall, I would say that the college has strong leadership and somewhat focused use of technological resources. The reason I say “somewhat” is that there is an intention to be forward in the use of technology, but in some cases as in any organization it can be the perception that the wrong people make decisions on technology. The word technology does not mean the same thing to everyone. At my college almost all classrooms are what we call “smart classrooms”- they have Internet access, desktop computer and /or laptop hookups and multimedia capability. We have dedicated computer rooms for classes that need computers and we have computer-testing labs for online testing on all campuses.

The college supports and encourages the use of Blackboard for all of its Post Secondary programs and we have a division that supports technology. This division is separate from but does have a relation to the Division that looks after overall professional development in the college. The professional development department has a slightly different view of what technology is. For example, on the PD calendar we see an over abundance of workshops on the use of Microsoft Office. It’s just my viewpoint here but really- isn’t that a little old and basic? It seems to me that the colleges sometimes adopt something new that is really old. For example if a college is just now introducing a student email system is that new or old?  Another example is wireless technology. While a college has some rooms with wireless access other rooms and buildings have partial access or none. Sometimes the people who make the decisions about what is necessary are not the users of the technology. I have a colleague who is an IT teacher at a college. He has been in a constant battle to have his classrooms equipped for the wireless network program. Finally, he gave up the fight and just set up his own network in the rooms he teaches in. At my college a new water front campus is being built and many are happy to see that the whole building is being designed with faculty input and will have complete state of the art technology and be wireless throughout. It is really a mixed bag. It seems that the colleges that I know are always running to catch up.

St. Mary’s Elementary school would seem to have little in common with my  large and diverse  College. There are many buildings that make up the college, but the building at 200 King Street is the oldest and probably my favorite. In many respects the description of St Mary’s was not dissimilar to my building. My building is in an historic area of Toronto where the first settlers to Toronto set up. The building was a former Cookie factory. Over the years the building has been renovated again and again but it retains its old world charm even though all the classrooms are so-called “smart “classrooms.

At St. Mary’s the technology is due to the teachers’ dedication in working together to set up a computer lab. The lab was set up with a mix of what was available, so teachers felt real ownership and found ways to get money to do what they needed. In a large college it would be rare to find teachers who would be allowed to do something like that. Teachers can lobby for the acquisition of certain technology but it’s definitely a more complicated and layered process. One example of a group of teachers who lobbied to get a lab created at my college would be the online teaching lab. About eight years ago, I piloted online computer testing with one of my classes. Together with the help of the innovations division we developed an online testing policy and wrote a report on the success of the project. In turn that division sought funds to enlarge their computer-testing lab. The result is a large facility at my campus and testing labs at all the large campuses. There is a core of teachers who believe in technology to facilitate learning who use the testing labs. The common element in these two examples is dedicated teachers willing to try new technology and work beyond their job descriptions.

At St Mary’s every teacher has a laptop. This is similar to my college. Full time faculty have a choice of either a desktop computer or a laptop. Unfortunately, the college mandates a certain brand and kind of computer. In our world it is more likely that teachers have diverse needs and everybody with the same type of computer doesn’t make sense. It seems that in the college environment for anything different to happen, a person has to prove, then beg, and then make deals to get something different. To get my school MacBook Pro, I worked to create podcasts with faculty, promoted my division with a podcast created on a Mac and then made an agreement with two divisions to split the cost of the laptop. St Mary’s teachers have free Internet at home that was arranged by a parent in the computer business. In a small school dedicated teachers can do things like this.

Computers at St Mary’s are demystified because it is the teachers who put them together. At my college you will find a wide range of technological skills among teachers. As a techie, I sometimes don’t realize how little some other teachers use technology. It’s usually the students who tell what goes on or doesn’t go on in other classes, or a walk by of on-going classes or in divisional meetings where the usual arguments pop up. Sadly it seems some of us have to fight to promote the use of technology. In every school there seems to be a Luddite group who will grab onto any negative example to justify their non-use of technology. So it’s definitely not like St. Mary’s where the principal says,” Get on the train or get off.” (Pflaum, 17) Although, I’m sure the chair in my division would like to say that; she can’t. In colleges once someone has a real full time job, it’s rare that he/she would leave. College professors have academic freedom that K-12 teachers don’t have. As much of a proponent of technology that I am, I can’t say that the non-tech using teachers are all bad. Some I know are great teachers. However, when someone is teaching in an area that will require students to use up-to-date technology, it’s my belief that the teacher should model that.

In K-12 schools like St Mary’s it looks like most have dedicated computer rooms and sometimes a select number of computers in rooms. At my college either a class is a room full of desktops, or it’s a smart room where students may or may not have wireless access and laptops that they bring to class. In my classes I often have students with their own laptops. Some of my colleagues are horrified that students have cell phones and laptops in their classes. I welcome technology. My students often point out websites or videos during a lesson that illustrate points I’m making in class. Like the good teachers at St Mary’s, good teachers at my collegeuse technology to complement the learning. For some teachers however a lack of facility with technology makes technology a problem rather than an asset.

I laughed when I read the St Mary’s teachers say, “We want them to understand that just because something is on the Internet doesn’t make it true…We want them to be critical thinkers.” I think all good teachers have this goal in common.

So even though it appears that a small elementary school does not have much in common with a large community college, the struggle to achieve a high standard of learning is similar. Change isn’t easy and making a difference takes work.

In the introduction to The Technology Fix, Pflaum talks about how Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point got him thinking about what would be the tipping point for technology to thrive in classrooms. Coincidentally, Gladwell was in Toronto this past week and Tanya Talaga of the Toronto Star wrote about his talk to a Liberal conference, The Big Think. (To see the full speech see the Vimeo link below)

Thought provoking as usual, Gladwell did not disappoint. Gladwell tells the audience, “I know that from time to time there is a lot of interest in the power and importance of reducing class size but the data shows class size is the biggest dead end in the world,” This was not what the convention wanted to hear.

But the larger point that Gladwell makes is that changing teacher quality is what impacts student outcomes.

“If a child is unlucky enough to have a bad teacher three years in a row they will fall three years behind a child lucky enough to have a good teacher three years in a row.”
The question is how do you improve the quality of teachers, Gladwell said. Raising academic requirements isn't the simple answer. Teaching is complicated in this modern world, he said.
“We are asking them to play six, seven, eight different roles in the classroom. The best thing we can do for teachers is to simply let them teach. That requires a government that is activist ... that is not afraid to try something radically new,” he said.
In the above statement, Gladwell is not talking about technology but he is making a point that is being made in the first five chapters of the Technology Fix. How do we get quality teachers? From my point of view they have to be supported by their management, encouraged to learn about and understand the technology they are to use.

Where teachers use technology to complement their teaching, when teachers are not servants to technology, when teachers really care and are engaged, and when management is supportive, technology’s use is meaningful and successful.

But it does all start with an inspired educator.


Colleges Ontario-Key performance indicators, Colleges Ontario. Retrieved from

Keynote Address Part 2- Malcom Gladwell (May 14, 2010) Collingwood Conference 2010. Vimeo. Retrieved from

Pflaum, W. (2004). The technology fix: The promise and reality of computers in our schools. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Talaga, T. (May 16, 2010). ‘Class size is the biggest dead end in the world,’ writer tells provincial Liberal think-tank, Toronto Star, Parent Central. Retrieved from

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