A Computer is Not a Trumpet: Why Our Current Approach to Teaching Technology Needs to Change Anise M. Stevens June 17, 2010

A COMPUTER IS NOT A TRUMPET A Computer is Not a Trumpet: Why Our Current Approach to Teaching Technology Needs to Change


Imagine a school that seamlessly incorporates technology into each and every area of the curriculum by allowing students the freedom to use laptops. Imagine a classroom where every student has the benefit of working on a computer tablet or handheld device with access to unlimited, Broadband Internet at all times. Imagine a faculty that fosters wireless connectivity and collaboration, Web browsing, and use of Web 2.0 tools throughout each day. Imagine a educational system that makes a concerted effort to understand, inspire and motivate students who’ve grown up “living in a world of almost ubiquitous information and communicationsrelated digital technologies” (Spires, Lee, Turner, & Johnson, J. 2008, p. 497). If this environment sounds familiar, that is because it is. In fact, it describes the way many, if not all, of today’s modern workplaces function. In order for an organization to remain competitive in today’s global economy, it must provide a flexible workspace to accommodate its workers, and that includes easy, unlimited access to technology: Nimble corporations use technology and Web-traffic information to track customers and commodities…. Some companies use wikis, or group-editable Web pages, for collaboration. Others use them instead of e-mail to create meeting agendas and post training videos. Some corporate executives even post on their own blogs to communicate directly with customers. (Solomon & Schrum, 2007, p. 16). While this is the reality in the working world, which is expecting more and more of its workers to have a comprehensive working understanding of 21st Century skills, it rarely represents the conditions evident in our public schools.

A COMPUTER IS NOT A TRUMPET For several years now, much of the argument about the lack of technology use in classrooms has been directed at teachers, who, according to Marc Prensky (2001), “need to reconsider both [their] methodology and [their] content” (p. 2) to align with a generation that grew up “surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1). While a handful of teachers continues to resist the integration of technology into their curricula, most of whom have been in the profession 21 plus years (Barry, 2011, p. 94), a larger percentage are welcoming it into their teaching, as is high school instructor Sara Kadjer (2004), who makes a point of adding “technology when it presents an opportunity beyond what [her students] can do with paper, pencils, or any of the host of additional tools that fill [their] classroom toolkits” (p.


7). While blaming teachers for a lack of digital knowhow in our students may be convenient, the failure to properly prepare students for the aptitude required to compete in today’s global economy has more to do with access, or rather a lack there of, in our schools. Envision, if you will, a scenario in which a woman arrives at an office where she is to complete all of her work and correspondence on one of three computers, which she must share with thirty-some employees. Add to this image ten-year old software, limited Internet access, and prohibitions against email use, instant messaging, and participation in online discussion forums. Most anyone would recognize this configuration as anything but productive if not downright absurd. The truth is that this is what so many classrooms actually look like, as described by high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein: I would love to use [technology] more, but the school system approach to technology is archaic. The computers are so loaded down with levels of security and pieces of irrelevant software that the first time a student signs on to a particular computer it takes at

A COMPUTER IS NOT A TRUMPET least 10 minutes before s/he can do anything constructive” (as quoted in Barry, 2011, p. 94). What is more troubling is the way in which technology is taught, which is often within the confines of a lab that students visit once a week for approximately fifty minutes. Classes in these labs commonly provide instruction in basic word processing software, like MS Word.


Some labs offer courses in Photoshop and AutoCad and some even in animation as well as video editing, but, for the most part, instruction in these labs is limited in that it is based in the mastery of software applications. This “old way of doing things is presentation-driven; information is delivered and tested. While this approach prepares students for jobs that require simply following directions and rote skills,” (Barry, 2011, p. 21), it does not prepare them for their professional lives where “they will be asked to work with others from around the globe collaboratively to create content for diverse and wide-ranging audiences” (Richardson, 2009, p. 130). According to Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, students need to know much more than how to generate computer based documents: K-12 graduates should understand how to use [technology] to define and break down a problem, look into how similar problems have been solved, and design and implement a solution. In communicating that solution, they should be skillful not merely at typing a Word document but also at telling a compelling story through an interactive multimedia presentation. (as quoted in Gordon, 2011, p. 31). When courses in technology are limited to skill-based instruction, students are given a specific message. They learn that technology is a skill, unique unto itself, that can be mastered for the sole purpose of producing a specific product, like a brochure, or a spreadsheet, or a digitally enhanced photo. There is no denying that students need to hone these types of skills;

A COMPUTER IS NOT A TRUMPET however, this approach to teaching technology is no different than the way music teachers, for instance, provide instruction to their students. Meeting with students once a week makes sense


for music teachers because the focus of their instruction does not extend across the curriculum. A student can’t use an instrument, such as a trumpet, to access information, correspond with others, conduct research, write reports, and post content to a globally-linked community. Students can benefit, however, if they can use computers with Internet access to complete these tasks among others, but when access is limited, as is the case in most public schools, students are in turn denied the preparedness required to compete in a world where, according to social science and communications scholar Manuel Castells, “information technology, and the ability to use it and adapt it, is the critical factor in generating and accessing wealth, power, and knowledge in our time” (as cited in Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 179-180). This is not to discount the digital skills of today’s students. Yet, “for all of their texting, IM-ing, and downloading, and their fluency with each new gadget, young entrants to the labor force are woefully devoid of the skills that companies need as technology continues to transform the workplace” (Gordon, 2011, p. 30). In order for students to obtain the types of skills required for well paying jobs, they not only need “people in their lives who are modeling and teaching the safe, effective, and ethical use of all the Internet has to offer” (Richardson, 2009, p. ix), but they need to attend schools that allow for the incorporation of technology into daily classroom practices. Otherwise, they will continue to overlook the value that technology holds in relation to education and identify online applications as tools intended for play and play only. As a consequence, they will graduate from high school without the “ability to use technology to research, organize, evaluate, and communicate information” (Larson & Miller, 2011, p. 122), which is vital to their future success.

A COMPUTER IS NOT A TRUMPET The primary reason why so many schools claim that they cannot provide access to technology is the cost to do so. While this excuse could be substantiated in past years, it is one that now can be debated. For one, “the continuing fall of laptop prices—with some small “netbook” computers already dropping near $200—[has brought] down hardware and insurance


prices considerably” (Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 37). Reliance on computer tablets can ultimately offset many costs such as paper, pens, calculators, and even textbooks, each of which cost schools somewhere between $40 and $100. According to Joshua Baron, Director of Academic Technology and eLearning at Marist College, “there will be a tipping point where it becomes more cost-effective to just buy an iPad and have the textbooks preloaded on it" (as quoted in O’Hanlon, 2010, p. 34). In addition, the need for expensive software programs has been nearly eradicated with the growing availability of open source software, Web 2.0 tools and cloud computing platforms. Free access to sites such as “Google Docs [illustrate] significant new options in the digital landscape. Users of this and similar online services…have instant access to the latest versions of the software” (DeVoss, Eidman-Aadahl, Hicks, & National Writing Project, 2010, p. 32) that “perform the familiar functions, such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation tools” (Solomon & Schrum, 2007, p. 23). Wordle, Wikipages, Glogster, Moodle, Animoto, Flickr, Wallwisher, Voicethread, and PortaPortal are just a few of the hundreds of free sites available that permit students to create multiple documents online that they can edit and work on with peers. The list of Web 2.0 tools available is ever expanding and the possibilities for extending critical thinking infinite. No one can deny that we are in the middle of what many describe as the worst education crisis our country has ever seen:



With dwindling financial support, …as leaders look to 2011 -12 and beyond, they already have trimmed the low-hanging fruit of easy budget cuts; federal stimulus funds that provided temporary relief are mostly depleted, and administrators now are having to make more painful and damaging cutbacks. Hardly a day goes by without a school or university announcing that it is shutting a facility, laying off personnel, terminating popular programs and deferring planned improvements. (Kennedy, 2011, p. 17). But limiting students’ use of technology is not the answer. In Minnesota’s “Stillwater district, considered a local technology pioneer, the school board recently discontinued a program that had put a take-home laptop in the hands of every student” (Lemagie, 2010) but not without regret. In fact, Stillwater and other districts that have been forced to retire similar one-on-one programs are “taking a variety of steps to increase technology access: Buying more laptops that stay on campus. Opening up school wireless networks so students can get online with their own Internet devices. Working with vendors to give families discounts on computers” (Lemagie 2011). They understand that students need access to technology and to take that access away is to do students a great disservice, as is conveyed by North Carolina’s Schools superintendent Mark Edwards who feels that in order for schools to properly prepare students for their future, they need to ensure that their students experience, understand, and use technology on a regular basis in the classroom (Tulenko, 2010). To illustrate, Edwards gives an analogy to illustrate just how ineffective instruction without technology can be in today’s digital world: You know, for years, we would tell students, we’re going to prepare you for your future, but their experience in school didn’t have much to do [with what they were learning]. I would say that would be the same to telling a student, we’re going to prepare you to drive a car, so get on this horse. (as quoted in Tulenko, 2010).

A COMPUTER IS NOT A TRUMPET Fortunately, there are teachers who are using Web tools in their teaching because they


recognize them as invaluable to their students. They also understand the serious implications that will ensue if they don’t, as is reiterated by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills: “students around the world [will continue to] outperform American students on assessments that measure 21st-century skills” (as cited in Soloman & Schrum, 2007, p. 17). Take Sara Nakamaru (2011), for example, who discusses her experience using a wiki in her classroom: The class wiki serve[s] as an online space to scaffold and document the reading, writing, and language work of our class, transforming the ordinary components of my ESL composition course into more useful, more productive materials from which everyone c[an] learn. In that sense, the wiki function[s] as a new, improved way to do old things. Instead of cajoling twenty-five students into keeping individual spiral-bound vocabulary notebooks (that must be physically collected and checked), the wiki allow[s] us to create collaborative online vocabulary pages that c[an] be updated, linked, and accessed easily. Instead of commenting over and over on individual hard copies of essays that are only seen by one student and one teacher, I c[an] comment publicly on essays visible to the entire class, turning student work into contextually relevant classroom material for discussion and study. (p. 386). No one can deny that “the large and growing role of new media in the economy and society serves to highlight their important role in education” (Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 180). But if today’s schools remain unchanged and continue to resist the incorporation of technology into each and every constituent of teaching and learning, they will never be able to keep pace with the ever-changing landscape of today’s tech-savvy world. “Administrators and teacher leaders have to take personal responsibility for understanding changes in tech

A COMPUTER IS NOT A TRUMPET implementation and integration in their buildings and classrooms” (Larson, Miller, & Ribble, 2009/2010, p. 12). If they do not, then our students will find themselves unprepared for their


collegiate and professional careers. As it stands, we are “far from being first in the world in math and science, the United States ranked thirty-fifth out of the top forty countries in math—right between Azerbaijan and Croatia” (Darling-Hammond, 2010, p. 14). While these statistics alone prove that we’ve done a poor job in preparing our students, they also prove disconcerting when we consider the efforts of our competition: Other nations have been transforming their school systems to meet the new demands of today’s world. They have been expanding educational access to more and more of their people, and they are revising curriculums, instruction and assessments to support the more complex knowledge and skills needed in the twenty-first century. (DarlingHammond, 2010, p .14) If we continue to forego the integration of technology into our schools’ curriculum, our industry leaders will continue to look for qualified employees in other countries, rather than here, because of our inability to produce a competitive workforce, as evidenced by the recent decline in master’s and Ph.D.’s awarded yearly in the U.S. (Freedman, 2006, p.272). This in itself is alarming as well as reflective of our failing school system. While change of any kind takes effort, arming our students with digital knowhow and expertise seems miniscule. Most all of the developed world have taken this step. It is only fair that we allow our students to do the same so that they can compete on even ground.



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