Empowering teachers to use computers effectively across the curriculum

James R.M. Paul
Department of Education
Rhodes University East London

Millennium Minds Conference
September 29 - October 1 1999
(updated 2004)

Cape Town, South Africa

A brief trip down memory lane.

South African schools began using computers about twenty years ago, at much the same time as computers began to appear on secretary’s and manager’s desks downtown. These early machines (the BBC ‘B’, the Commodore, the Sinclair, the Apple II and the IBM PC come to mind) were unsophisticated by today’s standards.  The limited word-processing, spreadsheet and data base packages on offer were crude and somewhat unfriendly. ‘Power users’ learned BASIC and the other high level programming languages in required to get computers to do special tasks and fulfil specific needs.  Computing was essentially text based and getting around one’s machine required one to learn dozens of cryptic commands (dir a:\w\p, cd\ and type c:\myletta1.doc). The features that we take for granted today, such as colour and easily available graphics, were hinted about but undeveloped, while CD Rom based encyclopaedias, electronic mail and the web were unheard of.

My main memory of these days was the sense of excitement… anticipation… a belief that we at last had a tool which would revolutionise teaching and learning, a tool that would enable teachers and children to do new things and to do existing things better and more efficiently.

Why use computers in schools?

Hawkridge (1990) identified and described four main rationales for the use of computers in schools.  These are:

1.      the social rationale
2.      the vocational rationale
3.      the pedagogic rationale
4.      the catalytic rationale.

1.      The social rationale

The social rationale suggests that all children should be aware of and unafraid of how computers work. Because computers play an increasingly important part in modern life and because schools are supposed to prepare children for adult life, it follows that schools should provide some measure of computer awareness

2.      The vocational rationale

This rationale suggests that children should learn to operate computers so as to develop vocational skills. Learning how to use applications programmes (word processors, spreadsheets) or to programme, provides skills that will be needed later in life. Computer literacy and computer science should therefore be offered at school.

3.      The pedagogic rationale

This rationale is based on the belief that computers are able to teach.  Computer aided learning and computer aided instruction offer certain advantages over traditional methods.

4.      The catalytic rationale

The belief here is that computers are able to change education for the better.  Managerial, administrative and teaching efficiency can be improved.  The use of computers enables teachers to place more emphasis on important problem solving approaches rather than tedious rote learning and calculation.  Computers give both children and teachers more independence.  Collaborative learning, rather than competitive learning, can be stressed. Furthermore, the technology is placed in the hands of the pupils, where it is is used as a learning tool rather than as a teaching tool.

While one might question the validity of these rationales, the idea of improving teaching and learning has gripped the imagination of educators world wide.  The idea of enriching the curriculum, improving delivery, extending traditional methods of presenting information and offering new opportunities through the techniques that computers make possible is very exciting.  The catalytic rationale clearly has the most potential and supporters of this rationale see computers providing children with the opportunity to move away from rigid curricula, rote learning and teacher centred lessons by giving more control to children to do their own learning.  They also suggest that teachers will adopt ‘more relevant’ curricula by using computers and thus bring educational opportunities to a large number of students.  The call of catalytic rationalists is a Papertian call for the child to control the computer rather than the computer control the child,

How do we use computers in schools?

Taylor (1980) suggested that there are three basic ways of using computers in schools.  These are:

1.      the computer as tutor
2.      the computer as tool
3.      the computer as tutee.

1.      The computer as tutor.

Here, tutoring systems present subject material, to which the learner responds.  This type of material is programmed by specialists and includes drill and practice exercises and tutorials.  This kind of programme varies widely, from the simply repetitive to sophisticated tutorials which keep check of progress and suggest areas for remediation.  It also includes sophisticated simulations, such as those used to train pilots ands astronauts.  In this mode, the computer is relatively inflexible as it controls or ‘programmes’ the child.  It matches Hawkridge’s pedagogic rationale.

2.      The computer as tool.

Tools include software like word processing packages, spreadsheets, data bases, presentation software, desk top publishing, CD Rom based encyclopaedias, HTML editors, and the world wide web, to name a few.  These are generally curriculum or content free, in that they can be applied to a wide variety of educational and other activities.

3. The computer as tutee.

Tutee systems are regarded by some as the most powerful in that they allow the pupil to control the computer.  The use of programming languages like LOGO, Visual Basic and the like, would be examples of this kind of use.  The tool and tutee models fit into Hawkridge’s catalytic rationale.

What is happening in our schools today?

It interests me that while computers have been instrumental in changing the way that businesses operate quite radically, they seem to have had little effect on the way that teachers teach or the way that children learn in school.  This experience is not limited to South Africa. Noble (1996:18), commenting on the move in the United States to link every school to the information highway, has stated that “Most observers agree that, despite promising experiments, the billions already spent on technology have not had a significant impact on school effectiveness.”  A report of the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment regarding teacher preparation for integrating technology into the classroom (1995 - from Gonzales & Roblyer, 1996) found that:

·        Despite having access to technology in schools, many teachers reported that they did not use computers and other technologies regularly for instruction.

·        A majority of teachers felt inadequately prepared to use technology resources, particularly computer based technologies.

·        Despite the importance of technology in teacher education, it was not central to the teacher preparation experience in most U.S. colleges of education.

·        Districts spend far less on teacher development than on hardware and software.

·        Much of the teacher development activity focused on the mechanics, not on integrating technology into the curriculum.

·        Teachers lacked an understanding of curricular uses of technology and were unaware of the resources technology can offer them as professionals in carrying out many aspects of their jobs.

My own experience from ongoing visits to (mainly) primary schools in East London reflects the findings of the Congress Office of Technology.  More schools are acquiring computers. Technological resources are increasing as the number of computers per school grows. Upgrades are more common, with many schools boasting the latest operating systems and software. However, teachers are teaching in much the same way as they have done for decades and children are still working largely with paper, pencil and textbooks.  Very few schools are able to articulate a clear vision for computers and computing, or have a written plan with respect to the use of the equipment that they have.  In many schools, all classes attend computer lessons, but in most cases a child’s access to the computer is limited to about an hour a week.  Still very few children produce written work electronically, use CD ROM based information or the World Wide Web purposefully as a research tool, or present oral work with the aid of presentation software.  I have yet to see school project work in HTML format (one of the most powerful canvasses for presenting project work available), even in schools which boast a web site.

What should we be doing?

I believe that children should be using computers in schools daily as tools for:

1. research
2. analysis and problem solving
3. communication
4. creativity and
5. presentation.

1.      Computers as research tools.

·        The World Wide Web

The World Wide Web is a massive information resource, offering a wide variety of information to a host of users.  A growing amount of this information is useful for children at primary school level.  Search engines like Yahoo, Alta Vista and Ananzi provide a route to this information.  In some cases, teachers and researchers are providing access to such resources on their own web sites.  The information in this case are a simple click away.

·        CD Rom based information

There is a wide variety of information on CD Rom.  This includes encyclopaedias like Encarta, atlases like Encarta World Atlas and other information like Microsoft Oceans, Microsoft Dangerous Creatures, and Microsoft Ancient Lands.  Other vendors like Dorling Kindersley also provide information on CD Rom.  The advantage of using this kind of software is that text, graphics and sound clips can be copied directly from them, making it unnecessary for children to rewrite and photostat material. This allows them to concentrate on other important aspects of design and layout. Children need to be made aware of the problems of copying directly without referencing, and of the need to develop summarising skills.  However, this problem is as real using traditional methods as it is when using computers.

Shared research

Synchronous and asynchronous software like electronic mail and messenger make is easier than ever to share information and get involved in collaborative research.  Several formal projects exist, which allow children to get involved in real research. Some of these will be described by other presenters at this conference.  I prefer setting up my own projects of this kind.  These could include shared projects of various kinds, including water pollution studies (cheap water pollution kits are readily available) whereby schools across the world can compare water pollution data.  Climate studies are also easy to do.  Simply collect daily weather readings and share them with a school inland in the northern hemisphere. Plotting the relevant information on a graph using a spreadsheet provides many interesting talking points and a great deal of useful learning.  Descriptions of the projects, together with discussion and findings, can be published in a variety of ways (including the www) for all participants to share. 

2.      Computers as problem solving tools.

A variety of software provides the opportunity for problem solving activities, including spreadsheets for mathematical problem solving and investigations, data base software for data manipulation and analysis, and specific applications like Sim City (where children have to design a city, taking into account the many problems presented to town planners). These present a useful environment for children to work collaboratively in a problem solving mode.

3.      Computers as communicative tools.

This has been mentioned to above. Electronic mail, synchronous communications packages and the internet provide a great potential for communication and the sharing of ideas and information.

4.      Computers as creative tools

There are a growing number of programmes that fit into this category. Microsoft Movie Maker allows children to make their own movies, with action, sound and a story line. There is also a variety of simulation software, such as Sim City (see point 2 above) and more specific software which allows one to do basic home and other design. At the other end of the spectrum, professional graphics packages (including video editing software), are easy to use, providing an ideal environment for creative children.

5.      Computers as presentation tools

·        Word processors

Word processors are powerful tools which allow one to create, edit and format text in a variety of ways.  They also allow one to present a clean and tidy final copy.  An added advantage is that the information can be stored digitally more or less forever, allowing one to revisit the information and change it, should one need to.  This has a big advantage over traditional (pen and paper) methods of presenting work.

·        Presentation packages

Presentation packages like Microsoft Power Point, Corel Presentations and Lotus Freelance Graphics are widely used in many settings - except schools.  They offer a variety of advantages over old methods of presenting information, including the ability to use pictures, tables, organisational charts, video clips and sound.  While it may be possible for a child to present an exciting oral by using a slide projector, video player and tape recorder (quite a task!) presentation software allows one to incorporate all the features into one presentation at the click of a mouse button.

·        The Webpage - a new creative canvas for presenting project work.

Project work in schools is usually presented in a project book of sorts, or on a piece of card which gets stuck onto the classroom wall.  The webpage offers many advantages over this method.  It allows a high degree of manipulation with respect to images and text, including sound and video.  It allows one to provide links to related information - across the world in many cases.  It is easily updated. This facilitates a dynamic as opposed to a static project. It can also be seen by a far greater number of people.  School project work published on a web server is available world wide. (Paul, 2001)

What are the problem areas?

There would seem to be four main reasons for the problem as it relates to schools in East London.

1.      A shortage of computers in numbers great enough to provide meaningful access for children and staff, because of the high cost of hardware and software.

2.      Poor placement of existing resources in laboratories where they are difficult to access.

3.      A lack of knowledge about computers and their potential as learning tools on the part of teachers.

4.      A lack of a carefully developed plan for the use of technology across the curriculum.

The most important of these factors would seem to be the last two, given that there would be little change in schools even if computer and software prices dropped and they became affordable on a wide front.  Most teachers simply do not have an effective working knowledge of computers and, of those who do, only a few really understand the educational potential that computers provide.  It is this area that needs addressing if schools are to embrace computers and begin using them effectively on a daily basis because “only when teachers become comfortable with the technology will students reap the benefits.” (Armstrong et.al. 1996:81)

Staff development in the area of educational computing in South Africa has not proved very effective mainly because of limited budgets and inadequate time for training.  Programmes, offered by both education departments and outside agencies, have usually involved intensive two to three day crash courses covering basic operating systems and word processing, followed by shorter courses on other software such as spreadsheets, at a later date.  The assumption has been that the teachers involved will take the knowledge gained back to their schools and share it with their colleagues.  In reality, learning to use a computer effectively is much more complicated than has been assumed by course designers.  Reporting on short courses offered to teachers in London, Cox and Rhodes (1990:B14) found that “these short courses did not have time to show the most important part of using computers in education, which is how to integrate computers into classroom practice.” They found further that only the Inner London Educational Authority (ILEA) certificated long course (150 hours over a year) trained teachers effectively to integrate computers into teaching.  Other investigators also mention the problem of effective training and planning.  Hoffman (1996:92) has stated that the technology integration literature agrees that “teachers need an estimated five to six years of staff development” before they become successful integrators of technology in their classrooms.  Noble (1996:18) mentions thoughtful experts as “calling for cautious planning and extensive teacher training, not necessarily additional or more advanced technology”.  Dwyer (1996) has stated that “Technology adds value to schools when it is an integral part of a comprehensive plan for instructional improvement and when teachers are adequately prepared to use it as one more tool in their arsenal” (emphasis mine).

What can we do about these problems?

The most important prerequisite for success is to have the whole school (governing body, principal and staff) committed to a policy of efficient and successful computer use.  Until this is achieved, computing will remain a fragmented, ad hoc activity falling prey to Garson’s (1999) accusation that schools in South Africa use their computer centres as little else but ‘showcases’ to attract new pupils.  While this might be an overstatement, it is difficult to argue that schools use computers effectively.  With commitment, a workable and effective policy with respect to the use of computers is possible.  The following points might be considered.

·        Think about the outcomes you want and consider whether and how computers can help you achieve such outcomes. 

·        Emphasis needs to be placed on computers as learning/pupil tools rather than computers as teaching/teacher tools.

·        Give thought to factoring this into your curriculum design. Concentrate on activities in which computers allow us to do things better than before (eg - effective presentation of work) as well as things that were impossible before (eg - data analysis and manipulation).

·        Get an outside educational expert to facilitate policy and curriculum design if you need to.

·        As in industry, schools should remember that they should be ‘spending’ as much on training as they do on hardware and software.  Provide effective staff development for all members of staff.

·        Work collaboratively during these sessions to develop workable modules which both fit the curriculum and make use of the special potential that computers provide. Again, be prepared to consult an educational expert well versed in the use of computers as educational tools to guide you.

·        Support willing teachers as they learn.  If  possible provide financial help which will enable teachers to have a computer at home with which to learn.

·        Have faith and patience.  Change will not occur overnight.  However, as teachers work with computers, they develop an understanding of their power and the way in which they can be applied as classroom tools. 

·        Be imaginative.  This is in many ways a user’s most powerful tool.

·        Allow your pupils to guide you.  Many of them have computers at home and are extremely adept when it comes to using them.

·        Read! There are several educational journals which deal with educational computing.  Many affordable general journals have special issues which deal with technology matters (Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, The NASSP Bulletin).  Specific journals include Leading and Learning with Technology.  These publications provide useful insights into many aspects of classroom computer use, and sometimes describe specific workable projects which teachers and pupils can adapt for their own use.


Armstrong, D, Davis, R & Young, G. (1996) Technology Integration at Middle and High School Levels: A Model for Staff Development.  NASSP Bulletin, October, 81-88.

Cox, M. & Rhodes, V. (1990). System Failure.  Times Educational Supplement, 3847, p B14

Dwyer, D. (1996). A Response to Douglas Noble: We’re in this Together. Educational Leadership, November, 24-26.

Garson, P. (1999). Drawing schools into the web of the future.  The Teacher, January, 5.

Gonzales, C. & Roblyer, M.D. (1996)  Rhetoric and Reality: Technology’s Role in Restructuring Education.  Learning and Leading with Technology, November, 11-15.

Hawkridge, D. (1990)  Who needs computers in schools, and why?  Computers and Education, 15 (1-3), 1-6.

Hoffman, B. (1996)  Managing the Information Revolution: Planning the Integration of School Technology. NASSP Bulletin, October, 89-98.

Noble, D. (1996).  Mad Rushes into the Future: The Overselling of Educational Technology.  Educational Leadership, November, 18-23.

Paul, J.R.M. (2001).  Webpages - A new creative canvas for school project work.

Taylor, R.P. (Ed.). (1980). The computer in the classroom: Tutor, tool, tutee.  New York: Teachers College Press.