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Teacher access to computer-based information and communication technology: Resources are not the whole answer(1)

Julianne Lynch

La Trobe University
Australia
LynchEducation@hotmail.com

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Cardiff University, September 7-10 2000.

Teachers often report that a key reason for not making regular use of computer-based information and communication technologies is that they cannot easily gain access to the equipment. Scarcity of equipment is perhaps the most obvious contributor to difficulties gaining access to technology and one that cannot be dismissed in many Australian Government schools. However, material factors are not the only source of the difficulties experienced by teachers when they seek access to computer-based technology, nor is the provision of more resources the whole answer to access problems. This paper draws on a qualitative study, conducted in four Australian Government secondary schools, to show how social factors play an important role in the access difficulties experienced by teachers. The paper uses excerpts from teacher interviews and the researcher's journal to highlight factors that influence the ease or difficulty with which non-computer specialist teachers gained access to technology available in their schools.

Introduction

Australia has a relatively low average student-to-computer ratio in schools, and Victorian schools have the lowest average student-to-computer ratio among the Australian states. A recent national sample study of information technology resources reported that 82% of principals surveyed in Victoria had 15 or fewer students per computer and 56% had 10 or fewer students per computer (Meredyth et al., 1999). In 1998, the Victorian State Government (Office for the Minister of Education, 1998) set a target for an average student-to-computer ratio of 5:1 for Victorian schools by the end of 2000. However, despite the continued growth of the amount of computer-based technology in schools, teachers continue to report that difficulties gaining access to equipment is an obstacle to the integration of technology in schools.

Wellington (1990) pointed out that, even in situations where funds were available, teachers in the United Kingdom identified shortage of funds as a barrier to the integration of computer-based technology. Scarcity of equipment is the most obvious contributor to difficulties gaining access to technology, and the logical response to a perceived scarcity of equipment is the provision of more equipment. This paper argues that provision of technology alone will not solve access problems, and that a focus on the provision of hardware, software and connectivity can mask other factors contributing to the access problems experienced by some teacher. A number of other, more social, contributors to difficulties gaining access to computer-based technology are explored below, but first the study upon which this paper draws is briefly described.

The study

The data drawn upon in this paper were collected as part of a doctoral study conducted by the author(2). The aims, participants and data collection methods are described briefly in this section.

Aims

The study aimed to provide answers to two broad exploratory questions: (1) How does the introduction of student use of Internet-based technologies interact with the already established roles and structures of secondary classrooms and schools? (2) What issues arise for teachers, particularly non-computer specialist teachers, as they try to incorporate student use of Internet-based technologies into their teaching?

Participants

Four government-funded secondary schools in the State of Victoria, Australia, were involved in the study. Each school is briefly described below.

Newtown Secondary College(3)

Newtown Secondary College is the middle school campus of a large multi-campus school located in a provincial city in Victoria. Most of its students come from the local area and are from Anglo-Saxon, low socio-economic backgrounds. This school has approximately 70 computers, housed variously in two large computer rooms, in small clusters in classrooms and in the library. Each staffroom also has a networked computer for staff use. Most of the computers in the school are networked and have Internet access. Most of the observations reported here were made in the main "computer room", a well resourced computer laboratory with a mix of networked Macintosh and IBM compatible computers, scanning equipment, digital cameras and overhead projector equipment. An adjoining "back room" houses the server, a printer and a small number of Apple Macintosh computers. The teachers involved in the study at Newtown SC were Judy and Stuart. At times, a student teacher was also involved. The students were from a year 10 English class.

Outback Secondary College

Outback Secondary College is located in a small country town approximately 300 kilometres from Melbourne in the Wimmera District of Victoria. Many of its students come from farms or very small towns in the surrounding area. The student body is mostly Anglo-Saxon but is socio-economically diverse. The enrolment at the time of the study was 260 students. This school has one main "computer room", containing 26 networked Macintosh computers with Internet access and a printer, and a smaller computer room with 6 older (LC) machines that are also connected to the Internet. A small adjoining room contains desks, shelving and a computer for the school's two information technology teachers. Other stand-alone computers are housed in a number of classrooms. The graphics classroom has three computers, and the staff room has one computer. The school has three lap-tops which can be booked by staff, and a scanner and a digital camera. The two teachers involved in the study were Bill and Grant. They reported that "there's been a reasonably slow up-take" of new information and communication technology by other teachers. The students from this school who were involved in the study were from both Year 9 and Year 10 information technology classes.

Greendale Secondary College

Greendale Secondary College is situated in a semi-rural area 60 kilometre from Melbourne. The enrolment at the time of the study was 850 students. These students come from the local area and from the surrounding rural district. Most are Anglo-Saxon. Many are from low socio-economic backgrounds. This school has three classrooms of networked IBM compatible computers, two of which have Internet access via the same server. The library has five computers and there are computers in each staffroom. Some classrooms, for example the art room, have stand-alone computers. The teachers involved in the study were Bert and Hazel. The students from Greendale SC who were involved in the study were from a year 9 English class.

Riverside Secondary College

Riverside Secondary College is located 200 kilometres from Melbourne in the Murray-Goulburn District of Victoria. The enrolment at the time of the study was 920 students. Many of the students at this school come from farms or small towns in the surrounding area. They come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Most students are Anglo-Saxon. There is a small population of Aboriginal students. The school is well-resourced and was described by the principal as a "privileged" school. It has a number of computer rooms that cater for whole-class computer use and that offer a range of multimedia equipment. Access to the Internet, however, is limited to six IBM compatible computers housed in the library. These computers can print to a printer in the library office. The teacher involved in the study was Emily. The students from Riverside SC who were involved in the study were from a year 10 English class.

Internet projects

Students and teachers from each school were involved in an email exchange project. Figure 1 shows the interaction between schools and gives details of the students and teachers involved in each school.

Outback Secondary College (SC) and Newtown SC were involved in the first round of data collection which took place in terms 3 and 4 of 1997. Greendale SC and Riverside SC were involved in a second round of data collection which took place during terms 2 and 3 of 1998. During both periods, students were involved in inter-school communication projects, using email and the World Wide Web (WWW) to research an issue prescribed by the teachers and to communicate with students in their own and the other school in order to complete prescribed tasks. These projects required students to have regular access to the those computers in each school that provided Internet access.

 

Figure 1. Participants and the interaction of schools.

Data collection methods

I drew on ethnographic techniques, such as participant observation, student and teacher interviews, and journalling, to collect a large body of descriptive data. The study found access to be a major barrier to the integration of computer-based technology into non-computer specialist subjects. Other barriers included teacher factors, such as confidence, and organisational factors, such as the restraints of the school timetable (Lynch, 1999). Excerpts from the data, along with references to relevant literature, are used here to explore some of the social factors associated with non-computer specialist teachers' access-related problems.

Results

Ellam and Wellington (1986) suggested that the human factors involved in the introduction of educational technology were often neglected, with an over-concentration on the provision of hardware and software. Thirteen years later, in Australia, a focus on the purchase of technology is still overshadowing the social factors affecting implementation. For example, Meredyth et al (1999) found that schools continue to spend more money on software, hardware and connectivity than on professional development and that only a third of school principals surveyed agreed that professional development in their schools is adequate.

The non-computer specialist teachers involved in the study reported difficulties providing their students with regular access to the computer-based technology available in their schools. They ascribed difficulties in gaining access to technology for their students, at least in part, to a shortage of resources: there is not enough to go around, so there is a need to compete.

Sixty computers [the number of computers estimated by Judy to be in the school] - is quite a lot when you think about it, but when you look at the number of kids that want to use them, it isn't. Because that came out yesterday. It's um three days from the end of term and everyone wanted to print stuff and use the computers and there just wasn't one available in the school yesterday period four. So obviously, we could do with a lot more. (Judy, English teacher, Newtown SC, interview excerpt)

However, Judy failed to acknowledge that patterns of access to the computing resources in her school were not evenly distributed among students or among teachers. A number of often-underestimated social factors that interplay to affect the relative ease or difficulty with which teachers gain access to computer-based technology for their students are the focus of this paper. Shortages of equipment is treated as part of the context in which other social factors come to bear to determine who does and who does not gain access to the available technology. The social factors described here include patterns of use resulting from the history of computers in schools, teachers' relationships with technology and with other teachers, and teachers' confidence and persistence.

History of use of computer laboratories

In most Australian secondary schools, as in the USA (Bork, 1993) and the UK (Wellington, 1990), computers for student use were first introduced into laboratories or computer rooms, so Computer Studies could be taught by specialist computer teachers (Bigum, 1990). This historical context of computers in schools has resulted in patterns of use and cultural associations that, in many ways, conflict with current pushes for integration of computer-based technologies across the secondary curriculum. Meredyth et al (1999) found that 48% of computers in Australian secondary schools were housed in computer laboratories(4). In three of the four schools involved in the study, the most powerful computers, including those connected to the Internet, were housed in computer rooms. This arrangement was found to inhibit the ability of the non-computer specialist teachers involved in the study to organise access to computer-based technology for their students.

The Information Technology (IT) teachers from Outback SC anticipated that whole class access for non-computer specialist teachers would be a problem during the study due to lack of access to the technology:

Now we decided to run it as part of the IT class because we knew that we had access to equipment. And even though it might have been desirable to involve [non-computer specialist teachers], to get a broader view of the topic and so on and more perhaps expertise in handling it, the booking into the computer room to get access to the equipment would have been a problem at this school. (Grant, IT Teacher, Outback SC, interview excerpt)

The integration of computers across the secondary curriculum is not accommodated by the patterns of use and dominion that have developed in schools over time. In many schools, the computer rooms are the domain of the IT teachers. These teachers have priority because teaching their subject matter depends on access to the school's computer-based technologies. Grant realised that the setup at Outback SC would not readily accommodate whole class computer access other than by the IT teachers who already had their classes booked into the computer room. This problem is widely recognised in the literature on computers in education (eg., Becker, 1999; Crawford, 1997; Wellington, 1990).

There are benefits to locating computers in "computer rooms", such as localising problems (Hodson, 1990). However, in the context of access for non-computer specialist teachers, the housing of computers in rooms that are used by IT teachers to teach the Information Technology Key Learning Area (Victorian Board of Studies, 1995) can be a barrier. In a study of senior mathematics teachers, Rowley, Brew and Leder (1998) found that, particularly within Victorian Government schools, access to existing school computer resources was a major problem due to competing classes. The restrictive impact of the competition between teachers was evident in the three schools in which non-computer specialist teachers were involved in the study. For example, Judy said,

When you first came it was difficult for me to get in because people book three or four weeks or the term in advance, so they book every Wednesday period 1 and 2, so it is very hard to get in. (Judy, English Teacher, Newtown SC, interview data)

Problems with gaining access to the computer room at Newtown SC persisted throughout the project and hindered the progress of students' email communications, causing frustration for the teachers and students at their partner school (Outback SC). Similar difficulties were experienced at both Greendale SC and Riverside SC. Hazel (English teacher, Greendale SC) reported that,

[Gaining access to the computer rooms is] not easy. It's very difficult. I'm lucky to have that timetabled period with year 9. Um partly that's simply because we haven't got enough rooms. Um and also currently it's because we have a lot of senior students doing Information Technology because I think that's seen as desirable by the kids and by the administration, but it's um - They see it as an important subject to offer because it's a skill that kids need in all different areas of their future whether they go to work or further study, that they need computer skills, so most of our rooms are taken up with those things - those classes.
Juli: So you need to book fairly well in advance, do you?
Hazel: Yeah, well sometimes you just simply can't. You have to beg.
Juli: Did you request your weekly spot in the room 38 or have you been automatically -
Hazel: Yeah. That group is an enhancement group, so I think it's seen as a priority that they get as much exposure to technology in school - it should be available to everybody. Um I think we simply need more computer rooms. (interview excerpt)

As described in the next sections, this competition was not such a barrier when IT teachers or others with known associations with the schools' computer technology helped the non-computer specialist teachers at these schools organise access for their classes. An important question in relation to teacher access to computer laboratories for their students is, who does gain access when resources are scarce and competition is necessary. Writing about equality of access to computers for students, Culley (1986) wrote,

It may be thought that in order to achieve equality of access it is sufficient simply to give all pupils the same chances to make use of IT resources. However, this is not necessarily so. If pupils' access to IT resources is not carefully supervised, then the discriminatory behaviour of some pupils will exclude others. For example, if access to the lunch-time IT club is on a "first come, first served" basis, then it is likely that one group will tend to dominate ... thus blocking the access of other groups. (p.89)

This observation can be extended to access for teachers; apparent equal opportunities to gain access to computer-based technology will not necessarily result in all those teachers in a school who wish to gain access having an equal chance of doing so.

Teachers' lack of prior association with technology

Knupfer (1993) wrote that access to computers is based on a combination of the more obvious factors, such as the number and location of computers, and factors that are less obvious, such as the skill and comfort level of the teacher. Wellington (1990) described perceptual barriers to the diffusion of computer resources:

Computers became widely seen, with some notable exceptions, as the province of the Maths/Computer Studies boffins, kept under lock and key in a computer room which often must be booked well in advance, and in many cases contains micros linked or networked together. This prevented their "physical diffusion" into the fabric of the school, and their "mental diffusion" into the curriculum planning and classroom practice of other teachers. (p.59)

Perceptual barriers to diffusion were observed in the study reported here when the strong associations of other teachers with the rooms in which the technology was housed negatively influenced the non-computer specialist teachers' ability to arrange access for their classes.

Judy (English teacher, Newtown SC) reported that gaining access to computer-based technologies was a hurdle during the project, and she explained this hurdle by referring to the need for more equipment and to difficulties booking the computer room due to high demand. However, other perceptual obstacles were also observed. Judy saw the computer room as belonging to another teacher - the IT Coordinator: "[Judy] spoke about Stuart [IT Coordinator] as though it was his room" (Research Journal excerpt).

Judy showed no evidence of a sense of ownership of the computer-based technologies in the school or entitlement to use them with her students. When she talked about the technology or the room in which it was housed, she always positioned herself as an outsider. Ownership of the computer rooms and equipment seemed to be at issue at Newtown SC because of the efforts made by Stuart (IT Coordinator) to obtain computer technology for the school and to involve the students in special computer-based projects. He had established a name for himself in the school for developing and managing students' involvement with computers. He was the founder of the school's computer club and both students and staff at the school associated the school's computer-based technology with Stuart. Despite Stuart's efforts and intention to involve other teachers in computer-based projects, some teachers (including Judy) saw the school's main computer room and the computer club as "his baby" (Judy, English teacher, Newtown SC, interview excerpt). This perception went hand in hand with these teachers' lack of a sense of ownership of the technology in the school.

The non-computer specialist teachers involved in the study encountered far more barriers to gaining access to the technology than the IT teachers at Outback SC who had their classes permanently scheduled in the computer rooms and who managed these rooms. In the schools where non-computer specialist teachers were involved in the study, their ability to gain access to the Internet facilities for their students was greatly increased when they were being assisted by someone who was associated with computers within the school: the Computers Across the Curriculum (CATC) teacher, the librarians, or the IT Coordinator.

For example, Hazel's (English teacher, Greendale SC) ability to organise access for her students was most effective when she was assisted by the CATC Teacher who was recognised in the school as having an interest in the computer rooms. On one occasion, Hazel was involved in a sports day and did not attend the class. Instead, arrangements for access to the Internet-based technologies were made by the CATC Teacher. On this day, accessing and using the online computers was notably trouble free. Other teachers who made regular use of the technology were much more responsive to the CATC Teacher's requests for cooperation than they were to Hazel's.

Studies have found substantial variation in the uptake of computer use by teachers (eg. Eraut, 1988, Becker, 1999), with some teachers seeking out opportunities for change and enjoying risk taking. Early innovators or computer enthusiasts have been found to be a key factor in the successful implementation of educational innovations (Nicholls, 1983). Huberman and Miles (1984) found the absences of "a local advocate" (p.269) was a common factor in failed educational innovation. However, Watson (1997) found that computer enthusiasts can be perceived as "mavericks" and deter other teachers from becoming involved in an innovation. In the study reported here the effect of recognised computer enthusiasts or advocates on the implementation of Internet-based technologies for student use in non-computer specialist classrooms varied depending on the role played by the advocate. In situations where the advocates were not actively and visibly involved in the facilitation of the project, the presence of the advocate in the school and the strong association of the advocate with the technology in the school worked against the non-computer specialist teachers' efforts to gain access to the technology. However, in situations where advocates were seen to actively endorse the project and to assist the non-computer specialist teachers, gaining access to the technology was not a barrier.

The next section describes a key difference between the approaches of those teachers who are strongly associated with each school's computer-based technology and those who see themselves as outsiders: confidence and persistence.

Teacher confidence and persistence

Watson (1997) found that, although gaining access caused problems for the geography teachers she observed, some teachers overcame them. She reported that their confidence drove them to seek access to the computers and that they were annoyed rather than flustered by the obstacles that they needed to overcome. In contrast, other teachers found the access, timing and classroom organisational problems associated with the use of computer-based technologies frustrating and were less motivated to overcome them. These teachers also spoke of not being familiar enough with the technology and of a fear of things going wrong.

Confidence and competence in the use of computer-based technologies develop together but, as Little (1996) pointed out, they will not develop without access to the technology: "Hand in hand with access to the technology goes the development of confidence in its use and skill in specific functions and features that the technology offers" (p.36). Yet, as Watson (1997) argued, access is less often accomplished by teachers who lack confidence and competence. Most teachers, unlike most other professionals, do not have access to personal computers in the safe environment of their own offices. Instead, they generally have to compete with other staff members (and sometimes with students) to access machines that are in high demand.

As reported elsewhere (Lynch, 2000), the confidence of the non-computer specialist teachers involved in the study reported here, particularly at Greendale SC and Newtown SC, was notably low. The following journal excerpt is a description of one of many instances when Hazel (English teacher, Greendale SC) would give up when faced with barriers to access.

For the second period, the library was unavailable because the technician was doing something with the machines. Hazel had asked another teacher, who was taking a class in a computer lab, if that teacher's students were using the Internet. They all were, so, at this point, Hazel gave up. (Research Journal excerpt, Greendale SC)

Hazel learned over time that, despite the large number of computers connected to the Internet in her school, she had to be organised well in advance and that she often had to be persistent and "do deals" with other teachers: "Today Hazel had organised to have the whole class in the computer room. She said she had 'done a deal'" (Research Journal excerpt, Greendale SC). This persistence had been modelled by the CATC Teacher at Greendale. In contrast, Judy (English teacher) at Newtown did not have the active support of a teacher associated with the computer technology available in the school and absence of the IT Coordinator's active endorsement of the project worked against her efforts to organise access to computer-based technology for her students.

Conclusion

Gaining access to computer-based technology for their students proved difficult for the non-computer specialist teachers involved in the study reported here. The most obvious cause of these difficulties is the need to compete for or share limited resources. Factors that inhibited these teachers success in competing for access included the patterns of use and dominion that have developed due to the history of computers in schools, the teachers' lack of prior association with the technology and the teachers' lack confidence and persistence in their pursuit for access to the computer-based technology available in their schools. The interplay of these factors affects the relative ease or difficulty with which teachers organise access to computer-based technologies for their students. Non-computer specialist teachers were generally less confident and less persistent in their pursuit of access. These teachers' success in organising access to the computer-based technologies available in their schools increased when the known computer experts in the schools actively supported the project. In schools where this support was not evident, the presence of computer experts who were strongly associated by the school community with the computer-based technology inhibited the non-computer specialist teachers' efforts to organise access.

With the growing popularity of computer-based technologies and with increasing calls for the use of these technologies in non-computer specialist classes, equipment shortages will continue to be a source of access problems. Governments and schools need to recognise this growing need and take steps to anticipate and solve access problems. However, they should also be mindful that access problems are more complex than simple equipment shortages and that the purchase and installation of equipment will not necessarily change the relative ease or difficulties with which particular teachers gain access the technology for their students. This study suggests that more opportunities for access may manifest in more opportunities for a few rather than equal opportunity for all.

References

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Notes

1. Paper presented at the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association, Cardiff, 2000.

2. Submitted for examination in June 2000.

3. Pseudonyms are used throughout this paper to refer to schools and to individual teachers and students.

4. This is the figure for all sectors (Government, Private and Catholic). The figure for Government schools alone can be expected to be higher because of the larger number of laptop computers in Private schools.

 

This document was added to the Education-line database on 04 September 2000