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    Teachers Make the Difference

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2003 First published in VESTA News October 2003 Technotes column

    What is it that makes a real difference in using technology in schools? Teachers make the difference when it comes to computers.

    Back in the early 1980s, the idea was that everyone would have to learn computer programming.

    So some schools taught students the BASIC programming language. Others, LOGO. Or maybe PASCAL was the secret to success. Now, programming has fallen from fashion. It’s is a useful skill, but it’s now mostly taught to those wanting a career using it. And few would-be software developers learn either BASIC, LOGO, or PASCAL.

    Hardware warsThen there were hardware wars. Schools bought Commodore PETs or C-64s or Amigas. Or they went Apple: Apple IIs or Macs. Still others opted for IBM-style PCs, first with DOS, later with Windows.

    More recently, we’ve survived fashions for brand-name software packages. If your school bought Brand X, you got everything you needed. Not only a complete curriculum, it was so easy to use that even an adult could use it!

    Or maybe the secret was how your computers were connected or where they were located. Schools with networks were ‘high tech’ claimed the 1998 corporate-sponsored ‘Star Report’. Or maybe the answer was a computer lab. Or a few computers in each classroom. Or pods in the library.

    With each successive technology fad, too many schools spent thousands of hard-to-get education dollars on hardware, software, and networks but ended up with expensive systems that either rarely got turned on or were used more as game systems than learning tools.

    Not surprisingly, many teachers, parents, and administrators have become cynical about the role of technology in education. Computers in schools can all too often seem like the new-age equivalent of that old joke that asks ‘What’s a boat?’, with the answer ‘A hole in the ocean that you pour money into’.

    OK, so what makes a real difference in using technology in schools?


    You've got Worms!A computer without a teacher is a game system. A computer with a teacher is a tool for extending the curriculum.

    It takes some work, some thought, and some planning. That shouldn’t be a surprise—good educational practice involving computers or the Internet isn’t any different than anything else we do in the classroom. An effective lesson involving technology isn’t all that different from any other effective lesson. There need to be clear goals and clear ways to evaluate student learning.

    Computers and the Internet can be tools to help with literacy and writing, with understanding science and math concepts. They can be used for research and for learning to critically evaluate information. They can be used to create visual art, animations, and music. But in all cases, they are just one more tool to help students learn. And as with any tool for learning, they work best when there’s a clear plan.

    Vesta OctAs teachers get comfortable using these new tools, they are often surprised how much they already know; as with any tool, there are techniques to learn, but the basics remain the same. Saving files on a hard disk is a different technique than organizing files in folders in a filing cabinet but ideas of organizing are the same.

    Similarly, searching the Web is different from using a school library’s catalogue. But reading for understanding, organizing information, and transforming facts and data into knowledge are the same whether pages are on screen or in print.

     Teachers will be discussing technology issues and ideas at the annual Horizons Conference put on by the provincial Computer Using Educators PSA, October 23 and 24th at Surrey's Guildford Park Secondary. Info at

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan