Urgent Emerging Issues Related to Technology Applications in Schools

Peter Martorella

Peter Martorella is a Professor of Social Studies Education and Instructional Technology in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at North Carolina State University



Consider the following disparate information bites. How are they related?



The preceding assertions are linked in some way to urgent emerging issues concerning the deployment of computer technologies in the schools. They provide a springboard for dialog concerning the technology policies and practices that should guide our schools into the 21st century.

Over the past decade there has been a steady drumbeat for equal access to computers across gender and ethnic lines. This is an important but well publicized concern. Consequently, I will defer considerations of it, and turn instead to several other urgent issues that are of more recent vintage. These issues, all relating to technology applications in school still emerging and amorphous, and have not been fully aired.

The issues under consideration have been lumped into five broad categories, which I will discuss in turn: ethical concerns in technology use, Internet usage, First Amendment and privacy rights, personnel shortages, and the ascendancy of the technology critics. This brief essay aims only to outline each of the issues with a broad brush and stimulate further dialog.


Ethical Concerns in Technology Usage

Shortly after the Apple IIe was introduced into schools, reports surfaced that students were stealing CPUs, thanks to the ease with which these components could be accessed and removed. The contemporary counterpart of techno-thefts appears to be lap top computers. They can be easily slipped into a bag or a knapsack (as the advertising for Apple's new e-mate trumpets).

Evidence suggests that pilferage of tangible computer goods is a common problem for schools. No one is sure how great it really is, and statistics are hard to come by. What seems certain is that the problem will be exacerbated as computers and peripherals are down-sized and freed of their cable tethers through wireless connections. Improved security and accountability measures will help somewhat to prevent thefts of hardware.

Software theft, which deprives authors and publishers of their legitimate fees, however, remains an intractable problem. Software theft also has become an international problem of alarming proportions that threatens trade relations with countries such as Russia and China.

Anti-copying schemes and related measures are likely to remain only marginally effective in combating thefts of software. The greater need is for a new generation of computer users with well-grounded ethical standards that address the unique issues attendant to technology usage. These standards should emerge from moral dialogs that are embedded in realistic settings. The dialogs should focus on topics such as the nature of property, justice and fairness, and what are the right and wrong ways to use technology. Students of all ages should be drawn into these moral dialogs. Piaget (1965) and Kohlberg (1984), among others, provide guidelines for structuring such discussions and for stage-appropriate subject matter.

A more subtle related ethical issue, the attribution of ownership of telecommunications, has surfaced with the explosion of websites, URLs, and email addresses. The canons for citations of authorship and the standards of plagiarism in the print media are relatively well established as well. Regarding recognition of sources and proprietary material from the WWW and email, policies and procedures are still in their formative stage.

Teachers should model ethical behavior by always acknowledging authorship and how to ferret it out for information accessed online or offline. At the same time, the attribution issue cuts both ways. There is a mushrooming body of data that has no clearly identified author. Often authors, caught up in the spontaneity and informality of uploading and downloading information, neglect to provide the necessary information to gain credit for their work or even indicate their URL. In other cases, authors choose to be anonymous. Still other documents are a melange of "borrowed" documents with no single author. These cases not only challenge adequate attribution, but also make assessment of information quality much more difficult.


Internet Usage

As awesome as the Internet has proven to be, it presents special problems for students. These relate to overcrowding, reliability of information, and acquisition of prerequisite skills.

As students and teachers will attest, for those who must use a modem and conventional wiring to access the WWW, the procession of busy signals often is unbearable. Once connected, the problem shifts to crashes and slow response times from popular sites. Downloading a file during peak hours can be excruciatingly slow. Remote sites with long distance dial-up costs can be another impediment. In sum, planning a lesson around these constraints can be a challenge or even an impossibility, depending on the time of day and the resources available.

Another practical consideration with Internet usage relates to the nature of the output. Not all search engines were created alike. Some casual research revealed that there are upwards of 12 search engines in use, with more in the pipeline. Each claims some special feature that makes it unique. Paradoxically, the more successful they become in distinguishing themselves, the more they confound users who must reconcile discrepancies.

What neophyte users often are unaware of is that the scope of search engine domains differs and is uneven. Hence, the quantity and type of information they serve up in response to a search query varies widely. For example, querying Yahoo, which has the largest datebase, for information about a new drug, Mirapex, produces different results than those generated by the search engine, Deja News. In recognition of these problems, a new class of search engines promises to perform a search of searches (e.g., WebCrawler).

Thorough searches also require prerequisite skills, the foremost being some understanding of Boolean logic. Single advertising is rapidly proliferating over the WWW; students need to be guided in critically analyzing claims. These can be difficult measures to grasp for young children. These issues will command the thoughtful attention of teachers, if activities are to be developmentally appropriate and students are to maximize the benefits of the computer interactions.

A different, more serious problem for students working with the Internet is the quality control issue. Much of what is available online over the Internet is of high quality. This includes primary source data, whether text, video, or audio, and opinions and anecdotes clearly identified as such.

There is, however, another vast and growing unreliable body of data available through the Web. Unfortunately, it exists unfiltered side-by-side with reliable data. Miller (1997), President of the Association of College and Research libraries skewered the problem tersely and dramatically: "Much of what purports to be serious information is simply junk-neither current, objective, nor trustworthy" (p. A44). This phenomenon troubles many educators. Miller cites cases where a single query produced upwards of 10,000 hits. How to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Apart from the Internet issues we have explored, there is the "free lunch" syndrome. Stories abound of the outstanding materials available free through the WWW. The largest from individuals from around the world in contributing without charge an incredible assortment of sights, sounds, and texts is a wonder to behold. Further there seems to be no end to the procession of new data or novel ways to use the data. Without question, however, the free lunches are likely to diminish and even disappear in the coming years. When this occurs, it will require schools to budget resources and look more critically at what the marketplace offers through the WWW.


First Amendment and Privacy Rights

Problems attendant to freedom of speech issues are unique to democratic countries. Arab nations and China, for example, simply established control points that screen connections on the Internet (Noam, 1997). However, freedom of speech issues in a democratic society such as ours are thorny. Witness a recent case in point, the Supreme Court's ruling that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 was unconstitutional. Against the backdrop of an information society, the Court upheld First Amendment rights of free speech. In doing so, it acknowledged the supremacy of free speech despite the potential of children accessing indecent or otherwise inappropriate information.

Key controversies in the information age often involve agonizing choices. Centering around competing measures. On the one hand, how can we preserve our First Amendment rights regarding freedom of speech. At the same time, how can we prevent invasion of our privacy and constrain the exhibition of indecent, salacious, and inflammatory materials to children.

The complexity of the issue is greater today than in the pre-WWW because of the ease with which any individual or group can transmit any information around the world. Currently, everyone with a website can parade their wares in front of the world. Further, sophisticated thieves can invade and manipulate our electronic communications and financial transactions seemingly at will. The scope of the invasion is unknown, since individual and corporate victims frequently do not publicize the losses.

Unfortunately, technology alone cannot solve the problem that technology has spawned, advances in encryptology and security notwithstanding. For their part, schools desperately need a viable plan for reconciling conflicting demands of protection and open access. Although a school district and the community in which it resides cannot completely safeguard First Amendment and privacy rights during computer transmissions, there are some steps they can take.

An initial measure should be to develop, publicize, and enforce a policy for school use of the WWW. Some of the measures taken should include installation of software, such as Cyber Patrol, that can block out adult sites. Purveyors of print media, such as librarians, have long struggled with freedom of speech and privacy issues and their insights should be especially helpful in formulating alternatives. The community also should be invited to be a partner in grappling with the establishment of policies.


Personnel Shortages

When all the computers, peripherals, software, and new laboratories have been procured and all the sites wired, there remain personnel and maintenance needs, which can be costly. A paramount need for schools is a new generation of technology leaders, part technicians, part teacher educators, and part k - 12 curriculum specialists. In addition, these individuals may be expected to install and maintain a server and home page and to evaluate and recommend hardware and software procurements, often for two platforms. They also must be able to troubleshoot malfunctions, make repairs, provide on-demand technical assistance, supervise chat sessions, and evaluate hardware and software.

Another key role is staff development. There now is general agreement that preservice and inservice teachers and administrators increasingly will require more hands-on technology training. More specifically, such training must occur in contexts similar to those in which they will employ their newly acquired computer skills. Further, educators will require ongoing contextually embedded support if they are to make effective use of technology. Newly created programs such as North Carolina's Technology Assesment Project which requires all preservice teachers to create technology portfolios and pass a technology competency exam are examples of the push for techno-literate classroom teachers.

Needless to say, educators who can handle all these roles currently are in short supply. Where they do exist, they often are swamped with requests for assistance and leadership. Not surprisingly, they report that they are overwhelmed by the demands of their position. Frequently, given their level of technology and leadership skills, they succumb to the sirens of industry.

Though data on their professional background are hard to come by, the scant evidence we have suggests that much of the training these individuals have received has been on the fly and from workshops, national and regional conferences, newsgroups, and self-directed readings. Sadly, teacher education programs have been responsive only to selected dimensions of the needs of technology specialists. Programs are particularly lacking in practicum experiences that afford in-depth, hands-on training that marries theory and practice holistically, much the same way that the traditional student teaching assignment does. Institutions also often support only a single platform in their training and have inconsistent policies regarding updating hardware and software.


Ascendancy of the Technology Critics

The cost of computers continues to decrease at a rate attractive to buyers. At the same time, however, the costs associated with the storage and maintenance of computers are increasing. Moreover, obsolescence is a constant threat for any school that purports to prepare students for technology applications in the workplace. These realities and the massive infusion of computers and the infrastructure they require, already are causing serious financial problems for many school districts. This is especially the case for districts already strapped for basic needs, such as adequate classroom space and additional teachers.

Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has fueled the rise of a vigorous and growing debate. It has engaged technology advocates and critics in a nest of issues centered around a central pragmatic question: What price technology and is it worth it?

Traditionally, computers have been enthusiastically welcomed at the school doors; the more the better being the operative policy. Further, the merits of technology in schools largely have been assumed. The benefits seemed self-evident from observing children busily at work on computers (Papert, 1993). The steady mantra from techno-advocates was clear and forceful: Anecdotal evidence affirmed that students are motivated by computers and that they learn better and even faster than through conventional instructional approaches.

Techno-advocates also pointed to research findings that claim students who have experienced computer-managed instruction do better on virtually all counts than those in conventional classes. At the extreme, gains are claimed across subjects and grade level for a variety of outcomes; these include: more positive attitudes toward learning and the subjects they are studying, less time required to learn lessons, and higher test scores (Baker, Hale, & Gifford, 1997: Owston,1997 ).

Techno-critics countered that the reality is in fact murkier. They charge that the effects of technology on learning are indeterminate. Critics also question the appropriateness of the measures (meta-analyses) used to buttress claims of positive research on behalf of computer-based instruction. At best, they allege, the results of research have been spotty and qualified. "So far," Cuban (1997) writes, "no researcher can state with confidence that students using computers will clearly enhance their learning or improve their overall test scores" (p.9a). Further, Cuban has charged: "anyone justifying the purchase and use of computers on grounds that all students will learn more, better and faster is lying" (p.9A, Ownston,1997) has similar reservations about arguments from research studies that advance the cause of technology.

The mass media, sniffing a hot story, already have begun to fire broadsides against efforts of schools to promote computer usage. Oppenheimer (1997) is representative of this class of media critics. His targets include President Clinton, whose stated goals are to extend access to computers to all children. Oppenheimer cites costs in the 40 to 100 billion dollar range over the next five years to achieve the President's dream.

Critics who zero in on costs also are fearful that computer and infrastructure expenditures will divert monies from subjects such as art and music. Oppenheimer (1997) , for example, points to cases across the country where schools already have made cuts in non required subjects such as art, music, and physical education to support computer purchases or hiring computer personnel.

In a different vein, some critics have pointed to the anecdotal evidence that excessive computer usage in schools causes physical ailments such as repetitive strain injury. This is a malady reported to be the leading occupational injury in the United States. A reader (Quilter, 1997) of the New York Times related from her classroom observations: "Again and again we see little faces looking up at monitors plopped on top of too-high tables, little bodies squirming in uncomfortable molded plastic chairs and tiny hands clutching mice - all computer uses that can lead to injury."

One area in which techno-advocates and techno-critics are in agreement concerns the improvement of software: The schools need more and better software for the computers they have. Similarly, the advocates and critics concur that both hardware and software developers need to be more attuned to the educational contexts in which their wares must function.

Further, though software developers have been resistant to the idea, they must begin to take their product cues from the world of children and the existing K - 12 curriculum scope and sequence patterns across the states. To date, for example, no publisher seems willing, say, to lay out a software-driven curriculum for an entire second grade social studies program.


Computers have occupied a prominent place in our schools and homes. They are, for example, the only major technology that was pushed from the home and community into the schools. The growing massive infusion of computers and the resources they require, however, has created some newly emerging issues that require urgent attention. This essay has sketched out five of them in broad strokes into the following categories: ethical issues, freedom of speech concerns, issues related to the of the Internet, personnel shortages, and the growing numbers of those who are critical of school policies and practices concerning computers in the schools.

Of all the issues, the last is the most threatening to those who have championed the cause of technology in service of learning. What the preceding criticisms point to is a need for greater dialogue between advocates and critics of technology and more carefully controlled and better conceptualized research (Kozma, 1994). Advocates also need to reexamine their rationale for more technology in the schools, since they can no longer take public support for granted.

As technology critics continue to move to the forefront and their voices and influence grow stronger, the odds are there will be a backlash against the massive infusion of computers in the schools and the attendant costs. Unless techno-advocates can demonstrate sustained, carefully validated, and significant outcomes from the use of computers, their natural base of support is likely to erode and their allies dwindle.



Baker, W., Hale, T., & Gifford, B.R. (1997, September/October). Technology in the classroom-from theory to practice. Educom Review, 42-50.

Cuban, L. (1997). Teachers should be gatekeepers for wired classes. News and Observer, 9A.

Kohlberg, L., & Candee, D. (1984). The relation of moral judgment to moral action. In J. Gerwirtz & W. Kurtines (Eds.), Morality, moral development, and moral behavior, New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Kozma, R.B. (1994). Will media influence learning? Re-framing the debate. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42, 7-19.

Miller, W. (1997, August). Troubling myths about on-line information. The Chronicle of Higher Education, A44.

Noam, E. (1997, September/October). Why the Internet will be regulated. Educom Review, 12-14.

Oppenheimer, T. (1997, July). The computer delusion. The Atlantic Monthly, 45-62.

Ownston, R.D. (1997). The world wide web: A technology to enhance teaching and learning? Educational Researcher,26, 27-42.

Papert, S. (1993). The children's machine: "Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books.

Piaget, J. (1965). The moral judgment of the child (M. Gabain, Trans.). New York: Free Press.

Quilter, D. (1997, July 11). Letter to editor. The New York Times, A22.

Additional Resources

Brown, J..M. (1997). Technology Ethics. Learning and Leading with Technology, March, 38-41.

Truett, C., Scerlen, A., Tashner, J. Lowe, K. (1997). Responsible Internet Use. Learning and Leading with Technology, March, 52-55.

Valenza, J. K. (1997). Handling Citations, Cyber-Style. Electronic Learning. 97, 60 - 61.


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