When we think about computers and information technology (ICT), and the models that educators have developed to use ICT in classrooms, it seems we can capture the nature of students’ and teachers’ interaction with it with four prepositions. Each is described and illustrated in this post.
Teaching about computers- When computers first arrived in schools, educators spent time helping students (and their colleagues) understand ICT systems by introducing “computer literacy.” We talked about what ICT did and what we could do with it… much time was spent differentiating input and output devices (although the differences must have been very obvious!)
We can also place programming in the lessons taught about computers. From the earliest BASIC programs to today’s Scratch animations and games, teachers have taught how to take control of ICT to make it perform as we want. Beyond the “learning how to think” aspects of programming, teaching about computers has little meaning if the ICT is absent.
Teaching by computers- The capacity for computers to be programmed to recognize correct answers quickly has led to a long-history of using ICT to instruct students in a range of simple lessons. Math calculations, spelling words, typing games, and similar content has been taught by arcade-style games for generations.
Many simulations and sophisticated test-preparation programs that vary based on students’ responses are also teaching by computer. These can proceed with little intervention by the teacher. When I see teachers using any of the many math practice sites, I see teaching by computer (and I shudder slightly).
Teaching via computer– When teachers use ICT as a substitute for other technology, but the experience for the student is no different because of the ICT, then teaching is happening via technology.
This model came clear to me when I was visiting a school one day, and the principal encouraged me to stop by one wing where, he claimed, “ICT is being used by every teacher.” In that wing, I observed one teacher who had students typing essays. At the end of the period, students were instructed, “just print, don’t save… we have the hard copy for your next draft.” For this teacher, the computers and word processors were simply typewriters. Another teacher proudly displayed the new document camera and projector in his classroom. Students carried their homework to the table and placed their work under the camera, so that everyone could see their solution to the problem projected. I wondered why that teachers had devices costing several hundred dollars when a box of dry-erase markers would have provided students with the same experience.
Teaching with computers- This is the model that has been popularly called “technology integration” since about the turn of the century. The rationale is that ICT becomes a tool that is used for students to access, manipulate, analyze, and create information.
Just as I was beginning to think these prepositions had outlived their usefulness, I stepped back from educational technology to assume a new (and temporary) role in a school, and I found that “using computers” continues to be such a broadly applied term in schools, that it has little meaning. Just because a digital device is observed as part of the lesson, that does not mean that it is being used to affect students’ understanding. These prepositions continue to help me label (thus understand) to role of ICT in a particular situation.