November 1997

Technology Projects, Student Proficiency, and the Time Factor

by Mihkel Pilv

English editing by Pat Gantt

There is no doubt that every undertaking in technology-driven school reform, which operates with such concrete things as educational standards, budgetary concerns, and time limitations, must have very concrete boundaries and produce measurable results.

But how does one evaluate the impact of technology on education? It is often said that using technology makes the study process easier and greatly improves student proficiency. After completion of the technology project "C" students will turn into "B" students and "B" students will turn into "A" students.

As is quite often the case, technology-based reform is driven by this kind of ideology. People say that up till now, educational practices have not really changed much -- but using computers as the leading technology tool has propelled us into the future. Now anything is possible!

Unfortunately, this assumption does not seem to be correct.

Computers and the Internet are not really the first technology-based reform in education. Using the abacus was a great technological reform for schools, as was using paper and pencil, or for that matter using clay tablets and a stylus as was the case in ancient Egypt. Before the Egyptians the cave-dwellers drew their crude symbols on stones was perhaps the inception of technology.

School reform, as it applies to technology, has existed as long as human beings have been living on this earth. The purpose of this process has been (and still is) to keep the educational system on a level playing field with the rest of society.

It is hard to overestimate the impact of pencil and paper centuries ago on education. Look how greatly using these innovative tools changed learning!

But what about student proficiency as it applies to technology?

Even though all countries used pencil and paper successfully for centuries, some students still failed in schools. The same observation can be true today substituting the computer as the new technology tool of choice.

Today's technology reform is nothing special -- or perhaps just one more piece added to the puzzle of school reform. It just keeps the educational system in line with current societal needs.

The computer-driven demands dictate that people today should be able to operate and be productive in this environment. It is not merely enough to know the rules of writing a business letter or do a mathematical calculation, it is also about knowing where to press the Enter key on the keyboard. The 'why' and 'how' of communication applies to the everyday working world in this "Information Age." Technology's pace is often characterized by a very highly organized and an intense working environment.

Today's student proficiency is one of the key factors for measuring the success of schools. This measurable factor was so in was in ancient times, and will continue to be so into the future, which will indeed be exciting! Technological school reform is working towards this goal. Having said this, using student proficiency as the sole indicator of success of some technology implementation is indeed a "risky business."

The problem is that student proficiency is a relative term and the measure of this proficiency changes over time. Egyptian technology is considered crude by today's standards. Our present day technology will seem crude in comparison to future societal demands.

We can say that using computers makes learning easier if we judge it relative to today's standards and requirements. The main concern, expressed by some, says that computer usage puts additional demands on our students and on the educational system as a whole. Effective technology projects can even cause temporary setbacks and make lower math and language scores in the short run.

For example, consider the case of an accountant who has not yet taken advantage of the computer as a tool. It is still easier for this accountant to do calculations and log entries with pencil and paper instead of with an electronic spreadsheet program. The initial learning time it takes to become familiar enough with both hardware and software (often called the learning curve) can actually reduce the volume of work produced. This drop in work-product volume has a direct and measurable negative output. The reason why this small company's accountant must start to use the computer with its electronic spreadsheet program is a practical dilemma. The manual method of entering and processing data does not match the requirements of the rest of society -- e.g. the tax offices with whom this accountant's company communicates no longer accepts the handwritten format.

The same scenario can be applied to the schools. Using computers may, at first, reduce student progress because learning computer skills and concepts is a really a complex task and requires a rather large time commitment for computer instruction.

The time previously reserved for math or grammar instruction will initially be reduced to make room for computer and technology instruction. This projected time is necessary for our students to be prepared for the technological demands of society.

In conclusion, it is still possible to measure success in technology education, and education as a whole, by refining the measures of the evaluation process. One must first change what one understands by "evaluation." One should measure concrete proficiencies, results, and processes. Educators must look to the bigger picture -- the needs of a technological project must track with the demands of society as a whole. It is imperative that we modify and improve upon student proficiency testing. A flexible system that better suits the demands of the present and future of this Information Age.

Mihkel Pilv ( operates MIKSIKE, an interdisciplinary study program for elementary schools and homeschooling families integrated with Web technology in Tartu, Estonia.

Copyright © 1997 by Mihkel Pilv. All Rights Reserved.

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