Editor's Note: This interview was conducted nearly 20 years ago as part of a project I completed for the UCLA Educational Leadership program. The goal was to understand how educational leaders use computers in their daily lives and how they manage technology's many challenges in their workplace. I am amazed at how well the issues raised by the twelve K-12 leaders and higher education professionals I interviewed have stood the test of time. The hardware and software has changed, to be sure, but the challenge of using technology as a leadership tool still remains. Enjoy! *extra credit if you answer the questions at the end of each interview!
Interview with Anthony Jackson, LAUSD Principal
What is the appropriate role of technology in education? What is it good for and how do you think it should be used in elementary classrooms?
I’m an advocate of technology, or more accurately, I’m an advocate for kids using technology. It offers a new way to learn for students who are coming up in the media oriented world, not the paper train world I grew up in. Electronic information is where it is. Electronic information proliferates. When I was young, I hurried home to read Sports Illustrated. Today’s kids hurry home to read Sports Illustrated on the web. Its different now and I think educators everywhere need to recognize that fact.
When you get to a certain level with the technology, you can see how to seriously integrate it into the curriculum. I don’t believe in the much heralded “one-computer” classroom concept. It doesn’t work, and research backs that up. Technology is a tool, just like paper, pencils, and textbooks. The goal is to put the tools students need directly into their hands. Of course, in a district that has difficulty even maintaining adequate levels of textbooks, infusing technology into classrooms, especially like we’ve done it in Los Angeles Unified, is no easy task.
The real power of technology is in that it can significantly increase reading and writing ability in students.
I think about the way I was educated, which is fundamentally different than the activities and projects my second graders complete. There were no CD-ROM’s, no word processors, no authentic authoring of books and stories. Nothing like that existed for me. My students get so much out of interacting with the technology, the writing tools, the communication tools. It’s extremely motivational, of course, but that is only a surface level benefit. The real power of technology is in that it can significantly increase reading and writing ability in students. Technology helps you create your own books. I was not a child author, but now, using computers with graphics my second graders are authors, they actually are.
How can technology be made to work in schools. What’s the solution?
In order for technology to “work” properly, you really have to infuse it and saturate it into classrooms. It won’t work with just one computer. When I worked as a technology training consultant for the district, I introduced a concept called “low-ending” which urged schools to purchase the least expensive technology equipment and to buy lots more of it. At Ninety-Ninth Street School, we were able to put four computers in every classroom. In addition, we networked the computers to a single printer. Because we purchased the cheapest computers we could find we were able to purchase significantly more computers than if we had purchased the top-of-the-line models. Having four computers in each classrooms, with kids typing on them all of the time, was like having an extra teaching assistant. The work that the students completed looked great, it looked professional. It not only motivated the students to write more, but it also helped in their editing, since the word processor had a spell-check feature. All in all, I’m convinced that our approach worked better than say, buying one super-duper computer will all of the bells and whistles but then only having a few students be able to access it and maybe fewer teachers understanding all of features and capabilities. I think it was a case of “less is best.”
What about other forms of technology, are they important too?
Oh definitely! I’m also an advocate for other forms of technology like the television. I think instructional television is seriously overlooked, especially in the elementary grades. In addition to the four computers in every classroom, each one of our classrooms had a television, some hooked up to cable, a VCR, and a Laser Disk player. We had a rich collection of instructional videos and science laser disks. The Windows on Science laser disk program significantly changed the way I taught science. You can flip back and forth on the laser disks between English and Spanish audio tracks. Using that technology, I was able to reach some of my limited English proficient students that I would never have been able to do without it.
In the classroom, the overhead projector is the most important piece of equipment I have. It is the most practical piece of technology in the classroom because it focuses student’s attention like nothing else. Its a great visual medium for the students, especially young kids who just can’t see the chalkboard. I’m convinced that an overhead projector should be in every classroom. Coming in a close second would be instructional television, which really includes instructional video, VCR’s, and laserdisks. These technologies are important for a couple of reasons. One, they are relatively easy to use. Most don’t require a lot of advance preparation. Second, they can be used with the whole class, everybody can see the television in a classroom, especially if it is mounted on a cart or up high on the wall. Only a few kids can use a computer at any one given time. And then, listening centers. Its amazing how much learning can take place when a child sits down and reads a book while listening to the language audio cassettes. And that technology is so cheap too. We bought headphones for less than fifteen bucks from a retail store and gave each teacher three or four of them. We even bought battery rechargers so we wouldn’t have to keep buying batteries. In the long run, it was cheaper than buying the district issued, one hundred and twenty five dollar “listening centers.” It fit nicely into the whole “low-ending” concept.
What should educational leaders know about technology?
Well first they have to be coming from the position of technology integration, technology for the curriculum, technology to enhance student learning and achievement, and never from the standpoint of technology for technology’s sake. If you start there, you might make mistakes, but you won’t make the glaring mistakes that constitute the vast majority of technology purchases for schools. I really think that if your focus is on integrating technology into the curriculum you will avoid numerous pitfalls. If you buy technology without really understanding how it is going to benefit students, teachers, and parents, I think you will run into problems immediately. I’ve seen people, in particular, administrators, get caught up in technological hype and hoopla over new releases of software, new technologies, etc. Equipment gets purchased before people ask the critical questions - how will this be used in the classroom? Who will support and maintain the equipment? How steep is the learning curve for teachers? What is the total cost to own and maintain that piece of equipment? These are the leadership questions that never get answered.
If you buy technology without really understanding how it is going to benefit students, teachers, and parents, I think you will run into problems immediately.
Most administrators I know start talking about RAM and megabytes before they start taking about instructional objectives or learning outcomes. People started talking about multimedia libraries, for example, before they talked about multimedia classrooms. So now you have the situation where the librarian isn’t trained and doesn’t know how to use it and still most classrooms don’t have access to multimedia research facilitates. I saw two computers purchased in 1991 for use in the school’s library that were never used. And when I say never, I mean literally the librarian refused to use it, period. So about $5000 worth of technology has sat idle since the day it was installed and probably sits there today, still unused. Now had that equipment been put in the classroom of a teacher who wanted it, I’m sure it would have been used fully. There is a huge disconnect between administrative technology visions and what is actually occurring in effective instruction. Those sorts of issues are important. If those computers had been put in a computer lab where students were working they might have gotten used. To this day they still go unused.
So the whole point of thinking how kids and teachers will interact with the technology is important. And another thing with the teachers is how do I get my teacher’s proficient? Training is a another big issue. And then, purchasing, acquisition, and maintenance. A deep understanding of how those issues affect and impact one another and how they affect integration of technology in schools.
What’s the biggest disadvantage of technology?
It doesn’t always work, more than anything, it doesn’t always work. Based on the consumer models of microwaves, refrigerators, and telephones all working all of the time, well, computers aren’t like that yet. One of the biggest challenges for technology in schools is its ease of use. If its not easy to use, it won’t be. It’s that simple. The bottom line is that technology is very challenging to maintain. I know from experience how difficult it is to maintain the stuff. Students steal mouseballs or cables, equipment gets dirty or damaged, software becomes obsolete. Computers come in so many different sizes and styles, its hard just to find the right lock-down devices to secure them to the tables. I’ve worked in schools that have waited two years or more for computers to be installed in classrooms. In some cases, the original people who purchased the equipment have moved onto new schools, and individuals don’t even know where the computers are supposed to go. Maintenance is a problem, a major problem. We have thirty one schools and an investment of several million dollars. We really need a full time person just to deal with that much equipment. I mean, thirty one schools are basically their own district. Most districts of that size have their own full time technology coordinators.
At Muir, they are missing equipment, they have the wrong software, and no one seems capable of correcting the problem.
At Muir Middle School here in Los Angeles, they have had Macintosh LC 580’s sitting in boxes, uninstalled, for the last two years. No one takes responsibility. Technology coordinators change - there are all sorts of transition problems with staff members. At Muir, they are missing equipment, they have the wrong software, and no one seems capable of correcting the problem. They are missing simple items, like power plugs, mouseballs, keyboards. Some of the plugs have wires that are bent down and broken. The connect cable prongs are bent. Its a mess. I told the teacher of one classroom, “you have some issues here, you need to purchase the following equipment just to get your equipment to work.” At Muir, they thought it was the plant managers job to install the computers, which it isn’t. I would describe the actual implementation of technology in some schools as a disaster.
Do you think that technology awareness and proficiency is something that should be a prerequisite for teachers and administrators?
Yes, absolutely, I think that the nature of work is such today that you need individuals who have a fundamental baseline set of skills - word processing, word perfect, word, Clarisworks, generate documents, correspondence, etc. in a business setting. Every technology leader should have an understanding in proficiency in the Office suite. All leaders need to know PowerPoint and spreadsheets. I mean, you can’t write a grant or a budget proposal without using a spreadsheet.
If you could offer any advice to individuals in similar positions to yours, what would you say?
Above all, stay current. You’ve got to keep up with the changes because they come so fast and they always mean radical changes in the way we purchase equipment, the way we teach, and the way we learn. The cliché about the jobs our students are going to have in 10-15 years haven’t been created yet isn’t really a cliché, its reality. On the same note, many of the tools our teachers will be using in 10 years haven’t been created yet either. All we can do is hope to stay current and have your sights set on the technology on the horizon. Leaders need to understand what appears to be coming down the pipeline. They need to have technology change permanently on their radar screens.
- Suppose your leadership challenge was not to create a new technology plan from scratch, but to inherit one already in its second or third year of operation. How would you evaluate the existing equipment, skill level of teachers, and overall needs of the students? How would you pick up from where it was left off?
- Mr. Jackson talks about how today’s generation of students are different than in the past. Today’s students have ready access to technology and the information age. How has the influence of video games, cable television, and computers changed the lives of young students? Has this had a positive or negative impact on student learning and achievement?
- Anthony Jackson separates technology into two camps: One is a tool for learning, and the other is a tool for teaching. How is technology currently used to augment, support, and extend teaching? What are the easiest, most cost-effective methods of using technology to promote student learning?
- Jackson’s concept of “low-ending” - of using less expensive technologies but using them more liberally - is in sharp contrast to current practice which values more expensive equipment, computer networks, etc. What is the value in adopting a “low-ending” approach? What other models exist? How might this be a more appropriate strategy in some classrooms than others?
- Mr. Jackson addresses the use of technology as a cultural leveler - Why might technology use be more important in the community of Watts than elsewhere? What advantages to students in affluent communities bring to the table that other students don’t? Should this affect the way technology grant monies are distributed? Should schools in less affluent communities, or rural communities, receive more funds for technology?
- Why is it important to start from an instructional perspective first, before thinking about equipment and software? Can you think of any examples of equipment that was purchased but never used? What were the reasons?
- What could be done to help a school like Muir Middle School to solve its technology implementation problems? What might account for the perpetuation of the poor implementation?