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BELLTONES: Who Knows What About Technology?

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Sep 1, 2010
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Since the new year and the new decade of 2010 was ushered in with the usual hoopla in January, I began to wonder how educators are faring when it comes to using technology. My last year as a K–12 educator ended in May 2000, when I began my new profession as a university professor, so the previous decade is not a period from whence I can draw direct experiences. Thus, I turned to colleagues for information. This spring, I conducted two surveys using the ever-useful SurveyMonkey. As is my wont, I queried members of my favorite online communities, LM_NET, TLC (Texas Library Connection), and EDTECH (for educational technology specialists). In the first survey, I queried librarians and tech specialists about their perceptions of the expertise of K–12 classroom teachers regarding technology and internet use. The results of that survey were shared in my Belltones column, What Teachers Know (and Don’t Know) About Technology—And Does Anybody Know They Don’t Know? in the July/August 2010 issue of this magazine, and they can be accessed at

Then, in May, I asked similar questions of the very same group of respondents but directed toward building administrators. The numbers and comments for this inquiry can be found at This month, I will share the results for administrators, compare them with the teachers’ answers, and offer my thoughts about the similarities and differences.

In both surveys, librarians outnumbered tech specialists as participants, and there was a sprinkling of other participants. I acknowledge that these are informal surveys and that they, by necessity, involve generalizations. There are both teachers and administrators who are absolute tech gurus, and there are still technophobes in both groups. Given those disclaimers, I will proceed with some comparisons and contrasts.

Some Commonalities

First of all, how are the two groups the same? There were a number of areas in which the scores for both groups were similar enough to suggest that there is commonality between their abilities. Regarding basic operations and ability to use whatever office suite is available at a satisfactory, if not stellar, level, both groups’ most chosen level was that of three on a five-point scale. Use of presentation software was similarly deemed to be fair, if not outstanding, with principals standing out a bit more than teachers.

Similarly, both groups were deemed to meet average expectations in simple internet searching. Both showed a need for improvement when it comes to awareness and use of Web 2.0 resources, and both were also perceived to rely too heavily on internet filters to keep kids safe and on task. None of this really surprised me. By the time I asked for information about principals, I already knew the teachers’ scores and had a preconceived idea that principals would fare similarly.

All the same, I was surprised in one regard. I thought, with no basis in proof, that where there were differences, teachers would outscore administrators. That was not the case. In all respects, if one group did better than the other, it was the building administrators who led out. I had to ask myself why I thought the results would be opposite. This was not because the administrators I knew from my own experience were less proficient than teachers. My last principal was very much interested in technology, eager to learn new things, and interested in seeing teachers adopt technology. The main thing that I think caused my misconception was my impression that, while teachers are busy and overworked, principals are even busier. I know how hard my principal and assistant principals worked not only during school hours but also after-hours, on weekends, and during the summer. Since lack of time is what holds me back from exploring new applications and devices, I think I inferred that the same would be true for building administrators.

Furthermore, what were the reasons I thought teachers would outstrip administrators in an imaginary technology race? Looking back and viewing the information I gathered, it dawned on me that when I thought about teachers, the ones that came to mind were either my own M.L.S. students or well-known tech gurus. I was forgetting about how many other teachers there are out there, laboring with too little time to do too much, trying to inspire students, simultaneously struggling under the ever-increasing burden of high-stakes testing, and not possessing the time or inclination to delve into technology. My own students are graduate degree-seeking professionals who have already risen to the top in their schools and districts with their hard work and ambition. The well-known leaders I follow on Twitter or hear speak at conferences are the rabbits out in front of a large group of turtles. I was also forgetting that principals have already returned to grad school at least once and thus have the ability, the impetus, and the instruction to be leaders in technology.

Advantage Administrators

Anyway, thanks to my listserv friends, I stand corrected. Here are areas where administrators surpassed teachers:

• Regarding the use of an office suite such as Microsoft Office, administrators were said to be better at using charts, diagrams, etc. That stands to reason, since doing so is very much a part of the job for them.

• Administrators were considered more versed in ethical issues, such as how to deal with a material challenge or appreciating the importance of the right to read. Since most administrators have had courses dealing with school law and ethics, this makes sense.

• Administrators seemed even more willing than teachers to let students use Web 2.0 resources to create their own products. This surprised me the most, because I often hear M.L.S. students say they would like to use a certain tool, but their principal is dead set against the idea. It causes me to wonder if sometimes that is what the teacher believes, causing him or her to not even ask—based on an assumption that is not necessarily accurate.

I want to add that, as always, respondent comments are the most interesting things about surveys. Here are some along with the questions to which they were appended:

• One recurring theme in comments to a number of the questions was that the principal relies on his or her secretary or the tech specialist to do most computer-related tasks. One particularly discouraging remark in this vein was, “No one is above average. Some are below average. Our tech person is forced to spend more time with office tech than in the classroom and this is distressing.”

• Regarding presentation software, one person stated glumly, “They THINK they are doing something great when they put together a simple Power Point. They don’t have a clue about anything like Movie Maker.”

• Do principals respect copyright and discourage plagiarism? Comments were not heartening. One person said, “He regularly has his secretary copy/paste text from sources, uses them as his own and does not acknowledge.” Another stated, “No matter how often this is explained to them, they have little concern. If they want to show a movie to the whole school they will, if they don’t want movies shown they will deny the teachers access but ignore them when they show them (such as at the end of school day).”

• Relating to respect for student privacy, there were more discouraging comments, including, “I have had to deny them information a couple of times when one or the other demanded to know what books the student had borrowed. Their reasons for knowing didn’t warrant breaching the students’ rights.”

• Not all comments were negative. Regarding materials challenges, one fortunate librarian reported, “My principal met with myself and a parent who had challenged a book and she responded almost exactly as I had. I was amazed at how much we were in sync! I have always admired and respected my principal and this reinforced everything I believed. I am truly a lucky school library media specialist. By the way, we stuck to our guns and the situation resolved amicably!”

• One of my ongoing concerns is overly restrictive internet filtering, and comments following the question about whether administrators are overly dependent on filters were similar to what I have been hearing for years: “They give lip service to this—but refuse to do anything to back us up on it. Several teachers, with admin knowledge, let kids do whatever they want.” This was followed by an incredibly lucky librarian—who must be at a private school—who said, “We don’t filter, and we don’t have problems. Go figure. Every once in a while we get a cyberbullying incident.”

• As for Web 2.0, this comment is representative: “They’re scared of it—don’t want to use with wider community because they don’t understand it, or fear that ‘some parents’ won’t.”

I will end this section with a positive comment and also suggest that the number of negatives previously stated has at least some roots in the fact that people who are moved to comment are often those with complaints: “My principal LOVES technology. As mentioned, she has a PhD in this field. She effectively uses all technology that she has acquired. In fact our school won the district webpage contest, and we got a $10,000 presentation makeover in our cafeteria. We have a terrific presentation system, good digital sound system, and wireless access in our cafeteria. This year we bought 3 Wii game systems. They were purchased for PE use, but have been used in the classrooms. Their best ‘fun’ use was in our cafeteria during a school motivation program before state testing. We played Guitar Hero and Just Dance during lunch periods for about 4 weeks before testing. The kids think our school is the coolest!! It was a wonderfully motivating use of technology, and older students learned so much helping younger students (and a few of the old fogey teachers).”

Some Bad News

And that bad news will be followed by even worse news! The bad news for everyone is that while one group shows out a bit better than the other, and this group is administrators who are in positions to make positive changes, the downside is that any “lead” is still running slow in a very slow race. The survey had a Likert scale with five levels. The titles for the levels differed a bit from question to question but, basically, respondents were ranking their teachers and/or administrators by five levels, ranging from “very low” to “very high.” Where do we see a preponderance of either group getting the top two scores of “good” or “excellent” rankings? The short answer is nowhere . While most educators were deemed “OK,” or having “average ability,” very, very few were said to be above average or outstanding. Thus, the bottom line is that all educators are in sore need of improvement if they are to effectively use technology devices and tools to make positive changes in the education of the students in their charge.

And Worse News

I am not sure this is exactly news, because it bears out something that has been said about librarians and libraries for a very long time—that understanding and appreciation of what they do is sadly lacking, particularly with school administrators. I added a question at the very end of the survey: “Do your building administrators have a thorough understanding of the role of the librarian and the importance of a strong library program?” Fifty percent of respondents ranked their administrators at the two lowest levels, with 30% indicating “slight understanding” and 20% giving the dismal rating of “little or no understanding.” I suppose this is not such big news, as it is a perennial topic among librarians, but every time the problem is again highlighted, I feel disheartened. In this day of budget cuts and questions about the very existence of libraries and librarians’ positions, it is with heightened concern that I state once again the dire need for librarians to make themselves and their programs indispensible.

Just to round things out, here are some respondents’ comments on this topic:

• “While they know my role is important, financial problems have made decisions that caused eliminating the computer teacher’s position for next year and they will not be replacing me (LMS) as I am retiring. One LMS will remain to cover 900 students, 40 scheduled classes per week, for library and technology. They will be adding some TA staff to help.”

• “This is an ongoing struggle, but I consider advocacy an important part of my job.”

• “If you asked our principal about our school librarian and our program, she would smile (big genuine smile) and tell you that I’m wonderful, innovative and do a wonderful job teaching our faculty and students. However, I’m just icing on the cake in our building. We have a beautiful, large library, and I do run an effective and well-integrated program. My feelings were very hurt when a team of Chinese teachers visited our school, got a tour and watched some classroom lessons but never met me or even saw the library. My contribution to our school is not part of the ‘show-off’ factor in our school. So, I’m a great asset, but I’m just icing.”

• And finally, to again include a positive note, “Even brings me flowers on National Librarians Day!!!”

Looking back at the numbers from both surveys and also reading comments from both, I have to say that everyone has a long way to go in order to become adept at using technology applications and devices as powerful tools for teaching and learning. What is to be done? Some thoughts:

• Training across the board is sorely needed. As much need as there is for teachers to get staff development and technology support, principals are in even greater need. They may be the ones who arrange for their faculty to have training opportunities, but how often do they themselves take advantage or even have the chance to do so?

• Web 2.0 appreciation and utilization is still sadly lacking.

• Librarians must redouble efforts to provide understanding about the importance of their programs and the value of their positions. This is not optional! It is essential.

Times are hard. At no point in the near future can we expect increased funding for equipment or training. People everywhere, and most certainly in schools, are being called upon to do more with the same or fewer resources. How to proceed in the face of such challenges is a great topic for another article.

One way librarians can capitalize on their abilities is to step up to the plate and increase their status as technology leaders. Similarly, tech teachers and classroom teachers who are excited about technology need to find opportunities to lead out with their good practices. We already know that training works best if it is offered at the point of need. The “each one teach one” model works well. Online training modules can help any self-directed learner, whether administrator or teacher.

And, just maybe, this last suggestion comes closest to nailing down what needs to happen in our schools: Difficult as it must be, all educators need to step forward and assume responsibility for their own enlightenment. Back in the ’90s there was a teacher who said to me, “If you give me a computer, I will use it for a plant stand.” Those days of refusing to use technology are over. It’s past time for educators to work both individually and collectively to meet students’ needs and desires to learn and produce creative artifacts with technology.

Mary Ann Bell , B.A., M.L.S., Ed.D., is an associate professor in the department of library science, Sam Houston State University, where she teaches classes related to technology and librarianship. She is the author of Internet and Personal Computing Fads , CRC Press, 2004, and Cybersins and Digital Good Deeds: A Book About Technology and Ethics , CRC Press, 2006. She has also written for numerous journal publications and presented at conferences on the topics of information ethics and creative teaching with technology. She is active in Texas Library Association, American Library Association, Texas Computer Education Association, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, and Delta Kappa Gamma. She can be reached by email at

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