3. Intangible Costs of Educational Technology

The distinction between tangible and intangible costs can be subtle, for example, time can be assigned monetary value. Intangible costs most affect individuals and society in the long run. The time it takes to do clerical and technical tasks such as ordering, installing, and securing hardware and software is usually buried in ordinary operating expenses, but individual teachers who use their time doing these tasks are not performing some other instructional tasks. Time to learn how to use a system or new software package may be accounted for in training costs and many companies and schools are becoming concerned about the productivity effects of ongoing changes in operating systems and software.

Significant amounts of time are invested by teachers in learning how to teach with technology. Although it is sometimes possible to use technology as an add-on to existing lessons, creating new assignments and activities that take advantage of new technology is time-intensive. Teachers who created new Perseus assignments invested many hours exploring what textual and graphic content was contained in Perseus and then scores of hours creating new assignments for their students (M et all). These assignments are then revised and augmented as more experience is gained. Instructors who use teaching theaters [e.g., Gilbert, 1993; Norman, 1994] also invest considerable effort in creating instructional activities and scenarios. In many cases, these materials and strategies must be modified or upgraded each semester as new hardware, software, and networking upgrades are made in the theaters. For example, simply changing the directory structure on a file server can require that multiple modules must be edited and recompiled.

The creation of conceptual infrastructure takes at least as much time and effort as creating physical infrastructure, but assigning costs is more difficult. First, these costs are often personal in that teachers work longer hours. This may be considered the cost of early adoption; early adopters make things work because they are committed to the technology itself and the change associated with it, and they believe that long-term benefits will outweigh the immediate costs. Although long-term personal benefits may accrue, it is wishful thinking to assume that such commitments scale up to the larger instructional community. Although benefits may scale vertically for individuals it is less apparent that they scale horizontally to groups of learners or teachers. Technological adoption will not take place at a linear rate of growth but rather be on the order of generational time frames.

Consider some of the systemic costs. Many early adopters of computer technology in the 1970s moved from instructional roles to technical or administrative roles. Many mathematics and science teachers who began using time-sharing systems and later microcomputers became computer coordinators and staff development specialists. Although some of these teachers would have moved to administrative posts or left teaching anyway, many of the most innovative teachers in these fields were lost to subsequent students. What are the effects to the overall teaching workforce? On the one hand, these teachers are not teaching math and science but calculators and computers are now integral to mathematics and science teaching. Would those changes have come more quickly or were they made possible by the early adopters efforts to create and share examples? A similar phenomenon is taking place today at the university level as professors who use technology in teaching may not do as much research, thus forgoing rewards such as tenure, promotion, and merit pay. Will those investments amplify or impede the technology integration in higher education? How do we balance the personal cost of an assistant professor not getting tenure to the longer-term effects on students, colleagues, and curricula that this persons examples provided?

As difficult as it is to assess the tradeoffs due to time, it is even more challenging to factor in phenomena such as psychological stress and risk taking. Not only are individuals who use technology subject to the stresses of time pressures and career development, but those who do not use technology may find it stressful to NOT adopt technology. How these stresses sum in considering the effects to a school system or a society is a classical diffusion of innovation problem [Rogers, 1982]. Using technology in teaching requires teachers to take the risk of failure. Teachers have to deal with the usual technical problems that invariably occur and share expertise with students who spend much time using the technology. Todays networked technologies provide rich sources of information and students can bring all these resources to the class as easily as the teacher. For most teachers this is a truly exciting advance, but is quite frightening to those who are less secure with roles as facilitators rather than information providers. Technology sometimes leads to power sharing and blurs distinctions between teaching and learning. In some settings, technology allows teachers to actually model research and learning--processes that employ heuristics and iterative hypothesis testing (e.g., estimation, intelligent guessing). Since much instructional theory calls for carefully planned presentations and students and parents typically expect such presentations, traveling down blind alleys and exploring ideas can easily be interpreted by students and other adults as disorganization or incompetence. It may be even more difficult to assess teaching for critical thinking than it is to assess the extent to which students do think critically.

Devoting more time to technology, some mechanical advantages are gained that allow skills and facts to be acquired more rapidly. However, reflection on and evaluation of ideas will likely remain dependent on time on task. Some topics must eventually be forced out of curricula as technology enables teachers and learners to address more abstractions. In some cases, such as the use of calculators in mathematics, some skills can be de-emphasized and some concepts can be more rapidly demonstrated. Technology itself has become an object of instruction at K-12 levels and other topics must be displaced. Efforts to weed curricula (and the associated retraining and updating of materials) must also be considered in assessing how technology changes the educational enterprise.

Technology also changes how learners think and behave; beyond learning how to use hardware and software, students must learn how to learn with technology. Today, this is mainly related to how attention is allocated. Students in classrooms where multiple stimuli are used (e.g., computer projection, overhead projection, chalkboard, teacher's words) must decide which stimuli is most essential at any instant, and how to record it for later study (e.g., memory, written notes, electronic recordings, etc.) If technology is used to assist in recording, new strategies for reviewing and studying those recording will be needed (it is easy to copy the teacher's electronic notes/materials, quite another to manage the electronic objects and work through them at a later time). As students invest time in developing these skills they are not allocating time to content. Although many argue that learning such skills is essential to intelligent citizenship in a technological society, others argue that all attentional resources and time should be focused on content. This was illustrated vigorously by the commentary of two students interviewed as part of the Perseus evaluation. Students used the primary texts and word analysis tools in Perseus to develop opinions about concepts such as wealth. One student praised the opportunity to explore, discover, and invent an interpretation; another complained that it wasted effort since reading a scholarly paper on the topic would take less time and be more authoritative. Both students were correct but the technologically-enabled assignment had quite different costs and benefits for each.

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