What do we really mean by “technology integration”?

Technology integration is a critical issue in education and one that has received considerable scholarly attention over the past two decades, at least. However, we have to be careful when we toss around the term “integration” as if it refers to a specific issue. “Technology integration” has been used to refer to many different things in discourse on education and this has made it rather difficult to identify and address the real issues involved. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to define my use of “technology” as referring specifically to interactive computer/network-based information and communication technologies (ICT), which includes telephones (primarily cellphones and smartphones), computers, ipod- and ipad-like devices, related peripheral hardware, and software used to facilitate interactive information exchange on such devices.

There are at least three distinctly different uses of the term “technology integration” in the literature:

1. Technology integration in learning (TiL) – This refers to how learners use technology to support their learning on a personal level. It extends beyond the classroom to learners’ use of technology to interact with a range of knowledge communities, including their school peers, online groups with mutual interests, various online sources of information, etc. We commonly engage in this sort of technology integration in our everyday lives. For ex., when we look something up on Wikipedia or post a question to an online forum, we are engaging in this type of integration. It is often a “just-in-time” (JIT) mode of learning, where we seek out the information that we need at the time that we need it and thus tends to be closely related to learners’ real-world experiences. It may entail finding relevant information online or phoning/texting a knowledgeable individual. This type of integration is almost non-existent in educational contexts but an increasingly important aspect of individuals’ everyday sense- and meaning-making.

2. Technology integration in the classroom (TiC) – This refers to the use of technology to support planned and structured educational activities in school-based environments. This is what we often assume is meant by the term “technology integration” in the literature. It may often mimic TiL but differs in that the use of the technology is usually under manufactured circumstances. Furthermore, TiC generally does not allow the learner to freely explore the topic that is being considered due to limitations imposed on the use of the technology involved, ex. limited access to certain sources of information by way of filtering, limitations on the type of technology to be used, and time constraints imposed by instructors’ lesson plans.

3. Technology integration in instructors’ duties (TiI) – This refers to the use of technology by instructors to plan, manage and deliver instruction in classroom or online settings. This is arguably the most common type of technology integration in education today. TiI includes teachers’ use of technology to plan and deliver lessons (ex. instructional computer-based slideshows (PPT, whiteboards)), accessing information for creating lesson-plans and activities, collecting and analyzing data on learners’ progress, and communicating with learners and important stakeholders (like parents).

It’s often unclear in the research literature and available data on technology integration which type of integration is actually being described. For example, student-to-computer ratios are commonly used as indicators of the level of technology adoption in schools or particular educational systems. These statistics often include equipment that learners do not have access to (ex. instructors’ computers) or that learners seldom, if ever, interact with (ex. computer projectors). Furthermore, these statistics tell us nothing about how or how often learners use technology for their learning. For example, much has been made of 1:1 computing as an ultimate goal for technology integration (i.e. each individual learner has their own computer). But, 1:1 programs don’t necessarily mean that learners have unlimited access to technology when they need or want to use it for learning. Learners’ access is usually limited to times when instructors have planned activities for working with the technology. So, even though the 1:1 moniker would seem to suggest TiL integration, or at least the possibility thereof, the actuality is that 1:1 programs are really most used for TiC integration with lots and lots of computers.

Regrettably, the lack of clarity in the technology integration literature has created a terminology of obfuscation. On the one hand, it’s difficult to define clear objectives and goals for technology integration when the point of the exercise is fuzzy, at best. On the other hand, it’s very easy to manipulate unclear terminology to produce a semblance of progress, whatever the actuality of the situation is (see for ex. my post on “Creating old meaning”). This has been especially evident in international comparative data and research where data is often self-reported with little, if any, clarification of what the data is actually describing.

My point is not that progress isn’t being made, rather that it’s not clear what progress is being made and why it should be considered “progress”. When talking about technology integration we need more clarity concerning what the intended outcomes are and how we expect technology to help us achieve those outcomes. Bundling a whole bunch of strategies and goals together under a single umbrella is not very helpful in this regard.

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