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Schools have always been information-rich places. There is a curriculum to be taught that comprises ideas, concepts, information, and skills. Learning the curriculum requires information-rich interaction between teachers and students and among students. Humans have invented technologies to facilitate interaction and information exchange for centuries, and these technologies have been incorporated into teachers’ instructional methods. As a result, students graduate school both knowing the curriculum and knowing how to use the information technology tools they will encounter in the real world.
Paper was the dominant medium for many generations of students and teachers. Printed textbooks, encyclopedias, and other books, along with magazines, printed posters and maps contained the curriculum. For these generations, written tests, worksheets, and other paper-based assignments were the basis of demonstrating their learning in schools. Of course, some electronic media were also used for teaching, and generations of students were happy to see the movie projectors, film strips, and televisions with video cassette players on the carts being wheeled into the classrooms. This reflected the greater society in which much of the economy (for example preparing income tax returns) was also done on paper and electronic media were commonly encountered in the popular culture. For the last several decades, the information technology used in schools has been changing as print is being replaced by digital electronic devices and information.
Scholars recognize printer paper and paper that is written or drawn on as an information technology (and one that contributed to the industrial revolution that affected life in Western societies well into the 20th century). Today, when one talks about the information technology (IT) in schools, they almost always refer to computers and other digital electronic devices that are used to access and create information. The information is almost always digital and electronic and stored on “the cloud” (the vernacular term for platforms like Google Workspaces in which data and productivity tools are housed on web servers and accessed via web browsers). Most trace the origins of computers in schools from the arrival of desktop models in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but teletypes and even some mainframe computers were found in schools before then.
It did take several decades for computers and electronic data to replace print as the dominant medium for instruction, records, and school operation, but in the third decade of the 21st century, computer technologies are used for all aspects of schooling. It should be noted that radio, television, and movies were promoted as tools that were predicted to replace teachers and reform schooling, but they remained marginal tools. Computers have been integrated into teaching and learning to a much greater degree than the earlier electronic media was. Regardless of the age of the students the school enrolls, the number of students, or the nature of the curriculum, all schools rely on information technology systems for:
- Teaching—Educators create study guides, worksheets, and other files for students; they curate web sites to support their teaching, create slide shows to present materials to students, manage virtual classrooms, give feedback on work, and otherwise instruct students with computing devices and digital data.
- Learning—Students gain access to web-based information resources (including those analogous to paper media), animation, video, library databases, and other sources of information through computing devices. They also participate in discussions, write papers, program spreadsheets, graph functions, create art, and otherwise demonstrate their new abilities with digital information technologies.
- Managing data—Almost all teachers report attendance and grades using a web-based student information system (SIS), parents can (usually) access the records of their children on the same SIS, behavior, health, and other records are also secured on those systems and the data saved on them are used for both internal decision-making and the data are reported to external agencies such as regulatory agencies.
- Facilitating business operations—Schools are organizations with accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management needs like those of all businesses and organizations of similar size. Many of the digital tools used for those functions in other organizations are used for the same tasks in schools.
As a result of these many needs (and this is an incomplete list), schools are places where information technology (IT) systems have been installed. These are seriously complex systems. In the vocabulary of IT professionals, they are enterprise systems (or perhaps business systems in small schools) and managing them requires specialized expertise, so schools employ a variety of professionals to manage the networks, keep end users’ devices functioning, and keep data systems secure.
Usually, IT professionals arrive in schools with little knowledge of education beyond their experiences as students. Programs that train IT professionals (trade schools, professional organizations, community colleges, and universities) focus on the technology and how it supports general business applications and functions; educational uses of computers or the nature of students and teachers as IT user are rarely the focus of lessons in information technology courses. As a result, many who hired are as IT professionals in schools have training and expertise that gives them deep knowledge of IT but they find the strategies that were effective in those other businesses and industries are not as effective in schools. The strategies and methods that IT professionals use to configure functional IT for users in a typical office setting and to keep users productive and not complaining may result in unproductive and complaining IT users in schools.