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Refusing or ignoring? An investigation of student teachers' perceptions and use of computers

Anthony Jones
La Trobe University


... most student teachers ... neither routinely use technology during field experience nor work under master teachers and supervisors who can advise them on the use of information technology. (CEO StaR Report)
In addition to focusing on the content of school curricula and the cognitive development of pre-adolescents and adolescents, teacher education students of the 21st century are also expected to develop skills, techniques, and knowledge in order to implement a variety of learning technologies in school classrooms. Computers have been used in schools and universities for more than twenty years, but still educators do not fully understand the relationships that exist between learners, their teacher, and the learning technologies they both use.

A range of issues arising from the inclusion of mandatory educational technology subjects in a pre-service teacher education course are discussed. Of particular interest are the feelings, beliefs and perceptions of student teachers about their ability to perform a range of computing tasks. Links are investigated between these self perceptions, observations about the computer use of supervising teachers, and the actual use of computers during a teaching practicum.

Background and setting

Since the advent of relatively inexpensive personal computers in the 1980s, schools in developed countries such as Australia and the US have been acquiring larger numbers of increasingly powerful computers for student use. At the same time as the power of computers has been rising dramatically the nature and style of educational software has undergone some significant changes, especially software for elementary schools. The text-based drill and practice programs that characterised the first wave of educational software have been replaced with investigative or exploratory programs that often make extensive use of sophisticated multimedia. In order to keep abreast of changes in learning technologies in schools, teacher education programs have also been forced to undergo significant modifications in their approach to all aspects of educational computing.

As Australian elementary and secondary schools have embraced educational technologies, especially computers, Australian teacher education courses have been forced to follow suit. For many years computer-related subjects were options, an elective that many students did not take. In the state of Victoria a semi-autonomous government agency, the Standards Council for the Teaching Profession (SCTP), published a set of guidelines for minimum skills and competencies in educational technology for beginning teachers (SCTP, 1998). As the state government is by the largest employer of teachers in the state, teacher education providers had no choice but to incorporate compulsory educational technology subjects into their pre-service courses.

La Trobe University offers pre-service teacher education courses for graduate students through the Institute for Education. Most Australian secondary school teachers acquire an undergraduate degree and then undertake a one year teacher education course, often titled a Graduate Diploma in Education. As well as offering a Graduate Diploma in Education for secondary teachers, the Institute for Education also offers a one year Graduate Diploma in Education for primary teachers. Entry into the primary course is extremely competitive, with more than 600 applicants vying for approximately 50 places.

Review of relevant research

Computer self-efficacy

The concept of self-efficacy emerged from social cognitive theory and was initially applied in health related areas, but educational theorists have adapted the theory and model. Social cognitive theorists believed that behaviour, cognition, and context (or environment) interact with each other to form a reciprocal relationship (Bandura, 1986). They argued that the relationship between these three factors provided the best path to understanding behaviour.

Levels of self-efficacy indicate a person's perceptions of their competence in a nominated area. Self-efficacy theory was developed and linked with educational theory by Bandura (1986), and since then Bandura and other researchers have clarified the concept of self-efficacy and expanded its use into many domains of educational research. In the past decade an extensive body of research has been published. This research reports on and analyses self-efficacy in many aspects of education at levels ranging from elementary school through to adult.

Self-efficacy has been defined as a construct relating to a person's self-perceived belief in their ability to carry out actions that will achieve designated goals (Bandura, 1986; Pintrich & Schunk, 1996). It differs from constructs such as task-specific self-concept and self-perceptions of competence because it is specific and it applies to particular goals. Self-efficacy is based on beliefs about what a person can accomplish with the skills and knowledge they already possess. It is not about acquiring new skills or increasing knowledge. Because self-efficacy considers beliefs about an individual's capabilities to perform actions, it is different to locus of control which focuses on the outcomes of actions that are performed (Cassidy & Eachus, 2001). As a consequence of self-efficacy being situation specific, it is likely that a person will exhibit different levels of self-efficacy in different domains, for example playing a musical instrument or using the Internet for learning.

In his study of pre-service teachers Kellenberger (1996) reports that belief about success or otherwise with computers in the past has some influence on perceived computer self-efficacy. However the results of his study suggest that past achievement might not influence self-efficacy as much as the level of value a student teacher places on computers in an educational context. Other research has found strong links between self-efficacy and later competence or achievement (Pintrich & Schunk 1996; Bandura 1986).

As the use of computers at all levels of education has increased, researchers have become interested in links between beliefs about personal ability to perform educational computer tasks and subsequent learning about, and use of, computers. When applied to teachers using ICT for educational purposes, self-efficacy would appear to be an important indicator of whether an individual will teach with computers at a later stage. Ropp (1999) uses the term "computer self-efficacy" and she notes there is research that shows while many teachers have positive attitudes to the use of educational technologies, they do not necessarily believe in their own ability to use technology in a classroom with students. Delcourt and Kinzie (1993) reported that learning about computers is aided by high levels of self-efficacy and a positive attitude. Other researchers have reported a high correlation between level of self-efficacy and computer use

One aim of the study reported in this paper was to ascertain the level of computer self-efficacy of a cohort of pre-service teachers, and to use this data to inform decisions relating to content and instructional mode in a compulsory learning technology subject.

ICT and teachers

A number of studies have noted that the majority of teachers currently employed in schools do not believe they are able to make effective use of technology in everyday classroom teaching. Only 20% of US teachers are reported to feel they are adequately prepared to use computers in the classroom (CEO StaR Report). Becker, Ravitz & Wong (1999) report that some 70% of US teachers are "reluctant" or "late adopters" of learning technologies. It is easy to believe that a lack of leadership and example by experienced classroom teachers is having a detrimental effect on how and when beginning and student teachers use computers in their teaching.

When pre-service teacher education students and beginning teachers are questioned, they also have indicated a reluctance to use computers in the classroom. Researchers such as Dunn and Ridgway (1994) in the UK believe that issues such as low numbers of computers, poor or inappropriate software, and timetabling constraints are factors that limit opportunities for all teachers, but especially for pre-service and beginning teachers. The StaR Report quotation used at the start of this paper is part of an account of the situation in the US, and it is certain that a similar situation exists in Australia and many other countries.

It has been argued, for example by Wild (1996), that both research evidence and anecdotal documentation are available to show that computer-based learning technologies are little used in teaching by pre-service teachers. This is a general issue in pre-service teacher education courses, and has been reported in a range of countries and within a variety of education systems. When the original reports of this phenomenon appeared more than a decade ago, few schools and universities had significant numbers of computers available for teaching and learning. The hardware picture is vastly different today in the U. S. (Office of Technology Assessment, 1995), Australia (Shears, 1995), and many other countries, where schools and university faculties of education provide a much higher level of computer access for students and staff. However, there is still evidence that these technologies are not being used for classroom-based teaching and learning (Dunn & Ridgway, 1994).

In an article published toward the end of 2001, Watson discusses a range of issues related to the use of computers in school teaching and learning. She notes that:

"IT is not only perceived as a catalyst for change, but also change in teaching style, change in learning approaches, and change in access to information. Yet research indicates that teachers are both threatened by change, and conversely not impressed by change that appears to focus on what the technology can do rather than on learning."(Watson, 2001: 251)
Current educational computing schools tends make extensive use of software designed for business applications ( for example Microsoft Word and Excel), and in secondary schools there is an emphasis on vocational uses of IT. Watson refers to a distinction discussed by Hawkridge (1990) that argues that the difference between learning about computer-based technology (vocational) and learning with the technology (pedagogic) has become blurred. Watson claims that the cart has been placed before the horse because schools are now more interested in teaching students what computers can do rather than giving serious consideration to issues about what knowledge and learning do students of today need, and if and how computers might help in the teaching process.

Earlier Hodas (1993) had commented on barriers he believed were preventing the effective implementation of educational change associated with computer-based technologies in American classrooms. He notes that schools are "perhaps first and foremost, organisations, and as such seek nothing so much as their own perpetuity" (p.2). Hodas discusses both the structure of schools as organisations, and teachers as agents of change. He cites studies indicating that although teachers are not "accomplished or engaged intellectuals" (p.4) this does not mean they necessarily resist change to their teaching practices. However the studies might indicate "a certain comfort with stasis and a reluctance to expand both the intellectual horizon and the skill set necessary to achieve proficiency with new technologies" (Hodas, 1993:4).

People who seek changes in organisations, including those who propose to change education through increased use of learning technologies, often preach a contradictory message (Hodas, 1993). They stress the potential of technology to revolutionise education, while at the same time trying to re-assure teachers there will be no major upheavals to current teaching practices.

The introduction of computers, for example, is hailed in one discourse (directed towards the public and towards policy makers) as a process which will radically change the nature of what goes on in the classroom, give students entirely new sets of skills, and permanently shift the terrain of learning and schools. In other discourse (directed towards administrators and teachers) computers are sold as straightforward tools to assist them in carrying out pre-existing tasks and fulfilling pre-existing roles, not as Trojan Horses whose acceptance will ultimately require the acquisition of an entirely new set of skills and world outlook. (Hodas, 1993:7)

In a similar vein, at an IFIP conference in Beijing, Jones (2000) noted that changing or restructuring classroom practice can not occur without significant changes to the way schools are administered, the way teachers teach, and the way students learn. Lasting and effective change is dependent on change being a common goal for all the stakeholders, ie. for administrators, teachers, and students.

A common problem in teacher education, at both in-service and pre-service levels, is decontextualisation. Professional development for teachers is usually provided away from the normal work place of the participants. Even when teacher professional development is conducted in a school it is unlikely that students will be present. The problem for pre-service teachers is that their work place is a university campus, and even though they undertake practice teaching in schools, they are not on-going staff members at that school. In addition the teaching practicum is commonly considered a separate subject or area of the course, usually with its own goals and requiring a different and specific set of skills, knowledge and techniques. It is extremely difficult for both pre-service teachers and teacher educators to establish meaningful links between what occurs in a university lecture room and the reality of managing and teaching a class of twenty-five school students.



The participants in this study consisted of the cohort of a pre-service primary teacher education course at an Australian university. The minimum academic qualification for entry into the course was a suitable undergraduate degree, although several participants had also completed an honours year or masters degree. From the approximately seventy students asked, 48 questionnaires were completed and analysed. Only 13% of the participants were male. 39% of the participants gave their age as under 25 years at the commencement of the course.

Data collection

Two instruments were used to collect different forms of data. The first instrument, a Personal Computer Efficacy Questionnaire (PCEQ), was derived from the Computer Self-Efficacy Scale (CSE) developed and validated by Murphy, Coover and Owen (1989). Two of the three factors of the CSE were slightly modified for the local context. The aim of this instrument was to ascertain students' perceptions of their ability to use computers. The instrument contains 34 items, all commencing with the stem, "I feel confident ...". Sixteen items are classified as relating to basic computing skills such as " ... entering and saving data into a file". A further twelve items, including " ... using a computer to organise information" and " ... understanding terms relating to computer hardware", are classified as being concerned with advanced computing skills. The final six items in this questionnaire relate to skills associated with using the Internet and multimedia software. This instrument was administered in February during the first week of classes.

The second instrument, School Computer Access Questionnaire (SCAQ), related to computer access and use in schools for teachers and students. It was administered in May immediately following a four-week teaching practicum in schools, and sought details of access and use of computers by teacher education students, supervising classroom teachers, and primary school students.

Data analysis

The Personal Computer Efficacy Questionnaire (PCEQ) consisted of 34 items that were scored on a 5 point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Because of the common positive stem, all items were positive and none had to be reversed for scoring purposes. Strongly disagree responses were scored as 1, disagree as 2, and so on up to strongly agree which was scored as 5. SPSS version 8.0 for Windows was used to perform basic descriptive statistical analyses. Among the 16 items categorised as being basic computer skills, five items had a mean greater than 4.00 and no items had a mean less than 2.70.

This analysis indicated that as a whole these pre-service teacher education students believed they possessed a range basic computing skills. Analysis of the items categorised as advanced determined that the item, "I feel confident about learning to use a variety of programs" (mean = 3.63) was the only one with a mean greater than 3.00. In contrast, three items had means of approximately 2.00 or less. (See Table 1 for means and standard deviations of selected items.)

Table 1: Means and standard deviations of selected items from PCEQ

Item following stem "I feel confident ..."
Basic skills itemsMeanSD
18 moving the cursor around the screen4.480.75
13 using a computer to write a letter or essay4.410.72
copying a disk2.73
Advanced skills itemsMeanSD
7 explaining why a program will or will not run on a given computer2.040.92
8 troubleshooting computer problems1.890.88
11 writing simple programs or procedures1.700.89

For people who have not formally studied computing it is not surprising that these items would be rated lowly. In general it would be expected that people confident with these items would have learned to computer programming and would have extensive experience using and being around computers. Neither of these is a characteristic of the participants in this study.

Table 2: Teacher computer use for teaching/learning (percentages)

Amount of use over 4 weeks
Never %Once %Weekly %Daily %
Supervising teachers20.525.646.27.7
School students23.117.948.710.3

The School Computer Access Questionnaire was designed to collect data on computer use and access in 46 primary classrooms over a four week period. The two most significant questions asked about the amount of computer use by both the particular teacher education student and their supervising teacher during the twenty school-days of the practicum. The results from these two questions are surprising and disappointing. Surprising in light of the efforts of the Victorian Department of Education to make use of learning technologies an integral part of everyday teaching and learning in government schools. Disappointing because in spite the efforts of schools and parents in providing computer hardware and software, computer use is far from being a daily occurrence for most students and primary teachers.

Results and conclusions

At the beginning of a course data were collected about students' perceptions of their ability to use computers. Data relating to computer access and use were collected following a two-week teaching practicum in schools. The data collection instruments used in this project did not probe computer experience prior to participants commencing their pre-service teacher education course. However the high level of self perception in their ability to perform basic computing tasks among the participants indicates considerable prior computer experience. It might well be that in future years it should be expected that all entrants into pre-service teacher education courses will have mastered these basic computing skills. This would mean that more time could be spent on developing skills and techniques directly related to classroom use of computers and other forms of learning technology.

Lack of use of the technology that already exists in school classrooms is a much more significant problem. In this project the similarity of reported use by pre-service teachers and their supervisors suggests that classroom teachers who do not themselves use computers will not encourage teacher education students to use computers with students.

It appears inevitable that teachers at all levels, primary, secondary and tertiary, will continue to be expected to make increased use of ICT and other learning technologies. For beginning teachers the focus has shifted away from a lack of hardware and software towards a struggle to develop and acquire the skills and techniques necessary to make effective classroom use of learning technologies.


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Author: Anthony Jones, La Trobe University. Email:

Please cite as: Jones, A. (2002). Refusing or ignoring? An investigation of student teachers' perceptions and use of computers. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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