Beau Budde, Howe Lin, Paul Lo, Brian Totman
Yong Zhao 
Kenneth A. Frank Michigan State University


In the paper the authors look to extend existing research on technology integration within schools. The paper also examines the diffusion of innovations by investigating relationships among the long list of factors that have already been identified to be related to school technology uses.The authors decided to use the metaphor of an ecosystem to better understand the sets of factors that affect integration of computer technology within school classrooms.The paper conducts a study of technology uses in 19 schools in four districts. In conclusion, researchers find that the ecological perspective can be a powerful analytical framework for understanding technology uses in schools.


zebra_mussels.jpgThe Zebra Mussels Story: Zebra mussels were first found in Canadian waters, then spread to all of the Great Lakes and most parts of the eastern United States and Canada. In turn, they have profoundly affected the ecologies of these areas. They have threatened native species, disrupted fish communities and created new alien species.

Technology Integration: There has been much resistance to the implementation of new technologies in schools. In recent years, there has been a large amount of money invested in providing computers for schools. However, most of the computers that have been provided to schools are unused or underused.

The Need for a Unifying Framework:

Different Goals:

Researchers argue that schools and technology have very different goals for education. Many researchers believe that schools have an inherent resistance to change, that their goal is to not incorporate outside channels ... The researchers stated that most schools see incorporating technology into education as a disruption to existing practices.

Different Structures:

  • Bulky sized computers didn't fit inside classrooms, teachers did not want to take students to the computer lab, and there was a lack of access to computers in student homes.

  • With 45-60 minutes designated for each class period, it is difficult to integrate new computer uses into instruction.

  • Researchers have offered an analogy: if the education system is a 19th century stagecoach, then new technology is a jet engine. New technology does not fit into the current structure of schools.

Teacher Attitude and Expertise:

  • Research has shown that if teachers do not have positive views of technology then it is highly likely that they will not use it in their classrooms.

Technology Itself:

  • There are still conflicting ideas about how to instruct teachers on how to utilize technology in their classrooms.
  • It is constantly changing and that makes it hard for teachers to keep up with it.
  • It brings a certain amount of unpredictability; some days it may work while other days it may not. Teachers have only so much time with their students, hence they may be less inclined to risk using unpredictable technology.

The Ecosystem Metaphor: Learning from Zebra Mussel

  • What is the common thread between the zebra mussels and computer use in schools?

    • They are both outsiders, alien species, foreign to the environment they have come to occupy. The process of having an alien species integrated into a new environment can be a very complicated matter.
  • In order to understand how the zebra mussels invaded the great lakes, we need to understand what ecological conditions accommodated this invasion.
  • We need to study how computers are being used and integrated in schools as ecologists would. In this way, we can better understand how the "environment" and its components are interacting. The overall approach of this study was to draw on ecological research on the invasion of exotic species such as the zebra mussel to develop a framework for understanding computer use in schools

Four metaphorical equivalents between the issue of technology uses in schools and ecological issues:

a) classrooms as ecosystem
b) computer uses as living species
c) teachers as members of a keystone species
d) external educational innovations as invasions of exotic species.

Schools as Ecosystems:

  • Biotic - teachers, students, parents, administrators ^
  • Abiotic - physical setting, location of the computers, grades and subjects of teaching ^
Much like an a biological ecosystem, the teaching ecosystem has a lot of diversity because it contains so many different types of species. All of the species have a different set of characteristics and each contains a different role in the ecosystem.

Computer Uses as Living Species:

  • Studying the environment is only one component.There also needs to be a study of invading species a.k.a. computer uses.
  • The study viewed computer uses as a biological species such as the zebra mussel. It has many possible functions that can be expressed in a variety of uses. The functions of the computer are constantly changing. New functions emerge from existing functions all the time. New uses are also proposed constantly. The study proposed that the computer uses is subject to the same principle of “survival of the fittest”: some of the uses are more compatible than others with a given environment and thus more are more likely to survive.

Teachers as Individuals and Members of a Species:

  • The study states that teachers represent a species within the school ecosystem and constantly engage in species-to-species interaction. The species in the ecosystem can compete as well as cooperate with each other.
  • Social Capital - The potential to access resources through social relations.

External Innovation as Invasion:

Researchers compare the addition of new technological innovations in a school to the ecological invasion of a foreign species (zebra mussels) into an ecosystem (The Great Lakes).
  • The introduction of a new species affects the internal equilibrium that most ecosystems tend to maintain.
  • These new species enter the ecosystem as invaders and interact with one or more existing species. Consequences that may result from this:
    • The invader wins and wipes out the existing species
    • Both win and survive resulting in the end of other species or a dysfunctional ecosystem due to limits in its capacity
    • The invader loses and dies out
    • Both species survive by acquiring new properties after going through a process of variation and selection.
  • Similar to the zebra mussel invasion, the successful adoption of computer uses into schools depends on their compatibility with the “species” in the school “ecosystem”—teachers, administrators, etc.

Interaction within the Teaching Ecosystem:

Researchers develop a framework from an ecological perspective to understand the use of technology in schools.
  • In this framework, increased frequency of use and increased computer uses by teachers are considered markers of well-being for the invading computer use-species in the classroom ecosystem.
  • The two main types of uses (in terms of potential benefits):
    • For students—when a teacher facilitates the use of computers by students, it contributes more directly to systemic value (benefit all in the school), since students are the common resource of the system. There are fewer direct personal benefits for the teacher.
    • For teachers—when a teacher uses computers for her/his own purposes (to develop materials), it directly benefits the teacher as an organism on the micro level (benefiting the individual teacher), engaging her/his interest or increasing her/his efficiency.
  • Each type of use is considered an individual species.
  • The frequency of use for each type is analogous to the size of the population of each species.
vThe distinction between teacher and student uses/benefits is not always this simple. Teachers who gain efficiency through their own use of a computer may also facilitate improved student learning. Additionally, student use of computers may benefit classroom management handling for the teacher. All of these outcomes have systemic benefits.

Qualities of the Invading Species and Characteristics of Computer Uses:
Two sets of factors (in terms of sources) affect the population and well-being of the invading species:
1) Qualities of the species--Dawkins (1989) suggests that genes and memes are similar in terms of how they replicate (also viruses). For the uninitiated, memes are cognitive or cultural information patterns, held in an individual's memory, which are capable of being copied to another individual's memory. Memes are used to explain cultural evolution, including the evolution of knowledge. Examples of memes include melodies, icons, fashion statements and phrases. Like genes, memes possess 3 basic qualities:

  • Longevity—Longevity=differential fitness in terms of suitability to the environment. How long a particular computer practice is sustained (through teacher promotion of sustained professional development). The longer a use lasts, the better chance it has of being imitated by others.
  • FecundityFecundity =ability to reproduce. In this case it is the ability of technology uses to be implemented by more (people) in a shorter period of time. Types of computer uses that are exposed to more teachers are more likely to last. The more opportunities teachers have to work together with computers, the more computers will be used in the school.
  • Copy-fidelity—Copy-Fidelity=accuracy of copies. The more faithful the copy, the more will remain of the initial pattern after several rounds of copying (think of copying audio cassettes). In this case, it is the faithful implementation of computer uses by teachers or students. This seems to work in opposition to the evolutionary process, which looks for variation. Technology innovators often want the computer uses they are promoting to be faithfully implemented, just as genes or memes want to make exact copies of themselves. Yet evolution happens in spite of the efforts the genes or technology innovators make to prevent it.
2) Interactions with existing species and the ecosystem (explained further in the next section)

Interacting with the Environment and the Role of the Teaching Ecosystem:

The survival of the invading species is also dependent upon the compatibility of its qualities with the new environment. In the case of computers in schools, the teaching context is the environment. This teaching context is part of a larger multi-level ecological hierarchy:
  • Government and Societal Institutions—Federal and State government can provide connectivity, hardware, and training. Although they generally favor computer use and can affect teachers’ technology use, these government and societal institutions’ policies are remote from teachers’ classroom experience.
    • School District—the immediate ecosystem that can support hardware and software and is more likely responsible for training and learning opportunities. Computer uses are likely to spread more quickly if district support for computer uses is strong.
      • Schools and their Social Contexts—schools are the ones to provide teachers with the time and opportunities to engage with technology. Teachers within schools are the ones that can promote the use of computers and provide contextual information about the value and implementation of technology.
        • Abiotic component: technology infrastructure, schedules, physical building layout, subjects, and grades. These "species" influence the types and frequencies of use. Example: certain subjects (such as business or computer education) are more conducive to computer usage.
        • Biotic component: teachers, administrators, librarians, technology coordinators, students, and uses of other teaching and learning tools. Computer uses may compete with any one of these species. Example: computers compete with some teachers when used in student-centered-project-based learning.

Interacting with Keystone Species and Teachers’ Cost-benefit Analysis:

Teachers, as rational and purposeful decision makers, are the keystone species in the school ecosystem. The survival of computer use is largely dependent on these keystone species because their decisions others’ uses and opportunities for success. Teachers’ decisions on computer use are often based on calculations of cost and benefits, though the calculations may be quick and impulsive.
  • There are a variety of considerations in a teachers’ benefit and cost calculation: social status, salary, student achievement, and time. Note that these benefits and costs are not actual, but perceived.
  • Teachers make a value judgment when faced with a new way of doing things based on her/his current knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes which are grounded in the school culture.
    • Perceived Costs: less student learning, requires excessive use of time, leads teacher to “look bad” in front of students, cause legal and ethical problems, demand dramatic changes in teaching practices, upset social relationships, or negatively affect identity of teacher.
    • Perceived Benefits: improve student learning, improve public image of teacher/school, reduce workload, improved social status, increased salary, better resources, and improved relationship with colleagues.
      • Perception of benefits and costs is mediated by a number of factors: knowledge and attitudes toward the computer, pedagogical beliefs and styles, support from school and colleagues, perceived results or consequences of use.
      • In the ecosystem metaphor, a teacher’s calculations of cost and benefits are the driving survival force. Table 1 represents an analysis of some of the aforementioned factors within this framework.

      • Contrary to previous research on this topic, the ecosystem metaphor considers the interaction between two species to be a dynamic process where they co-evolve and adapt to each other. Thus a teacher can change her/his attitude about computers, may experiment with them, increase her/his proficiency,and see how computers can help in achieving goals.
      • What ultimately determines the frequency and types of computer uses by the teacher are: the nature of the use and the result of the teacher’s cost-benefit analysis of the use.
      • The framework developed from an ecosystem metaphor highlights opportunities and practices that may help change teachers’ perceptions. Figure one (above) demonstrates this. It also illustrates how the teacher serves as a keystone species, ultimately deciding how students and how existing practices and technologies will interact with new computer uses. The teacher’s decisions are driven by the teacher’s beliefs and perceptions regarding the value of technology.
Study Design:

The study design involved a total of four districts selected from one Midwestern state based upon significant investments made in technology between 1996 and 2001. The focus was specifically geared toward elementary schools because they tend to be smaller and relatively tightly defined social systems. All elementary schools were included in the selected districts in order to understand possible building level differences.

A survey relating to technological uses in schools was administered and a response rate of 92% or greater in nineteen schools was achieved

The data suggests sample had more access to technology than the national average (Cattagni & Farris, 2001).

Students from the sampled schools came from slightly higher income families than the average in terms of percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced cost lunch. However, other measures such as pupil expenditure, student teacher ratio, and school size were not substantively different from other schools.

Data Collection:

There were three types of data collected: survey of all staff, interviews with administrators and technology staff, and interviews and observations with one focus school in each district.

Survey was comprised of 33 various format items including Likert Scale, multiple choice, and fill in the blanks.

Interviews were based on a set of questions about technology infrastructure, policy, investment, and beliefs regarding technology. They were conducted with the district superintendent, district technology director, principal of the focus school, and three to five teachers in each focus school. Observations focused on the technology infrastructure of a building. In the spring of 2011, the data collection was completed and turned over to a professional independent research firm to perform the findings and analysis.

Findings and Analyses: Interpreting Technology Uses from an Ecological Perspective

Current Technology Uses in Schools

1. To what degree are technologies used in schools?
The most frequent used technologies are phone systems, email, and computers in the classroom. This is consistent with the ecosystem metaphor that simpler technologies requiring little adjustment to existing practices are used more frequently.

Surprisingly, teachers use computers more in classroom than computer lab which may be the result of recent investments as well as computers in classrooms are more convenient to use for the teacher, such as surfing the internet and processing emails.

The phone system was found to be a powerful communication tool for teachers. It allows teachers to not become isolated in the school or classroom through communicating and integrating with parents, colleagues, other schools, and community members (Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Lortie, 1975).

Reflecting on the ecosystem metaphor, there is the potential for technologies to be competitive. For example, teachers can rely on video and TV for electronic presentations rather than PowerPoint presentations on computers for the same purpose. If you are looking from an anatomical perspective, these are different technologies. However, from an ecological perspective these technologies are competing for the same niche, or function in regards to the teacher’s professional life.

2. What kind of technology uses are teachers engaged in?
There was emphasis placed on how computers were being used as opposed to the percentage of time being used. This relates to the ecosystem metaphor in that we focus on the ways species interact rather than the frequency of interactions.

Frequencies of teacher and student activities using computers

Most frequent types of uses involve communication with parents and preparation for instruction.

The least frequent types involve student to student communication, remediation, student inquiry, and student expression.

The findings confirm the basis of the ecosystem metaphor in which simpler technologies that require little change in terms of time and energy are used more frequently. Communication with parents and preparation for instruction are much simpler to implement than uses that involve students because the latter requires teachers to reconfigure their teaching practices.

Factors and Practices Affecting Technology Uses in Schools

The findings suggest that the district, not the school, defines the primary subsystem. It is because technology, policy, investment, expertise, and professional development are addressed at the district level, leading to uniform pattern of implementation across all schools in a district.

English teachers were more likely to use computers and teachers in upper grades were moderately more likely to use computers. English teachers found computers to be a natural tool for student writing activities.

Teacher who were pressured from colleagues were more likely to use computers for their own purpose, and teachers who received help from colleagues were more likely to use computers with their students.

Here are following accounts illustrating the importance of the social process:

“The process for the new Scholastic series was to preview it, to see what fits for a particular unit I’m teaching, and word of mouth. This process has worked pretty well. I can honestly say I probably wouldn’t do certain things if someone hadn’t told me about it or if we didn’t have the series because computers are very scary to me! Often, a lab technician learns the technology first or another teacher becomes familiar with it, paving the way for adoption in another classroom.”

Teachers who had opportunities to experiment with district supported software used computers more for student purposes, and moderately so for their own purposes.

Teachers reported more usage of computers when they had explored new technologies on their own. This may change their pedagogical beliefs and practices in which they actually see the benefit of computer use. This applies to the ecosystem metaphor suggesting that the more contact two species have with one another the more they adapt to each other.


-The primary purpose of this article was to develop and test a framework from an ecological perspective to capture the organic process of technology uses in schools.
-The district provides the hardware, establishing the presence of technology
-New pedagogies enter through a receptive teacher
-Teachers perceive the value of technology based on their own experiences but also by outside influence; how it is perceived by others.
-Technology begins to conform to the teacher, as teachers develop a capacity to suit their needs. May become more of a facilitator and the technology provides the tool.

Implications for Research:

- Pay more attention to understanding the relationships and processes of how the various factors affect technology uses in schools rather than identifying new factors.
- Experimentation with technology may be more important after a teacher is already introduced to the basics of technology.
- Investigate what influences teachers’ perceptions and how teachers’ perceptions can be changed most efficiently.
- It would be beneficial to further explore the internal social dynamics among existing species and new species.
- Interested in not only how much computers are used but also how computers are used.
- Not whether computers are used but how they are used to facilitate the core tasks of teaching and learning.

Implications for Policy and Practice:

- Consider teaching style as it complements computer usage when hiring teachers.
- Give teachers opportunities to experiment with software and demonstrated applications
- Consider providing opportunities for teachers to interact instead of standard professional development
- Focus on a small number of innovations at any given time.


- Study proposed an analytical framework drawing upon the ecosystem metaphor and applied it to technology uses in schools.
- Then revealed several implications for future research and policy and practices.
- Caution: metaphors cannot be carried too far.
- Ecological metaphor helped to better understand computer uses in schools.
- Zebra mussel metaphor helped to understand interactions, activities, processes, and practices of computer uses in schools.
- Metaphor emphasizes the systemic implications of the introduction of any innovation.
- Innovations cannot be implemented oblivious to the internal social structures of schools or other pressures schools must face.
- Views attempts at systemic reform as ambitious as attempts to reform whole ecologies, which is extremely difficult.
- Suggests an evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach to school change.

  1. ^ =
    Zhao, Y. and Frank, K., Factors Affecting Technology Uses in Schools: An Ecological Perspective, American Educational Research Journal, December 21, 2003 40: 807-840, doi:10.3102/00028312040004807