Understanding Teaching Technology Use By Generation, Knowledge and Career Cycle

October 1, 2010 Susan Crichton, Curtis Slater and Karen Pegler

Authors Note: The authors wish to thank the Alberta Teachers’ Association for the invitation to submit this abridged version of their paper, and they encourage readers with significant interest in this topic to contact Susan Crichton at susan.crichton@ucalgary.ca for the complete article.


Prensky’s (2001) notion of digital immigrants/digital natives,[1] which has permeated the literature, suggests that older teachers struggle when they use technology to connect with their students and, by extension, with their younger colleagues. In questioning that suggestion we learned that teachers’ career cycles (Steffy et al. 1999), possibly even more than their generation, impacts their use of information and communication technology (ICT) and how they integrate it into the curriculum. These findings are significant for their impact on commonly held assumptions and their support for differentiated professional development in the areas of pedagogy, technology and content knowledge.


The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) is the third-largest public school board in Canada, and Calgary reports among the highest Internet usage in Canada. Technology in Calgary schools ranges from traditional computer labs to mobile, handheld devices. All schools in the CBE have Internet wireless access, and a second wireless network for personal devices is currently being implemented.

As of fall 2009, approximately 1,800 of the CBE’s 6,000 teachers had been hired within the previous three years; the majority of new hires were of the Millennial generation.[2] This created an interesting generational shift, because the majority of CBE teachers are either Millenials, born between 1975 and 1994, or Baby Boomers, born between 1945 and 1964 (Pegler, Kollewyn and Crichton 2010). 

In 2007 the CBE initiated a three-year phased Teacher One-to-One Laptop Project.  Cathy Faber, CBE’s Superintendent of Learning Innovation, explained that teachers needed to “own the technology to shift the instructional model” (Faber, personal communication, January 12, 2010). All certificated, classroom teachers in K–12 schools were eligible to receive either a Windows-based or Apple laptop, although the choice was sometimes a school-based decision rather than an individual one.  

Our Research Approach

We started our research amidst media reports about the changing Canadian workforce. For example, according to an article in the Calgary Herald (Nebenzahl 2007), for the first time four generations of workers might actually work side by side in the same workplace. Because of this and the hype over digital immigrant/native, we became curious about how a teacher’s age might affect his or her adoption and use of ICT.

Findings from the project’s first year indicated that if the technology was work-related, a teacher’s generation had no statistically significant impact on his or her ability to use the technology (Pegler, Kollewyn and Crichton 2010). While younger generations reported greater confidence using technology with applications outside of the classroom, use of workplace technologies such as learning management systems showed no statistical differences across generations. This emboldened us to challenge the popular understanding of digital immigrants and digital natives and question reliance on novice teachers as ICT leaders in schools.

Prensky first introduced the concept of digital natives and digital immigrants in 2001, and the notion spread and took hold. According to him, older generations would never quite understand or implement technology to the levels of the younger digital natives. Prensky later modified his stance and stated, “Digital wisdom transcends the generational divide defined by the immigrant/native distinction” (2009, p. 3), but by then the phrases digital natives and digital immigrants had become ingrained in the minds of many professionals.  In schools, many administrators turned to young teachers for help with educational technologies, without realizing that they were adding another burden on new teachers struggling to master pedagogy, classroom management and curricula. Furthermore, many of the same administrators presumed that older teachers would not be able to help with technology-related issues and in doing so ignored the potential of experienced teachers who were already well versed in pedagogy and content.

As we questioned the validity of Prensky’s notion, we used generation-based survey items in our second year of the study (2008/09), which revealed that all generations reported increased comfort levels with technology use. In fact, the gap between older and younger had significantly decreased. We then turned to the literature on teacher career cycles (Steffy et al. 1999) to further refine our findings.

Steffy et al. suggest that there are six stages in a teaching career. The first, the novice phase, describes preservice education students who are being introduced to the profession. They are “beginning to acquire the skills necessary to function effectively in the classroom” (p. 6). When a teacher has an opportunity to design, manage and control his or her own classroom, he or she enters the second phrase: apprentice, which is an idealistic stage typically characterized by a high level of volunteerism (pp. 6–7). The third stage is the professional phase of teachers’ careers, when they have gained self-confidence as educators and are seen by students as “patient, kind and understanding.” Teachers in this stage view themselves as “student advocates” (p. 7). The majority of teachers are identified as being in this phase. The fourth stage is expert. Expert teachers are defined as those who understand student learning needs and effortlessly adapt their teaching style to support their students. Continually growing as teachers through exploring current research, expert teachers connect with a network of other expert teachers to assume leadership roles inside and outside of their schools. The fifth stage is distinguished and describes those who are “truly gifted in their field … exceeding expectations … students, parents, administrators revere them” (p. 9). The sixth and final stage is teacher emeritus. After retiring from a lifetime of teaching, the teacher emeritus continues to serve the profession in a variety of ways such as “consulting, volunteering, mentoring and service activities with professional groups” (p. 10).  

The final construct we added to our theoretical framework was the work of Koehler and Mishra (AACTE 2008). Building on Shulman’s 1986 ideas concerning pedagogical content knowledge, Koehler and Mishra added technology to the mix to create what they referred to as the technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPCK) framework to describe the types of knowledge teachers must draw upon when addressing the “wicked problems” that compose the daily challenges of classroom instruction. TPCK is an emergent form of knowledge that goes beyond content, pedagogy and technology; it is the basis of effective teaching with technology and requires an understanding of the representation of concepts using technologies; pedagogical techniques that use technologies in constructive ways to teach content; knowledge of what makes concepts difficult or easy to learn and how technology can help redress some of the problems that students face ... (AACTE 2008, pp. 17–18).

Koehler and Mishra build on the notion of teaching as a wicked problem as advanced by Rittel and Webber (AACTE 2008, p.10). Each wicked problem is unique and may require a different solution, which might or might not be perfect, or which might in fact lead to the discovery of a new wicked problem. Rittel and Webber found that “wicked problems always occur in social contexts” (AACTE 2008, p. 11) and remind us that teacher diversity is part of this social context and contributes to the challenge of exploring the adoption and integration of technology into teaching and learning.

What We Found

Findings from the first phase of the One-to-One Teacher Laptop Project challenged the concept of digital natives/digital immigrants and suggested that a teacher’s age alone might not be an accurate predictor of their comfort and success integrating ICT into teaching and learning (Pegler, Kollewyn and Crichton 2010). The results from the first survey determined that though there were some generational differences in comfort levels with technology and level of integration of technology into the classroom, there was no statistically significant difference between generations with respect to their comfort level and use of computer applications that were strictly work related. Our findings confirmed the work of Oblinger and Oblinger (2005), which suggested that exposure to technology and time spent using the technologies were more significant than generational category.  

Survey three, given to all CBE teachers working in K–12 classrooms, concluded the three-year study, in March 2010; it included questions about teachers’ professional development needs and areas of expertise and drew on the seven categories in the TPCK model. The third survey had three significant findings. 

  1. First, contradicting our initial findings from Survey 1, there was now a statistically significant difference between generations in comfort levels for all computer-related tasks. However, despite the difference between generations, the comfort levels for all tasks in Survey 3 were higher overall compared to the results from Survey 1.
  2. The second significant finding was that differences in comfort levels disappeared for most tasks once teachers had reached the distinguished phase in the teaching cycle. When comfort levels were compared across the generations within each phase, the results showed that the generational differences were no longer statistically significant for distinguished teachers in their use of the Internet, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, e-mail, multimedia and interactive whiteboard applications. 
  3. The third significant finding relates to how comfortable teachers were leading a professional development activity based on suggestions from the TPCK model. Distinguished teachers were less likely to choose to lead professional development activities for the individual components of TPCK (content, pedagogy and technology). Instead, distinguished teachers chose technology and pedagogy and the combined technology, pedagogy and content area. This could explain why those teachers showed no generational differences in comfort level for computer-related tasks, since their understanding of how technology relates to pedagogy and knowledge of content trumps any generational differences. 

Why This Matters

The question guiding this three-year study was: “What is the impact of laptop computers on teacher instructional practice?” Resoundingly, providing laptops to classroom teachers had a positive impact on their professional lives. Many report the use of laptops as a transformational experience that affected how they teach and think about learning. It has also brought attention to a number of challenges and frustrations that they reported in the open-ended questions.

Significant to our findings was the revelation that career cycle plays a more important role in teachers’ adoption and use of technology than generational or core ICT skills. This revelation has profound implications for ICT leadership in schools, ICT adoption rates and the type of professional learning provided to educators, and also suggests that traditional one-size-fits-all professional development activities are increasingly ineffective. Technology skills alone do not result in effective teaching—professional development must be differentiated in the areas of technology, pedagogy and content, as suggested by Koehler and Mishra (2008), and needs to be intentionally aimed at the areas in which teachers do not feel a high degree of comfort. 

Further, educational leaders would be remiss to assume that younger teachers are naturally more effective ICT leaders and equally remiss to assume that older teachers are uninterested or unable to adopt ICT. Though many younger teachers might in fact have technological knowledge, they are still acquiring pedagogical and content knowledge.  Additionally, technological knowledge alone does not translate into the ability to use technology to enhance learning. It is the combination of the TPCK components across generations and career cycles that warrant the greatest professional development attention. Old constructs that depict teachers as unwilling or unable to move forward in their teaching practice using technology or, conversely, that depict new teachers as not requiring support in this area must be abandoned. 


American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). Committee on Technology and Innovation. 2008.  Handbook of Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK) for Educators. New York: Routledge.

Jiwa, S. 2009. “Study: Eight in Ten Canadians Have Internet Connection at Home.” Digital Journal. Available online at www.digitaljournal.com/article/281131. (accessed September 1, 2010).

Nebenzahl, D. 2007. “How We Work: Helicopter Parents Hovering into Workplace: Things Are Getting Crowded with Four Generations on the Job.”  Calgary Herald, October 15, C5.

Oblinger, D., and J. Oblinger. 2005.  “Is It Age or IT: First Steps Toward Understanding the Net Generation.”  Educause. www.educause.edu/IsItAgeorIT:FirstStepsTowardUnderstandingtheNetGeneration/6058. (accessed September 1, 2010).

Pegler, K., J. Kollewyn and S. Crichton. 2010. “Generational Attitudes and Teacher ICT Use.” Journal of Technology and Teacher Education 18, no. 1.

Prensky, M. 2001. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” Retrieved from www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf . (accessed September 1, 2010).

———. 2009. “H. Sapiens Digital: From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom.”  Innovate 5, no 3. www.innovateonline.info (accessed September 1, 2010).

Rittel, H., and M. Webber. 1973. "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," pp. 155–69, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4 [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley and Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135–44.], Available online at www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf (accessed August 30, 2010).

Steffy, B., M. Wolfe, S. Pasch, and B. Enz. 1999.  Life Cycle of the Career Teacher. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.

[1] A digital native is generally understood as someone who was born after the popularization of digital technology, and who, as a result, is familiar with such things as computers, the Internet and MP3s. A digital immigrant is someone who was born before the existence of digital technology and began to use it later in life.

[2] Coming on the heels of Generation X, the Millenials are also known as Generation Y or the Net Generation. Broadly speaking, Millenials are very familiar with communications, media and digital technologies.

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