Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000
A teacher from the late nineteenth century entering a typical classroom today would find most things quite familiar: chalk and talk, as well as desks and texts, predominate now as they did then. Yet this nineteenth-century teacher would be shocked by the demands of today's curricula. For example, just a century ago, little more was expected of high school students than to recite famous texts, recount simple scientific facts, and solve basic arithmetic problems. Only 3.5% of students were expected to learn algebra before completing high school.1 Today, all high school students are expected to be able to read and understand unfamiliar text2 and to become competent in the processes of scientific inquiry and mathematics problem solving, including algebra.3 This trend of rising expectations is accelerating because of the explosion of knowledge now available to the public and the growing demands of the workplace.4 More and more students will have to learn to navigate through large amounts of information and to master calculus and other complicated subjects to participate fully in an increasingly technological society.5 Thus, although the classroom tools of blackboards and books that shape how learning takes place have changed little over the past century, societal demands on what students learn have increased dramatically.
There is consensus among education policy analysts that satisfying these demands will require rethinking how educators support learning.6 Debate now focuses on identifying and implementing the most appropriate and highest priority reforms in the areas of curricula, teacher training, student assessment, administration, buildings, and safety. The role that technology could or should play within this reform movement has yet to be defined. Innovations in media technology, including radio, television, film, and video, have had only isolated, marginal effects on how and what children learn in school, despite early champions of their revolutionary educational potential.7 (See the article by Wartella and Jennings in this journal issue.) Similarly, although computer technology is a pervasive and powerful force in society today with many proponents of its educational benefits, it is also expensive and potentially disruptive or misguided in some of its uses and in the end may have only marginal effects. Nevertheless, several billion dollars in public and private funds have been dedicated to equipping schools with computers and connections to the Internet, and there are promises of even more funds dedicated to this purpose in the future.8 (See Appendix A in this journal issue for more information on sources of funding.) As ever-increasing resources are committed to bringing computers into the classroom, parents, policymakers, and educators need to be able to determine how technology can be used most effectively to improve student learning.9
This article explores the characteristics of computer technology and its potential to enhance learning. The first section highlights a number of computer-based technology applications shown to be effective in improving how and what children learn. Of course, just because computer technology can lead to improvements in learning does not mean that it will do so simply because technology is infused into the classroom. Studies overwhelmingly suggest that computer-based technology is only one element in what must be a coordinated approach to improving curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, teacher development, and other aspects of school structure. Therefore, the second section of this article discusses the changes in organizational structures and supports that should be considered when schools are planning a strategy for incorporating technology. This article concludes with a brief discussion of a framework to guide future research efforts.