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Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000

Children and Computer Technology: Analysis and Recommendations
Margie K. Shields Richard E. Behrman

The Potential for Enhanced Learning

Beyond teaching computer skills, there has been a push to use technology in the classroom to enhance instruction. The rationale for increased federal support for computers in schools was, first and foremost, to improve learning and help meet the education goals as laid out in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994.79 Yet the body of research linking use of computers to improved learning was—and continues to be—inadequate in many areas, with many questions about the effectiveness of technology across various age groups and subject areas still unanswered.80 While studies confirm that some models of technology-supported practices can, indeed, promote children's learning under some circumstances, the research to date does not support broad claims to effectiveness.81

Educators have used computers as learning tools in America's elementary and secondary schools for over 30 years.82 The 1960s brought computer-assisted instruction to schools, providing individualized drill and practice to reinforce basic skills. With the development and increased availability of lower-cost personal computers, school use of technology broadened in the early 1980s to include applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, and distance learning via two-way audio and video. In the 1990s, even more sophisticated applications, including multimedia educational software and the communication features of the Internet, began to be used to enrich curricula across the range of academic subjects.

To date, however, technology has not been embraced as a tool to transform how and what children learn in the typical classroom. Teacher survey data indicate that in 1998, most students were exposed to a broad range of computer applications at some point during the school year, but such exposure was generally not linked to curricula in core academic classes, especially in schools serving predominantly low-income students. Instead, for the most part, students used computers primarily in nonacademic courses. As noted by a U.S. Department of Education official at a recent conference, technology has swept the nation in almost every sector except education.83 To understand the reasons for the slow integration of more sophisticated and powerful uses of technology into the curricula in most classrooms, it is helpful to understand the larger debate surrounding elementary and secondary education goals in this country.

The Larger Debate on Education Reform

Computers are being thrust into an already highly charged, contentious arena of competing ideas about what and how to teach our nation's children. In simplified terms, at one end of the spectrum are those who place a heavy emphasis on a return to basics—that is, the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic. This approach is embodied in many state and local responses to the call for standards in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and other federal legislation.84 Its supporters maintain that a stronger command of the basics is needed to ensure a competitive workforce in the future. At the other end of the spectrum are those who place greater emphasis on making sure all students learn the "higher-order" skills of problem solving, communicating effectively, analyzing information, and designing solutions. Advocates of this approach believe that higher-order skills can be acquired alongside basic skills and will prove as important as the basics in ensuring that our nation does not lose its competitive edge in the marketplace.35,85

Overlaying these different approaches to what students should be taught are different methods of how students should be taught. The traditional "transmission" approach to learning relies primarily on books and lectures to impart knowledge, while students are mostly passive, expected to memorize and recite what they have learned.35 In contrast, a "constructivist" approach to learning focuses more on cultivating student interest through critical thinking and real-world applications and often involves problem solving in small groups. This method expects students to actively "construct" knowledge through direct experience, interpretation, and structured interaction with peers and teachers.

Most teachers, of course, teach a combination of basic and higher-order skills through a variety of methods ranging from more transmission oriented to more constructivist. The emergence of what has been termed "high-stakes testing," however, has thrust the extremes into the limelight. Over the last few years, an increasing number of states and local school districts have adopted standardized tests, with results often linked to "high-stakes" decisions about student advancement and graduation, teacher pay and promotion, and funding and control of individual schools.86 As a result, teachers are increasingly concerned with linking classroom curricula to the content of such tests—a practice commonly referred to as "teaching to the test." Because these tests typically focus on basic skills, supporters of higher-order thinking skills fear that standardized tests are leading to a narrowing of curricula. Some go even farther, cautioning that if higher-order thinking skills are not emphasized, the entire public education system will become obsolete because it is preparing children for a world that no longer exists.87

How computers are used or not used in the classroom must be seen within the context of this larger debate about education in the twenty-first century and the increasing emphasis on standardized tests. Most teachers, parents, and policymakers agree that children should learn, in age-appropriate ways, how to use computers with a broad array of applications, but there is much less agreement about the extent to which teachers should integrate computers into classroom curricula. One's stance on the larger issues surrounding education reform influences one's view of all other factors contributing to decisions about computer use in the classroom, such as evidence of effectiveness, teacher training, and other organizational supports.

Limited Research on Effective Applications

As tools, computers can be used in ways that serve any combination of teaching approaches. For example, to reinforce basic skills, a more traditional approach may be to use a "drill and practice" computer application, while a more constructivist approach might use a computerized tutorial program that involves more interaction and feedback. To teach higher-order skills, a more traditional approach might use the computer for "distance learning," tapping into an online presentation about problem solving in a community far away. In contrast, a more constructivist approach might involve an exchange of ideas via the Internet between students from two different communities to work toward a solution together. Alternatively, one could choose to teach basic or higher-order skills without any computers at all.

A key factor affecting teachers' use or nonuse of technology is their degree of confidence that available software or Internet content can be effective in enhancing the curriculum, consistent with their teaching philosophy. However, current research is generally insufficient to give teachers the guidance they need about what application might work best in their classroom and how to use the application effectively to ensure positive results.

Indeed, existing research suggests that not all uses of the computer are effective, or effective in the same ways, and studies often produce mixed results, depending on the applications and outcomes measured. In general, the strongest evidence of positive effects tends to be for constructivist applications designed to teach higher-order thinking skills, but only when success is measured by depth of understanding rather than improvements in basic skills. For example, one of the few large-scale, nationwide studies on the effectiveness of educational technology found that more sophisticated applications increased fourth- and eighth-grade students' mathematical understanding, while software involving repetitive skill practice apparently decreased understanding. 88 However, more traditional "drill and practice" applications have been found to be more effective at improving performance on basic skills tests. A meta-analysis of over 500 research studies of computer-based instruction found that computer tutoring applications improved students' scores on achievement tests, whereas other, more sophisticated applications had only minimal effects on such tests.89

In the article by Roschelle and colleagues in this journal issue, the authors maintain that positive results from computer use are most likely to be achieved when the applications reinforce one or more of the four fundamental characteristics of learning that underpin the "constructivist" approach: (1) active engagement, (2) participation in groups, (3) frequent interaction and feedback, and (4) connections to real-world contexts. According to learning research, as well as the practical experience of many teachers, such an approach is much better matched to how children learn than the "transmission" approach. When computer-based technology integrates constructivist principles into the learning process, the authors argue it can be an effective tool in helping students learn higher-order skills involving creative or critical thinking about complex ideas.

For example, Roschelle and colleagues describe a computer-based application, "Microcomputer-Based Laboratory," which allows the instantaneous graphing of data as they are gathered. Use of this software has been found to produce significant gains in middle school students' ability to interpret and use graphs.90 Another example cited is ThinkerTools, a simulation program that has been shown to improve students' learning by representing complex subject matter—in this case, velocity and acceleration—through visualization. This application enabled middle school students to grasp complex scientific concepts several grade levels before they are usually taught.91

Other promising applications cited by these and other authors include computer programming using child-friendly languages such as Logo, which has been shown to increase problem-solving abilities and comprehension; desktop publishing and multimedia software that enables students to take pride in creating elaborate, professional-looking presentations; and the communication features of the Internet, which foster students' critical thinking skills through collaborative projects with others in the classroom or around the world.35,56 Because not all students respond in the same way to specific teaching approaches, the various computer applications—which tend to incorporate verbal as well as nonverbal forms of teaching—are helpful in providing alternative ways to learn. As noted in the article by Hasselbring and Williams Glaser, when such applications are incorporated into classroom instruction, they can be especially helpful to students with mild learning disorders, who account for about 1 out of every 10 students in elementary and secondary classrooms across the country.92,93

Despite such examples, very little research exists on the effectiveness of various computer applications and technology-supported practices in subjects other than math and science, or for younger students in early elementary school or preschool. In contrast to the burgeoning number of products on the market, there has been very little research or product screening and assessment to help teachers identify which applications may be of high quality and aligned with their teaching objectives.94 In August 1998, the U.S. Department of Education established an expert panel on educational technology to identify promising and exemplary educational technology programs based on quality, significance, replicability, and evidence of success. The panel released its first list of model educational technology programs in September 2000, citing only seven promising programs and two exemplary programs, Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project in California and Generation www.Y in Washington.95 The low number of programs cited was due, in part, to the lack of research on effectiveness and documentation of success.

As pointed out in the commentary by Dede, compared with other sectors of society, relatively little money is spent on research in education, and as a result, many opportunities for improvement in education are unrealized. Although our nation has allocated a substantial amount of money to creating a technology infrastructure for schools, relatively little funding has gone into assessing the strengths and limitations of learning technologies. More systematic, in-depth research on the effectiveness of learning technology programs and practices is needed.



  • More public and private research dollars should be allocated to assessing the effectiveness of technology-supported practices in the classroom across various subjects and grade levels and to disseminating the results to state and local education agencies and teachers.

The education sector is just on the threshold of acquiring computers in massive numbers, however, so it should not be surprising if it takes some time for elementary and secondary schools throughout the country to develop strategies for integrating technology into classroom instruction. Just as it has taken many years for technology to transform industry—a transformation still under way—it will likely take many years to achieve a similar shift in education practice. There may be many ways for teachers to use technology to enhance learning in the classroom, across many subject areas and grade levels, but this has yet to be demonstrated. In the meantime, while more definitive research is under way, we should encourage teachers to experiment and exchange ideas and experiences about promising technology-supported practices. To help facilitate such an exchange, the U.S. Department of Education's Web site could list teacher-recommended technology-supported programs and practices, organized by subject area, objectives, and grade level, with links to other sites with more information.

More Teacher Training and Development Is Needed

Research confirms what parents have known for years: the most critical factor in the quality of a child's learning experiences—with computers and otherwise—is the quality of a child's teacher.96 Strategies that focus on teachers' skills and abilities may be what are most needed to ensure the educational success of our nation's children. As Healy points out in her commentary in this journal issue, disadvantaged students without computers but with excellent teachers and curricula are far better off than children who spend time using computers for rote activities without substantive, interpersonal learning experiences.

To help teachers become savvy computer users—knowing when to use computers and when not to, and knowing what technology-supported practices might be appropriate—they need training. Recognizing the important role of teachers, the Clinton administration set as the first goal in its 1996 national educational technology plan that "all teachers in the nation will have the training and support they need to help students learn using computers and the information superhighway."97 U.S. Department of Education data from 1998 indicate that 78% of teachers nationwide participated in training during the previous year on integrating educational technology in the grade or subject they teach,60 and subsequently they felt better prepared to use technology in their classroom lessons.80,98 Yet in another survey, most teachers said they still lacked the expertise to use the more sophisticated computer-based applications.99

For teachers to make informed decisions about using technology to enhance student learning, they must be provided with training so that they know which software applications and technologysupported practices are available, which might be appropriate for their classes, and how they can be integrated effectively into the curriculum. State and local education agencies should ensure that all teachers receive preservice and/or inservice training on how to integrate technology effectively into curricula, including the opportunity to observe models of effective technology-supported practices.

One of the best ways for teachers to develop effective strategies for integrating technology into curricula is through networking and collaborating with other teachers.67 Yet teachers often have difficulty finding time to engage in such networking, which often does not count toward requirements for professional development. To encourage and reward teachers for time spent networking and collaborating with other teachers to enhance classroom learning using computers, federal, state, and local education agencies could allow such time to count toward professional development requirements for educational technology funds.

Organizational and Structural Supports Are Also Needed

Finally, once appropriate technology supported practices have been identified, organizational and structural supports are needed to promote their effective use. According to a 1999 report from the U.S. Department of Education, teachers cite having an insufficient number of computers as the biggest barrier to effective use.100 The typical middle school or high school throughout this country places nearly one-half of its computers in shared computer labs, while most academic classrooms have only one or two computers.67 Becker's analysis of nationwide survey data gathered from teachers in 1998 found that only 3% of all secondary academic classrooms had both an Internet connection and four or more computers—important ingredients for successful integration with the curriculum. The data also showed that Internet access was twice as likely to be used frequently if classrooms had at least four computers with online connections than if they had only a single Internet-connected computer. To support more integrated use of technology with academic curricula, schools may need to redistribute computers out of labs and into classrooms. Also, teachers, like other professionals, need technical support to maintain the hardware and troubleshoot glitches with software. A greater proportion of educational technology funds should be devoted to providing such ongoing technical support.

In addition, to the extent that the most appropriate and promising technology supported practices tend to be those that facilitate the acquisition of higher-order thinking skills, the mismatch with the focus of "high-stakes" student achievement tests on basics can be a disincentive for incorporating technology into the curriculum. In a national survey on teachers' use of digital content (including software and Web sites), teachers noted the failure of content to link with state and district student achievement tests as a major concern. 101 If age-appropriate higher-order thinking skills are deemed important, it would be helpful to include some measures reflecting these skills on state and local standardized tests. Then "teaching to the test" might include more constructivist approaches with technology to promote students' deeper understanding of complex concepts.102 The U.S. Department of Education could assist in this process by sponsoring the development of examples of items that assess ageappropriate higher-order thinking skills for possible inclusion on district- and state-mandated tests.

In sum, beyond a handful of examples, the research on use of educational technology is inadequate to support sweeping claims of effectiveness. We must ask, as Healy does in her commentary, what unique role can computers play in education? Technology should be used for teaching opportunities not otherwise possible, rather than for replacing traditional approaches regardless of whether such use adds value. Much more experimentation and research are needed to identify those opportunities across various grade levels and subject areas. First, decisions must be made about what skills we want our nation's children to learn; then we must determine if technology-supported practices can effectively enhance the teaching of those skills.