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Technology in Education


The term educational technology refers to the use of technology in educational settings, whether it be elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, corporate training sites, or independent study at home. This discussion, however, will focus on educational technology in grades K—12.

Educational technology has both general and specialized meanings. To the lay public and to a majority of educators, the term refers to the instructional use of computers, television, and other kinds of electronic hardware and software. Specialists in educational technology, in particular college and university faculty who conduct research and teach courses on educational technology, prefer the term instructional technology because it draws attention to the instructional use of educational technology. This term represents both a process and the particular devices that teachers employ in their classrooms. According to the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, one of the principal professional associations representing educational technologists, "Instructional Technology is a complex, integrated process involving people, procedures, ideas, devices, and organization for analyzing problems, and devising, implementing evaluating, and managing solutions to these problems, in situations in which learning is purposive and controlled."(p. 4). Educational technologists often employ the term instructional media to represent all of the devices that teachers and learners use to support learning. However, for many educators the terms educational technology, instructional media, and instructional technology are used interchangeably, and they are used so here. In addition, the principal focus will be upon the most modern computational and communication devices used in schools today.

History of Educational Technology

The history of educational technology is marked by the increasing complexity and sophistication of devices, exaggerated claims of effectiveness by technology advocates, sporadic implementation by classroom teachers, and little evidence that the technology employed has made a difference in student learning. Although technology proponents have from time to time claimed that technology will replace teachers, this has not occurred. The typical view among educators is that technology can be used effectively to supplement instruction by providing instructional variety, by helping to make abstract concepts concrete, and by stimulating interest among students.

The terms visual education and visual instruction were used originally because many of the media available to teachers, such as three-dimensional objects, photographs, and silent films, depended upon sight. Later, when sound was added to film and audio recordings became popular, the terms audiovisual education, audiovisual instruction, and audiovisual devices were used to represent the variety of media employed to supplement instruction. These were the principal terms used to describe educational technology until about 1970.

The first administrative organizations in schools to manage instructional media were school museums. The first school museum was established in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1905. Its purpose was to collect and loan portable museum exhibits, films, photographs, charts, stereographic slides, and other materials to teachers for use in their classrooms. District-wide media centers, common in school systems today, are descendants of school museums.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, silent films were being produced for instructional use. In 1910 George Kleine published the Catalogue of Educational Motion Pictures, which listed more than 1,000 titles of films that could be rented by schools. In 1913 Thomas A. Edison asserted, "Books will soon be obsolete in schools …. Our school system will be completely changed in the next ten years" (Saettler 1968, p. 98). In 1917 the Chicago public schools established a visual education department to take responsibility for the ordering and management of films, and by 1931, thirty-one state departments of education had created administrative units to take charge of films and related media. Despite these efforts, films never reached the level of influence in schools that Edison had predicted. From evidence of film use, it appears that teachers used films only sparingly. Some of the reasons cited for infrequent use were teachers' lack of skill in using equipment and film; the cost of films, equipment, and upkeep; inaccessibility of equipment when it was needed; and the time involved in finding the right film for each class.

Radio was the next technology to gain attention. Benjamin Darrow, founder and first director of the Ohio School of the Air, imagined that radio would provide "schools of the air" (Saettler 1990, p. 199). In 1920 the Radio Division of the U.S. Department of Commerce began to license commercial and educational stations. Soon schools, colleges, departments of education, and commercial stations were providing radio programming to schools. Haaren High School in New York City is credited with being the first to teach classes by radio, broadcasting accounting classes in 1923. Peak activity for radio use occurred during the decade between 1925 and 1935, although some radio instruction continued through the 1940s. Nevertheless, radio did not have the impact on schools its advocates had hoped. In the beginning, poor audio reception and the cost of equipment were cited as obstacles to use. When these problems were overcome in later years, the lack of fit between the broadcasts and teachers' instructional agendas became more important factors. Ultimately, efforts to promote radio instruction in schools were abandoned when television became available.

World War II provided a boost for audiovisual education. The federal government and American industry were faced with the challenging task of providing training for large numbers of military recruits and for new industrial workers. Ways had to be found to train people swiftly and effectively. The U.S. government alone purchased 55,000 film projectors and spent $1 billion on training films. In addition to films, the military used overhead projectors to support lectures, slide projectors to support training in ship and aircraft recognition, and audio equipment for teaching foreign languages. Experience gained from the wartime use of these media fueled their subsequent use in schools in the decades to follow.

Instructional television was the focus of attention during the 1950s and the 1960s. This attention was stimulated by two factors. First, the 1952 decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set aside 242 television channels for educational purposes led to a rapid development of educational (now called public) television stations. A portion of their mission was to provide instructional programs to school systems in their viewing area. The second factor was the substantial investment by the Ford Foundation. It has been estimated that during the 1950s and the 1960s the Ford Foundation and its related agencies invested more than $170 million in educational television. One of the most innovative efforts at this time was the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI) which employed airplanes to transmit televised lessons over a six-state area.

By the 1970s much of the enthusiasm for instructional television had been exhausted. Educational television stations continued to provide some programming, and school systems and state departments of education formed consortia to pool funds to provide for the cost of program development. Congress also provided funds to support instructional television via satellite transmission in an effort to help rural schools, in particular, to obtain courses that might not otherwise be available to their students. However, instructional television appeared to prosper only where there was substantial public, corporate, or commercial support. Schools found it difficult to meet the substantial costs incurred for program development and the purchase and maintenance of equipment. Moreover, despite repeated efforts, it proved nearly impossible to broadcast instruction when individual teachers needed it.

The next technology to capture the interest of educators was the computer. Some of the earliest work on instructional applications of computing took place in the 1950s and the 1960s, but these efforts had little impact on schools. It was not until the 1980s, and the appearance of microcomputers, that many educators and public officials became enthusiastic about computers. By January 1983, computers were being used for instructional purposes in 40 percent of all elementary schools and 75 percent of all secondary schools in the United States. These percentages can be misleading, however. In most cases, students had only limited access to computers, often in a computer laboratory and only for an hour or so a week. In 1995 the Office of Technology Assessment estimated that the optimum ratio of computers to students was five to one, and by the year 2000 the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that there was, in fact, an average of one computer for every five students, with 97 percent of schools having Internet connections.

Technology and Learning

A primary purpose for employing instructional technology in schools is to enhance student learning. Has technology been successful in helping students learn more effectively and efficiently? Much research has been done on this question, but the answer is far from certain. Most research on educational technology has consisted of media comparison studies. After assigning comparable students to control groups or to experimental groups, the researcher presents the experimental group of students with instruction that employs the new media, while the control group experiences the same content without the new media. The researcher then compares the achievement of the two groups.

After reviewing hundreds of such studies, educational technologist Richard Clark concluded that "there are no learning benefits to be gained from employing any specific medium to deliver instruction," and that "media do not influence learning under any conditions," but are "mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition" (1983, p. 445). According to Clark, any positive results that were gained by experimental groups over the control groups were easily accounted for by differences in instructional strategy.

Clark's findings were controversial and have been disputed by other reputable scholars. Nevertheless, Clark's opinions are useful in clarifying technology's role in instruction. Technology is neutral; there is nothing inherent about the media that assures learning. A poorly designed computer program is unlikely to advance learning and may even hinder it.

This relationship between learning and technology is further complicated by disagreements over what constitutes learning. During the first half of the twentieth century, transfer-of-learning theories were popular among classroom teachers. According to these theories, the principal task of the teacher was to transfer the teacher's knowledge and textbook content to the students' minds and, through periodic examinations, determine if the transfer occurred. The task of instructional media was to assist in that transfer process by means of accurate and compelling presentations of content.

During the second half of the century, educators embraced other theories of learning. At least two of these theories have influenced the development of instructional media for schools. One of these theories is behaviorism; the other is constructivism.

Although the intellectual roots of behaviorism can be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century, behaviorism did not have much impact on education until the 1960s. Drawing upon B. F. Skinner's concepts, educators promoting behaviorism emphasized the importance of providing clear statements of what learners should be able to do following instruction. These educators also sought to break complex units of knowledge and skills into smaller and simpler units, sequencing them in ways that would lead to mastering the more complex skills and content. Frequently, their goal was also to individualize instruction as much as possible. Thus, the focus of instruction shifted from presentation of content knowledge before a group of students to a focus on the behavior of individual learners, an analysis of the steps needed to ensure learning, and the reinforcement of desirable behavior when it occurred.

The interest in behaviorism occurred about the same time that the first computer-assisted programs (CAI) were being developed. It is not surprising that the first CAI programs were essentially computer applications of printed, programmed learning books. Computers appeared to offer a good solution. Students could be assigned to a computer to work at their own pace, and the computer would keep track of students' work and provide a record of each student's progress for the teacher. Such programs evolved into what were later called individualized learning systems (ILS). ILS software and hardware were installed in school computer laboratories; they provided drill and practice exercises that were judged valuable, especially for students with learning difficulties. The behavioral movement also had an impact on the educational technology profession. The belief that it was possible to design instruction so that all students could learn led to an interest in the design of learning materials and in a systems approach to instruction.

During the last half of the twentieth century, cognitive theories of learning gained ascendancy over behaviorism among psychologists, and some of the views of cognitive psychologists, represented by the term constructivism, began to influence education. Constructivists argued that learners must construct their own understanding of whatever is being taught. According to this perspective, the teacher's task is not primarily one of promoting knowledge transfer, nor is it one of ensuring that students perform consistently according to a predetermined description of knowledge and skills. The teacher's role is to create an environment in which students are able to arrive at their own interpretations of knowledge while becoming ever more skillful in directing their own learning.

Many constructivists were initially critical of the use of computers in schools because they equated the use of computers with behaviorist theories of learning. Other constructivists recognized the computer as a potential ally and designed programs that took advantage of constructivist beliefs. The result has been computer-based programs that promote higher-level thinking and encourage collaborative learning.

Current Technologies Used in Schools

Whatever learning theory a teacher may embrace, many technologies exist in schools to enhance instruction and to support student learning. While teachers vary greatly in their use of these technologies, teachers select media they believe will promote their instructional goals. Following are a few examples of computers being used to support four goals: building student capacity for research, making student inquiry more realistic, enabling students to present information in appealing forms, and offering students access to learning resources within and beyond the school.

Student research. Students once relied upon local and school libraries and their printed reference materials to research topics. Now, however, computer technologies provide access to digital versions of these references–and to libraries worldwide. Encyclopedias on CD-ROMs provide information, digital images, video, and audio, and also provide links to websites where students access tools such as live web cameras and global positioning satellites. Dictionaries and thesauruses are built into word processors. Through the Internet students can gain access to a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, including government documents, photographs, and diaries.

Student inquiry. Educational reformers believe education needs to be real and authentic for students. Technology can engage students in real-world activities. In the sciences, electronic probes allow science students to collect precise weather or chemical reaction data and digitally trace trends and answer hypotheses. Graphing calculators, spreadsheets, and graphing software provide mathematics students with the ability to visualize difficult mathematical concepts. In the social sciences, electronic communication tools (e.g. Internet conferencing, e-mail, electronic discussion groups) allow students to communicate with their peers from many parts of the world. In the language arts, students use handheld computers and wireless networks to create joint writing exercises and read electronic books that allow them to explore related topics. Concept-mapping software provides all students with the opportunity to build the framework for a story or report and to map out linkages among complex characters, such as those in a play by Shakespeare. In the arts, students can explore images of original artwork through the Internet; with appropriate software they can create original digital artwork or musical compositions. Physical education students can use electronic probes to learn about the relationship between the impact of physical movement and physiological changes.

Authentic student inquiry extends beyond data collection. It also implies the opportunity for students to investigate questions or issues that concern them. Communications technology allows students to contact experts such as scientists, book authors, and political leaders. Electronic communication tools support interactions and increase the probability of prompt responses. Students who want to learn more about a current event, such as an experiment on an international space station, scientific endeavors in the Antarctic, an international meeting of environmentalists, or a musher during the Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska, can use the Internet to investigate the topic, participate in a virtual field trip to the event, and watch the event as it unfolds through a web camera. In this manner, instructional technology assists students who wish to investigate their own questions and concerns.

Constructing new knowledge. James Pellegrino and Janice Altman (1997) believe the penultimate use of technology occurs when students use technology to move from being knowledge consumers to being knowledge producers. Results of original student inquiry usually take the form of printed reports or oral presentations. With advanced technologies, students can present their original data or newly interpreted data by integrating digital video, audio, and text into word-processed documents, multimedia presentations, videos, or web-based documents. Local, state, national, and international media fairs provide opportunities for students to demonstrate the new knowledge representations that students are capable of creating when given the opportunity. Media fairs showcase photographs, original digital images, overheads, videos, and interactive multimedia projects from students of all ages.

In the past, award-winning projects have included a video created by fourth graders that demonstrates their feelings regarding acceptance, diversity, and compassion; an interactive, multimedia presentation by second graders about the water cycle; and an interactive multimedia project by a high school student depicting the history of war experienced by one family. Each of these projects illustrates student-generated knowledge that could have been demonstrated through a traditional paper or research report. However, the instructional technology tools provided students with a way to express their knowledge in a more interesting manner.

Access to learning resources. Some schools lack the resources to provide all of the courses that students may need or want. Advanced placement and foreign language courses can be particularly expensive for a school system to offer when there is not a high level of student demand. A variety of technologies (e.g. interactive television, Internet videoconferencing) provide students the opportunity to participate in a class that is located in a different school, in a different town, and even in a different state or country. Instructional technologies can also serve the instructional needs of students who may be unable to attend classes in the school building. Students who are homebound, home schooled, or who may be forced to drop out of school can take advantage of course-work offered over the Internet. Virtual high schools, online college credit courses, and for-profit companies all make courses available to students through the Internet. Through an online program, students can obtain their high school diplomas or GED without attending a particular school.

Instructional technologies also provide some students important access to traditional classroom instruction. Students who have physical or learning disabilities can use a variety of assistive technologies in order to be an active member of a mainstreamed class. Braille writers and screen readers allow students with sight limitations to use a computer for work and communication. Various switches allow students with limited mobility to use a computer to speak for them and complete assignments. Switches, similar to a computer mouse, manipulate the computer through a touch pad, by head or eye movement, or even by breath. Handheld computing devices and specialized software allow students with learning disabilities to function in traditional classrooms by helping them organize thoughts, structure writing, and manage time. Instructional technology is also used to provide alternative forms of assessment for disabled students, including digital portfolios that electronically capture the accomplishments of students who are not able to complete traditional assessments.

Approaches to Computer Use in Schools

The function of computers in schools differs from that of other educational technologies. In the case of films, radio, instructional television, overhead projectors, and other instructional media, educational technology is used to support and enhance the teacher's role as instructor. Teacher support has also been one of the justifications for the introduction of computers in schools, but it has not been the only, nor the most important, justification. Computers are also promoted as an important part of the school curriculum. Learning about computers and acquiring computer skills have been accepted by educators and the lay public as a necessary curricular requirement because they give students tools needed to function effectively in modern American society. The role and function of computers in schools can be classified according to three categories: (1) computer literacy, (2) computers as tools, and (3) computers as a catalyst for school transformation.

Computer literacy. Beginning in the 1980s it was assumed that all children should become computer literate. While the meaning of the term computer literacy has changed over time, all children are expected to graduate with knowledge about the role of computers in society and essential skills in their operation. Educators continue to debate what skills are essential and when and how they are best learned, but there is little controversy about whether students should be competent in the use of computers. No such discussion surrounds the school use of film, radio, and instructional television.

Computers as tools. With the continuing increase in computer power and the decline in cost, schools have steadily increased the numbers of computers in schools and their use by students. Rather than place computers in specialized laboratories where students have access to them for only a limited period each week, computers have increasingly been placed in libraries and in classrooms. Beginning in the 1990s the goal became to make computers ubiquitous and to integrate them across the curriculum. Computers had become something more that a curriculum topic; they had become a tool that students needed in order to perform their work. Students were expected to use the Internet to gather information and to use word processing and multimedia software to produce their reports. While other instructional media were seen as tools for teachers, computers are accepted as tools for both teachers and students.

Computers as a catalyst for school reform. Throughout the twentieth century, technology zealots have heralded one technology or another as having the capacity to transform schools, but such transformations have not occurred. Film, radio, television, and other instructional media have enriched the classroom resources available to teachers. However, rather than challenging traditional classroom practices, they were used to maintain traditional practices. The culture of schooling, with teachers in charge of instruction before a class of students, has remained relatively constant. Some proponents believe that computers have the power to transform schools because they empower learners in ways that previous technologies were unable to, because they challenge the authority of teachers to be the sole source of information, and because they encourage an active, rather than a passive, learner. Computers may eventually provide the catalyst that will result in school transformation.

Current Issues Relating to the Use of Educational Technology

The effective use of technology in schools involves more than the purchase of educational technologies and their integration into the curriculum. The existence of technology within a school can create special concerns–particularly regarding legal issues, ethical issues, media literacy, and funding–that must be addressed.

Legal issues. Software piracy (the installation of nonlicensed software) is an important legal concern. When software is purchased, generally the buyer obtains one license, which allows that software to be installed on only one computer. Schools may purchase site licenses that permit the software to be installed on multiple computer stations. While the practice of loading software without licenses onto multiple computers (piracy) may seem benign to school officials, it is a form of theft that results in billions of dollars in lost revenue to vendors, and it can result in fines to school corporations.

Technology also raises important legal issues regarding copyright and privacy. Technology allows for easy duplication of many types of media. With a videocassette recorder, a teacher can record a television program for reuse in the classroom. Artwork, photos, and articles can be scanned and reproduced digitally. The Internet provides easy access to digital images, movies, music, and written works from all over the world; these can be downloaded and used in multiple formats, raising not only questions about copyright, but also plagiarism.

When a student or a teacher uses a piece of media that is not in the public domain (copyright-free), they must be certain that they have not violated the doctrine of Fair Use. Fair Use (Section 107 of the 1976 Copyright Act) considers the purpose of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount used in comparison to the entire piece, and the impact of classroom use on the work's commercial value. Therefore, while showing videotape in a classroom to illustrate a point of history may be permissible, the downloading of images from the Internet into a calendar for the student council to sell is probably not.

The right to privacy and free speech is considered an essential American ideal. However, with computer technologies and the Internet, there is little actual privacy. All electronic communications (e-mail, web forums, etc.) pass through multiple computer sites before arriving at a destination. During that process, information is saved that can be read by anyone who has the knowledge to do so. In order to ensure the safety and security of everyone, students and teachers need to be informed that electronic communications from their school are not private and can be accessed. In 2000 Congress passed the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and the Neighborhood Children's Internet Protection Act (NCIPA), which require all schools and libraries that receive federal technology funds to have an Internet safety policy to protect children from visual depictions that are obscene, contain child pornography, or are otherwise harmful to children. An adequate technology protection measure can be an Internet block or filtering software that prevents the objectionable material from being displayed. However, blocking software and other practices to eliminate access to websites raises issues relating to rights of free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The conflict about free speech, privacy, and the obligation of schools to protect children make this issue quite controversial within some school systems.

Ethical issues. Ethical issues often relate to whether schools are providing students with equal access to technology. Gender-equity issues arise when girls are treated differently than boys in terms of the use of, and encouragement to use, technology. Girls tend to enroll in fewer computer classes, spend fewer hours on the computer either at home or at school, and are less likely to choose majors in computer-related fields than do boys. For example, in 2000 only 15 percent of the students who took the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam were girls. There are a number of factors that contribute to this gender difference, including the limited number of female role models in computer-related fields, adults who especially encourage boys to use the computer and computer games, and software that tends to targets boys' interests more than that of girls.

The digital divide is the division that exists between the information rich and the information poor. Advanced technologies, and the Internet in particular, provide easy access to vast amounts of information. Digital inequities can exist along racial, economic, academic achievement (low-achieving versus high-achieving classes), and geographic (rural, urban, and suburban) lines. A student in a rural school that lacks fast Internet connections does not have the same access to information as a student near a major city.

The digital divide also extends beyond the school. More economically advantaged children usually have access to information sources through Internet connections and microcomputers at home. Those who are more disadvantaged must rely upon limited school and public library resources. Minority students may be discouraged from accessing online content because of an absence of exposure to computers in general or because of a lack of racially and ethnically diverse information on the Internet. Finally, computers are often used as a reward for high achieving students, leaving out those students with poorer academic records, while some students are simply not encouraged to use technology to fuel their interest in academics.

Media literacy. Media literacy is the ability to access, evaluate, and produce information. Teachers themselves not only need to be media literate, but they must also ensure that their students are able to access the information they need, are capable of determining the relative merits of the information obtained, and are able to represent the information they have gathered in new ways using the different forms of media available to them (print, video, audio, digital). The concept of media literacy is not unique to computer technology. For decades, child advocates have expressed concern about the impact of movies and television on children and about whether children can distinguish the illusion presented to them from what is real. Media literacy has become an even greater teaching responsibility for educators, as the Internet provides access to vast quantities of information, much of which is inaccurate or represents biased views.

Adequate funding. The Office of Technology Assessment described four barriers to technology integration in instruction: inadequate teacher training, a lack of vision of technology's potential, a lack of time to experiment, and inadequate technical support. Each of these obstacles stems in part from weak or inconsistent financial support for technology. Much of the money used to support technology in schools has been provided through special governmental appropriations or by private funds. Technology funds have rarely become a part of the regular, operating budget of school systems. For technology to achieve its potential, funds are needed to provide adequate training for teachers, to keep equipment repaired and up-to-date, and to provide the time necessary for teachers and administrators to plan ways to use technology effectively. Only then will the schools be able to experience the advantages afforded by technology.


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