14 minute read

Technology in Education

School, Higher EducationCURRENT TRENDS

Susan M. Williams

Howard D. Mehlinger
Susan M. Powers

Roger G. Baldwin


Computers and Internet connections are becoming widely available in schools and classrooms. In 1999, 99 percent of teachers in the United States had access to a computer in their schools, and 84 percent had one or more computers in their classrooms. At the same time, Internet connections were also widespread, with 95 percent of schools and 63 percent of classrooms having access. Worldwide, many countries are making the creation and diffusion of information and communications technology (ICT) an important priority. Even in developing countries, usage is increasing dramatically. As ICT becomes more widely available, teachers and policymakers are turning their attention to the difficult task of understanding how best to integrate this technology into learning environments.

ICT can be used in many different ways, and how it is integrated into educational settings depends largely on teachers' instructional goals and strategies. Changes in the goals of education during the latter part of the twentieth century, coupled with increases in the amount and type of available technology, has created changes in teachers' use of technology. In the 1970s and early 1980s the primary goal of instruction was to have students memorize important information and procedures. Instruction was teacher-led and dominated by lectures, followed by practice using worksheets and short-answer tests. Students worked alone to complete assignments, and when help was needed they consulted parents, teachers, or textbooks for assistance. If computers were available in classrooms during this time period, their use mirrored this dominant mode of instruction; that is, they were primarily used to present passages of text and test students' comprehension and memory for information contained in the passages.

Research on learning has demonstrated the shortcomings of this type of instruction. Students often forget memorized information, or they fail to apply it in situations where it would be useful. They need help in connecting new information to what they already know and in extending and applying their knowledge to new problems. Researchers in the early twenty-first century believe that students learn best when they work to combine their own past experience with new information in order to solve problems that are personally meaningful to them.

In addition to changes in the understanding of how students learn, there have been substantial changes in what educators and policymakers believe students should know how to do. The exponential growth in information since 1950 has shifted the purpose of education. Information has become abundant and easily accessible. Rather than reading the unified perspective typically presented by a textbook, students have access to many different points of view. Instead of memorizing, students now need assistance in learning how to find and select relevant information for problems they need to solve. They need to learn how to collaborate with others as they solve these problems and communicate their solutions to their teachers and to the world beyond their classroom.

Along with changes in what students should know and an increased understanding of how they learn, new approaches to instruction are being advocated. Instead of listening to lectures and memorizing facts and procedures, educational reforms suggest that students learn best in the context of solving complex, realistic problems. Traditional computer-assisted instruction (CAI) and many integrated learning systems (ILSs) deliver precisely this form of instruction in a range of subject-matter areas. Typically computers dedicated to ILSs are clustered in computer laboratory settings, rather than being located in individual teacher's classrooms. Students who acquire new information as they solve problems are able to understand its usefulness, remember it, and use it to solve problems in the future. Solving interesting problems is more likely to stimulate a student's interest than memorizing isolated facts, and this interest has been shown to positively affect learning. Students solving real problems view their efforts as real work and have a sense of purpose and value.

Organizing instruction around problem solving makes new demands on teachers, including locating meaningful problems and projects and providing students with the resources and guidance for solving them. Teachers are finding that ICT can help them meet these demands, and they are integrating it into their instruction in many new and exciting ways.

Technology and New Forms of Instruction

Using technology to find and represent educational problems. One major challenge for teachers interested in problem-based learning is locating problems that are appropriate for their students and for the topics that they need to learn. Problems must be complex enough to support sustained exploration and encourage collaboration, and they should have multiple interrelated parts to develop students' ability to break problems down and organize their solutions. Representing and communicating such complex problem situations is an important function of technology. Unlike problems that occur in the real world, technology can incorporate graphics, video, animation, and other tools to create problems that can be explored repeatedly. Multimedia representations are easier to understand than problems presented as text. One example of using technology to present problems is the mathematical problem-solving series, The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury. Each problem in the Jasper series is presented as a video story that ends when the main character experiences a problem that can be solved using math. Using technology that can be easily searched and paused for inspection, students search the video looking for clues to help them understand and solve the problem. In one episode, students explore a variety of transportation methods and routes to rescue a wounded bald eagle. They compare their solution plans and develop ways to determine which plan is best.

Microworlds are another type of technology used to present problems. One example is Thinkertools, a computer-based learning environment that simulates aspects of Newtonian physics. Using the Thinkertools microworld, students can manipulate various aspects of the environment, observe the results, and attempt to discover the rules that govern this simulation.

Internet and videoconferencing technology allow students to participate in projects sponsored by researchers around the world. In the Jason Project, satellite and Internet technology bring classroom students into direct real-time contact with leading scientists, conducting scientific research expeditions around the globe. Each year the project explores a different location in order to help students understand the earth's biological and geological development. Some of the past expeditions have studied deep-sea archaeology, compared shallow and deep ocean habitats, studied plate tectonics and volcanoes, and compared conditions experienced in space and under the oceans. In addition to observing research activities, students are able to ask questions and get immediate answers from the scientists.

Whatever type of technology is used, an important goal is to create problem representations that are interactive and under the learner's control. The student creates a plan for investigating the problem, and the technology creates an environment that makes flexible exploration possible.

Using technology to find educational resources. A second function of technology in problem-based learning environments is locating information needed to solve problems or do other kinds of research. In the past, teachers attempting a problem-based curriculum felt the need to limit problems to those for which they had expertise or the local library had resources. Now the World Wide Web brings a seemingly endless amount of information on almost any subject, and it is possible for students to choose topics based on personal interest rather than availability of resources.

Internet research projects are gaining rapidly in popularity. In the spring of 1998, 30 percent of teachers surveyed (and 70% of those with high-speed Internet connections) reported they had assigned Internet research tasks for their students during the school year. Use of the Internet to gather information for solving problems sometimes resembles a modern version of library research, in which students gather and synthesize information from published reports. Despite the fact that the task seems traditional, the characteristics of this new medium require special skills for students. The sheer volume of information allows students to study almost any topic, but also makes it more difficult to locate precisely the right information from among the thousands, or even millions, of sites that might be located. In addition, the ease of publishing and accessing materials on the Internet increases the likelihood that students will encounter inaccurate or biased information. As a result, students must learn new strategies for conducting searches and evaluating the information that they retrieve.

In addition to its function as a source of information, the Internet's capability for communication and interaction provides many innovative educational opportunities. Many times students are unable to find or understand the available resources. In such cases, teachers are also turning to ICT to link their students with mentors and subject-matter experts. In one such project, fourth-and fifth-grade students in McAllen, Texas, compared the experiences of their families on the Texas La Frontera to colonial life in the original thirteen U.S. colonies, with the help of the director of a historic preservation center and museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Students carrying out scientific investigations can use the Internet to make observations and collect data. For example, fourth and fifth graders in California collected insects and sent them to San Diego State University. Using two-way audio and video connecting the school and the university, scientists guided the students in using an electron microscope to examine their specimens. Technology has made it possible to collect data from places students could never visit. In recent projects, high school students explored the floor of the Monterey bay by studying video from remotely operated robots, and middle school students were given time to use the Hubble telescope.

Students also use technology to collect data in their schools and communities. For example, using handheld computers outfitted with various types of probes, students can monitor the water quality at various locations in nearby streams or lakes. By transmitting their individual readings to a laptop computer in a field laboratory they can quickly graph their data and visually compare readings.

Using technology to summarize and present findings. In the past, students memorized and used formulas and models created by others to solve problems. Students often used these formulas, especially in the early stages of learning, with little understanding. In the early twenty-first century computer tools provide the opportunity for students to construct and test their own models using tools such as spreadsheets or concept maps. This type of instruction deepens students' understanding of abstract concepts and allows these concepts to be taught at an earlier age.

Once students have summarized their data and other information, they typically communicate their findings to others. In the past, this meant writing a report to be read by the teacher. Writing reports is still the most widespread use of ICT, with 61 percent of U.S. teachers assigning students word processing tasks. In addition to text, students also use computer-created graphics, video, and animations to communicate their ideas.

The teacher is not the only audience for students' presentations. Students are frequently expected to present their work and receive feedback from their peers and the world outside their classroom. Whether they are using presentation software to accompany a face-to-face presentation or developing materials to put on the Web, the trend is for students to be able to communicate and defend their work to a broad audience. This increases students' perception that problem-based learning is real work for real audiences.

Using technology for collaboration and distance education. There are many opportunities for individual students to use technology to enhance their learning. These include online courses that provide students in remote locations with opportunities for customized curriculum and advanced placement courses. These courses are conducted entirely online and offer asynchronous interaction among faculty and students. Because they allow students to participate anytime and from anywhere, online courses are becoming increasingly popular among postsecondary students whose job and personal commitments do not allow them to meet a regular class schedule.

Opportunities for interaction with peers from other countries can also contribute to knowledge and understanding of other cultures. ICT makes this type of communication possible for anyone with Internet access. For example, the KIDLINK project encourages students up to age fifteen to use the Internet to build a global network of friends. KIDLINK participants discuss issues ranging from how to make and keep friends to war and peace.

Teachers' Integration of Technology in Instruction

Although ICT is creating opportunities for fundamental changes in the way teachers teach and the way students learn, a recent survey indicated that only one-third of teachers feel prepared to use it effectively. This includes being able to use word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and Internet browsing software. Such tools help teachers increase their productivity by preparing reports or lesson plans, taking notes, and communicating with colleagues and parents. These basic skills are necessary, but not sufficient, for creating changes in instruction. Changes require that teachers are familiar with ICT tools and materials in the subjects they teach. They must also be able to incorporate these resources into classroom activities that accomplish important learning goals.

Research has shown that learning to incorporate technology into instruction occurs over time and follows a pattern. Initially, teachers incorporate new technologies into the things that they traditionally do. Then, after observing changes in their students–including improvements in behavior, absenteeism, collaboration, and independent learning–teachers gradually begin to experiment and use technology to teach in new ways. It often takes four years or more from initial attempts until changes in student learning can be observed.

Research indicates that change at all levels will be necessary to bring about widespread and effective use of technology. Successful programs must devote a substantial portion of their budget to extensive professional development and technical support; they must encourage a culture of collaboration in which teachers work together to explore more effective uses of technology; and they must modify their assessment systems to measure changes, such as deeper understanding and improved problem solving, that result from effective technology use.

Future Trends

Advances in hardware and software have the potential to bring about fundamental changes in how technology is integrated and even in education itself. Computers formerly tethered to desktops by cables are being rapidly replaced by wireless laptop and palmtop models that free students to move about the school; collect, share, and graph data on field trips; and communicate their whereabouts and progress to teachers and parents.

Monitoring students' independent learning in these flexible environments will be supported by sophisticated new assessment technologies that will help teachers collect and analyze student data and make instructional decisions. These tools will continually assess students' work and provide feedback to them and their teachers. Such assessment has the potential to make time-consuming standardized testing unnecessary and to personalize the curriculum for every student. Ubiquitous, well-integrated technology tools will bring educators closer to redefining the educational enterprise and providing customized, just-in-time solutions for the learning needs of adults and children.


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