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Using Technology to Improve Student Achievement

Using Technology to Improve Student Achievement

Since educators first began to use computers in the classroom, researchers have tried to evaluate whether the use of educational technology has a significant and reliable impact on student achievement. Searching for an answer, researchers have realized that technology cannot be treated as a single independent variable, and that student achievement is gauged not only by how well students perform on standardized tests but also by students' ability to use higher-order thinking skills (such as thinking critically, analyzing, making inferences, and solving problems). Judging the impact of any particular technology requires an understanding of how it is used in the classroom and what learning goals are held by the educators involved, knowledge about the type of assessments that are used to evaluate improvements in student achievement, and an awareness of the complex nature of change in the school environment.

Evidence indicates that when used effectively, "technology applications can support higher-order thinking by engaging students in authentic, complex tasks within collaborative learning contexts". When educators use the accumulating knowledge regarding the circumstances under which technology supports the broad definition of student achievement, they will be able to make informed choices about what technologies will best meet the particular needs of specific schools or districts. They also will be able to ensure that teachers, parents, students, and community members understand what role technology is playing in a school or district and how its impact is being evaluated. Finally, they will be able to justify the investments being made in technology.

Many innovations in education have come and gone without fulfilling the promised impact on student learning. How can schools ensure that the promise that technology holds for student achievement is realized? What factors need to be in place to support the effective use of technology? What resources can school districts use to help them plan for technology that will have a positive impact on student achievement, and how can they justify that investment?

To answer these questions, educators need to look at the research on technology and student achievement and the contextual factors that affect learning goals. Rapid advances in multimedia and telecommunications technologies, combined with a growing consensus among educators regarding the need for developing educational standards for student achievement, have led to a new set of expectations for how educational technology can support meaningful, engaged learning for students. Instead of focusing merely on isolated, skills-based uses of technology (such as integrated learning systems), educational technologists are promoting the use of various technologies (ranging from word processors to modeling software to Internet-based research) that are integrated across the curriculum.

Researchers are now beginning to meet the more complicated research task of investigating the impact of technology use in meeting these new expectations for what students should learn. They are examining students' ability to understand complex phenomena, analyze and synthesize multiple sources of information, and build representations of their own knowledge. This model of integrated technology-supported learning emphasizes the ability to access, interpret, and synthesize information instead of rote memorization and the acquisition of isolated skills.

Central to this change in expectations for student learning has been an acknowledgment of the complexity of three key factors that must be considered in evaluating the impact of technology on student achievement:

· The term technology refers not to simply one type of technology but to a wide range of electronic materials and methods for learning. It can apply to the use of computers in education, but it also can apply to video production and distance learning classes. Each type of technology has different uses and fulfills different learning goals.

· Assessing the effect of technology on student achievement is a complex process.

· Changes in the classroom correlate with changes in other educational factors as well.

Different Types of Technology

In addressing the first factor, educators become aware that many different types of technology can be used to support and enhance learning. Various technologies deliver different kinds of content and serve different purposes in the classroom. For example, word processing and e-mail promote communication skills; database and spreadsheet programs promote organizational skills; modeling software promotes the understanding of science and math concepts. It is important to consider how these electronic technologies differ and what characteristics make them important as vehicles for education (Becker, 1994). Technologies available in classrooms today range from simple tool-based applications (such as word processors) to online repositories of scientific data and primary historical documents, to closed-circuit television channels and two-way distance learning classrooms. Each one is likely to play a different role in students' learning. Rather than trying to describe the impact of all technologies as if they were the same, researchers need to think about what kind of technologies are being used in the classroom and for what purposes.

Some researchers define technology use on the basis of its application--how it is used for learning:

· Technology can be used as a tutor (examples are drill-and-practice software, tutoring systems, instructional television, computer-assisted instruction, and intelligent computer-assisted instruction);

· a means to explore (examples are CD-ROM encyclopedias, simulations, hypermedia stacks, network search tools, and microcomputer-based laboratories);

· a tool to create, compose, store, and analyze data (examples are word processing and spreadsheet software, database management programs, graphic software, desktop publishing systems, hypermedia, network search tools, and videotape recording and editing equipment); and

· a means to communicate with others (examples are e-mail, interactive distance learning through satellite systems, computer and modem, and cable links).

Assessment of Student Achievement

The second consideration is that assessing the effect of technology on student achievement is a complex issue. Most research on technology and student achievement has used traditional standardized assessments to measure changes in student performance. This research often has focused on students' knowledge of isolated facts but has paid little attention to how well students think. Much has been learned in the last 15 years about new and meaningful ways to measure what students know and how well they know it. To measure the effect of specific technologies on student achievement, assessment methods and instruments should be appropriate to the learning outcomes promoted by those technologies. Newer standardized tests may be appropriate if they fit in with the school's learning goals and are designed to measure the effects of technology use. In many cases, however, alternative assessment may be more suitable for meaningful research about the relationship between technology and student achievement.

Complex Nature of Change

The third factor influencing the impact of technology on student achievement is that changes in classroom technologies correlate to changes in other educational factors as well. Originally the determination of student achievement was based on traditional methods of social scientific investigation: It asked whether there was a specific, causal relationship between one thing--technology--and another--student achievement. Because schools are complex social environments, however, it is impossible to change just one thing at a time. If a new technology is introduced into a classroom, other things also change. For example, teachers' perceptions of their students' capabilities can shift dramatically when technology is integrated into the classroom. Also, teachers frequently find themselves acting more as coaches and less as lecturers. Another example is that use of technology tends to foster collaboration among students, which in turn may have a positive effect on student achievement. Because the technology becomes part of a complex network of changes, its impact cannot be reduced to a simple cause-and-effect model that would provide a definitive answer to how it has improved student achievement.

These three factors suggest that the relationship between technology and student achievement is more complicated now than when computers first appeared in the classroom. Technology is changing rapidly and offers a huge array of opportunities and resources; student achievement and improvements in thinking skills are difficult to measure; and schools integrating technology are changing in a multitude of ways all at once. Nevertheless, specific studies on technology and student learning demonstrate that it is possible to do research that takes into account this range of factors and to demonstrate that use of technology, integrated into the classroom context, can have a positive impact on student achievement.

The findings have implications for every school using or planning to use technology. The research on successfully developing, evaluating, studying, and implementing a wide range of technology-based educational programs suggests that the value of technology for students will not be realized unless attention is paid to several important considerations that support the effective use of technology. These considerations are: specific educational goals and a vision of learning through technology, ongoing professional development, structural changes in the school day, a robust technical infrastructure and technical support, and ongoing evaluation.

Educational Goals and a Vision of Learning Through Technology

Before technology is purchased or teachers participate in their first professional development session, the educational goals for students should be determined. What do students need to learn, and how can technology promote those learning goals? To answer these questions, the school can convene a technology planning team comprising administrators, teachers, other instructional staff, technology coordinators, students, parents, and representatives of the community. This team first develops a clear set of goals, expectations, and criteria for student learning based on national and state standards, the student population, and community concerns. Next, it determines the types of technology that will best support efforts to meet those goals. The viewpoints of parents and community members are helpful in presenting a broader perspective of skills that students need to succeed after school. In fact, communitywide involvement in determining the school's technology goals benefits the entire educational process.

Rather than using technology for technology's sake, the planning team ensures that particular educational objectives are achieved more efficiently, in more depth, or with more flexibility through technology. The obligation is for educators, practitioners, and educational policymakers to think about what they are after. Only with clear goals can educators be intelligent about how much they want to spend for what purpose and under what conditions. If there is a clear understanding of the purpose of and type of technology used, evaluating the impact is easier and more valuable. Schools that successfully integrate technology show a clear and meaningful connection between technology and larger educational goals.

Next, the planning team develops a vision of how technology can improve teaching and learning. Team members come to consensus in answering the question How Will You Use Technology to Support Your Vision of Learning? Essential to this vision is an emphasis on meaningful, engaged learning with technology, in which students are actively involved in the learning process. Students take ownership of their learning, acting as explorers and producers; teachers function as facilitators and guides. Used effectively, technology can encourage collaborative learning, development of critical thinking skills, and problem solving. It can help learners explore the world beyond the classroom by providing access to vast resources and information, promoting scientific inquiry and discovery, and allowing students to communicate with experts. Technology used for authentic tasks can provide students with opportunities to interact with a wealth of resources, materials, and data sets, and to perform challenging tasks similar to those in careers and out-of-school activities.

The school's vision of learning through technology also emphasizes the importance of all students having equitable access and use of technology. Too often, students who most would benefit from effective technology use--females, special-needs students, minority students, disadvantaged students, students at risk of educational failure, rural and inner-city students--are consigned to less frequent access, older equipment, and simple software applications. All students need opportunities to use technology in meaningful, authentic tasks that develop higher-order thinking skills.

Professional Development

After the educational goals and vision of learning through technology have been determined, it is important to provide professional development to teachers to help them choose the most appropriate technologies and instructional strategies to meet these goals. Students cannot be expected to benefit from technology if their teachers are neither familiar nor comfortable with it. Teachers need to be supported in their efforts to use technology. The primary reason teachers do not use technology in their classrooms is a lack of experience with the technology. Teachers who had received professional development with computers were more likely to use computers in effective ways.

Ongoing professional development is necessary to help teachers learn not only how to use new technology but also how to provide meaningful instruction and activities using technology in the classroom. Teachers must be offered training in using computers, but their training must go beyond that to the instructional strategies needed to infuse technological skills into the learning process. In successful projects, teachers are provided with ongoing professional development on practical applications of technology.

Teachers cannot be expected to learn how to use educational technology in their teaching after a one-time workshop. Teachers need in-depth, sustained assistance not only in the use of the technology but in their efforts to integrate technology into the curriculum. Skills training becomes peripheral to alternative forms of ongoing support that addresses a range of issues, including teachers' changing practices and curricula, new technologies and other new resources, and changing assessment practices. This time spent ensuring that teachers are using technology to enrich their students' learning experiences is an important piece in determining the value of technology to their students. Teachers always have been the key to determining the impact of innovations and this situation also is true of technology.

Besides pedagogical support to help students use technology to reach learning goals, teachers also need time to become familiar with available products, software, and online resources. They also need time to discuss technology use with other teachers. Professional collaboration includes communicating with educators in similar situations and others who have experience with technology. This activity can be done in face-to-face meetings or by using technology such as e-mail or videoconferencing. The effects of introducing technology on teacher professionalization include increased collaboration among teachers within a school and increased interaction with external collaborators and resources.

Structural Changes in the School Day

It is important to build time into the daily schedule allowing teachers time to collaborate and to work with their students. Engaged learning through technology is best supported by changes in the structure of the school day, including longer class periods and more allowance for team teaching and interdisciplinary work. For example, when students are working on long-term research projects for which they are making use of online resources (such as artwork, scientific data sets, or historical documents), they may need more than a daily 30- or 40-minute period to find, explore, and synthesize these materials for their research. As schools continue to acquire more technology for student use and as teachers are able to find more ways to incorporate technology into their instruction, the problem will no longer be not enough computers but not enough time.

Technical Infrastructure and Support

Increased use of technology in the school requires a robust technical infrastructure and adequate technical support. If teachers are working with a technology infrastructure that realistically cannot support the work they are trying to do, they will become frustrated. Schools have a responsibility to create not only nominal access to computers and electronic networks but access that is robust enough to support the kinds of use that can make a real difference in the classroom. Teachers also must have access to on-site technical support personnel who are responsible for troubleshooting and assistance after the technology and lessons are in place.

Evaluation

Ongoing evaluation of technology applications and student achievement, based on the overall educational goals that were decided on, helps to ensure that the technology is appropriate, adaptable, and useful. Such evaluation also facilitates change if learning goals are not being met. Administrators can acknowledge and recognize incremental improvements in student outcomes as well as changes in teachers' curricula and practices. Gradual progress, rather than sudden transformation, is more likely to result in long-term change.

All of these issues are important in using technology to improve student achievement. Educational technology is not, and never will be, transformative on its own. But when decisions are made strategically with these factors in mind, technology can play a critical role in creating new circumstances and opportunities for learning that can be rich and exciting.

At its best, technology can facilitate deep exploration and integration of information, high-level thinking, and profound engagement by allowing students to design, explore, experiment, access information, and model complex phenomena.

These new circumstances and opportunities--not the technology on its own--can have a direct and meaningful impact on student achievement.

 
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