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Motivations for Student Computer Use That Lead to Student Engagement

Motivations for Student Computer Use That Lead to Student Engagement

In the 1980's, Stanford professor Mark Lepper pointed to the likely motivational impact of certain uses of computers as classroom learning tools. His examination of the theoretical literature on intrinsic motivation suggested several ways that computer-based learning activities might lead to increased student engagement on academic tasks. First, to the extent that computer activities provide intellectual challenge, they motivate students to seek a solution to a problem. Second, computer activities that stimulate human curiosity or a desire to resolve an incongruity generate similar effort. And third, computer work that provides a sense of independent control and mastery over an environment also provokes sustained and intense effort. Lepper further raised the proposition that active, self-directed, inductive, and exploratory computer activities might result in increased student learning, not just for the best students, but for a broad range of students, although he also cited cautionary warnings in the literature about less-than-satisfactory outcomes for less motivated students or less capable pupils.

Qualitative research on computer-rich environments have generally supported the idea that project-based work with computers is highly engaging for students. Sandholtz and her associates, studying a rich supply of reflective audiotape journals and written reports of teacher-participants in the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) program (1985-1991), found broad evidence of increased student engagement in academic work. They found that students often went beyond the requirements of their assignments and explored new computer applications and developed application-related skills on their own initiative. They found that students came in before school and stayed after school to work on the class' computers—and the researchers stressed that these were "quite ordinary" students, not those who were otherwise academic stars. Anecdotes included a comment about a student staying after class to discuss a programming language: "Do you know how unusual it is for a student to stay after class to discuss content?"

However, the ACOT researchers found that increased student engagement occurred in certain settings:

· Where computers were used as only one of a set of tools rather than as the central learning modality.

· Where computer use was not a separate curricular focus ("computer time") but was a vehicle for accomplishing substantive curricular objectives.

· Where teachers emphasized "tool" applications like desktop publishing and hypermedia authoring that allowed for experimentation and exploration, rather than settings where drill-and-practice and similar learning games dominated computer use.

· Where teachers provided for individualized computer experience that was responsive to individual student interest and ability.

· Where teachers were more willing to give responsibilities to students for determining specific learning tasks and how to accomplish them.

· Where teachers were more willing to break down disciplinary and unit boundaries to permit content to be investigated across those boundaries

One study found that "the most common—in fact, nearly universal—teacher-reported effect on students was an increase in motivation. In some cases, teachers felt the improvement was in terms of students' effort at learning the specific subject-matter of the class. In other cases, the perceived improvement in motivation was more general—a "sense of accomplishment" gained from working with computers.

Other studies have also found improved motivation on the part of students using computers for product-oriented projects such as designing informative multimedia or hypermedia presentations. Lehrer, for example, found students volunteering to work on a hypermedia authoring activity during their study hall, after school, and on both Saturday and Sunday (the latter in order to meet a competition deadline).

Although case studies and curriculum-development projects such as these often report motivation outcomes for students, there is little descriptive evidence about the relationship between various patterns of computer use and student motivational outcomes. In particular, it would be helpful to know:

· How broadly teachers experience various manifestations of increased student motivation or engagement in academic work?

· Are those manifestations primarily confined to certain computer activities—for example, project work, production of multimedia products, "authentic" work that results in a communication to an involved audience, or other rather specialized context?

· Are teachers who approach the use of computers in terms of certain pedagogical motivations (e.g., teaching objectives of a more "constructivist" sort) more likely to accomplish increased student engagement, net of the types of students they teach or the subject-matter they teach?

Furthermore, there are a number of different ways in which student engagement and effort in academic work might be measured. Typically, a researcher asks teachers about their perceptions of student interest under conditions of active computer use compared with their experience in teaching similar students without that extent or type of computer work. But the anecdotal evidence provides an other aspect - that students were engaging in a much higher level of effort outside of class time in order to accomplish work for an academic class. And in these examples the work being done involved using computers and computer software in order to accomplish class assignments or objectives.

Based on the types of computer work that may be intrinsically motivating to a broad cross-section of adolescent and pre-adolescent students—activities integrated with substantive content objectives, work related to complex projects, "authentic" work done for an audience, and design and construction of multimedia and hypermedia information products—it is postulated that teachers whose students engage in such computer activities are more likely than other teachers to report students being engaged in doing additional computer work for their class outside of class time. Furthermore, teachers whose objectives for having students use computers are consistent with a constructivist view of learning (rather than acquiring a pre-selected and transmitted array of facts and skills) would be more likely to be successful at engaging students in doing computer work for their class outside of class time.

Pedagogical Motivation

Teachers' objectives for their students' computer use represent their pedagogical motivations— what they hope students will accomplish through the computer activities which they do for their class. One study gave teachers a list of 10 objectives and asked them to select the three that were most important to them in their use of computers by students.

By far the highest level of at-school non-class-time computer work was found for teachers who value computers for helping students to present information to an audience.

Seeing computers as valuable for helping students improve their written expression was the second pedagogical motivation associated with greater at-school, out-of-class use of computers for class work. Writing objectives were associated even more strongly with at-home computer use by students. Two other objectives for students' computer use—communicating with other people and finding out about ideas and information—were associated with greater at-home use for class work, but not with use at other times of the school day.

Frequent Users of Different Types of Software

Teachers’ objectives tend to be accomplished by having students use specific types of software. Thus, it is not surprising that teachers who report their classes frequently using certain types of software are the same teachers who report the highest levels of participation in computer work being done outside of class time. The students who are most likely to be doing computer-based classwork at school but outside of class time are those who have had frequent exposure to one of six types of software during class: electronic mail, presentation software such as Powerpoint, multimedia authoring programs such as Hyperstudio, graphics-oriented printing programs, World Wide Web browsers, and CD-ROM reference software.

However, it is also true that with the exception of teachers whose students used skill-based games, just about any frequent use of computers during class is associated with greater use of computers outside of class time. Teachers whose students use computers only occasionally are less likely to initiate computer-based activities for class at other times of the school day.

Outside of school, the students who are most apt to use computers to do school work are those whose teachers gave them frequent opportunities to work with presentation software, email, multimedia authoring programs and word processing. The strong relationship to classroom word processing experience is doubtlessly due to the ease with which that type of software carries over to non-supervised computer time. The fact that students experiencing complex multimedia authoring software in class are among the most likely out-of-school users of computers (for schoolwork) suggests that such in-class experiences develop a wide range of computer skills that can be exploited in a relatively open and yet unsupported environment outside the school.

To more accurately interpret these associations between student out-of-class computer use and teacher pedagogical motivations and software assignment practices, it is important to consider other factors that might affect both student out-of-class computer use and teacher approaches to instruction. We examine three of these: subject-matter responsibilities, student ability level, and schoolwide socio-economic-status (SES).

Teacher Subject-Matter Responsibility

In terms of subject-matter, two-fifths of all science teachers who assigned computer work during class reported that most or all students did computer work at school outside of class time. Teachers of computer classes and social studies teachers also had higher-than-average rates of reporting before- and after-school computer use. On the other hand, only 10% of computer-assigning math teachers did. Besides math teachers, three other groups of teachers reported limited out-of-class-time computer work by students—vocational education teachers, business education teachers, and elementary teachers of self-contained classes.

With respect to students using computers to do work for the class at home, more computer-assigning English teachers reported students doing this than any other group of teachers. That is probably due to the wide accessibility of word processing software on home computers. Science and foreign language teachers were also above-average in this regard, also suggesting that word processing is the dominant class-related use of computers at students’ homes.

Student Characteristics

Both student ability and family socio-economic status (SES) are likely to be related to out-of-class computer use for class work. Higher-achieving students and students from better off families are much more likely to have a computer at home. Both variables also appear to affect a student's motivation to use computers at school during their free time.

With respect to student ability, classes of the highest-ability students were about three times as likely as classes of the lowest-ability students to involve widespread use of computers out-of-class, both at home and at school. The differences in computer use at home were somewhat larger than the differences in at-school out-of-class use, probably because of the association between class ability-levels and school SES. Classes of intermediate ability groups are appropriately mid-way between the high- and low-ability classes in terms of out-of-class use of computers for class work although the pattern is quite different for school use than for home use. For home use, the biggest differences are between the upper two quartiles in student ability and the lower two quartiles. For school use, only the top quartile of classes report substantially higher free-time computer use than the others.

Why These Effects Occur

It may not be experience with presentation software in particular that accounts for the relationship between this objective and out-of-class use of computers but, instead, the kinds of assignments that a teacher gives which has that result. The fact that the effect is observed more for in-school than out-of-school use is likely to be due to the group nature of many student presentations and the opportunity for student groups to gather to prepare their presentations while everyone is present at school.

Two other teacher objectives associated with out-of-class computer use—acquiring information and communicating electronically—have stronger associations for at-home use than at-school use. That result is probably due to the relatively limited access to the Internet at school, as opposed to home. Of course, teachers' knowledge of who has home access no doubt influences the expectations and objectives for computer use that guide teachers' practices to begin with. School access to a sufficient number of Internet connections remains a problem for orchestrating Web-related and electronic mail activities at school sites.

Finally, the ubiquity of word processing software on both school and home computers means that teachers who provide students with sufficient opportunities during class to become competent users of that software are more likely than other teachers to give students the confidence they need to exploit word processing software on their family's home computer.

What, then, is the importance of knowing that certain approaches to computer use have these effects on students? Policymakers and the public continue to ask whether and under what conditions computers make a difference in student achievement. However, direct measures of student achievement that can be used to answer that question are hardly up to the task. Nearly all instruments used in standardized testing situations to compare students having various levels and types of computer experience are composed of paper-and-pencil tasks that exclude the very same computer resources and tools by which students with computing expertise might be able to demonstrate their greater competencies to do academic work. Recent evidence gathered about the under-performance of word-processing-capable students on paper-and-pencil tests of writing quality is one manifestation of that fact. By measuring only a limited range of tasks and by employing a minimum-resource "standardized" testing environment, the tests to which policymakers and the public pay attention deny computer-capable students the ability to demonstrate important competencies they may have acquired.

In order to more directly understand the consequences of high intensity computer experiences or computer-based instruction motivated by different pedagogical objectives, we need a new set of assessment instruments. Those assessment instruments need to be able to be used to compare students with and without different types of computer experiences, but they need to be sensitive to the particular competencies that students using computers are likely to gain. However, until we have more appropriate measures of student outcomes, we have to use less direct approaches—using measures that are putatively consequential for student competency, such as their initiative in using computers to do academic work on their own time.

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