This article discusses the various ways computer technology can be used to improve how and what children learn in the classroom. Several examples of computer-based applications are highlighted to illustrate ways technology can enhance how children learn by supporting four fundamental characteristics of learning: (1) active engagement, (2) participation in groups, (3) frequent interaction and feedback, and (4) connections to real-world contexts. Additional examples illustrate ways technology can expand what children learn by helping them to understand core concepts in subjects like math, science, and literacy. Research indicates, however, that the use of technology as an effective learning tool is more likely to take place when embedded in a broader education reform movement that includes improvements in teacher training, curriculum, student assessment, and a school’s capacity for change.
A teacher from the late nineteenth century entering a typical classroom today would find most things quite familiar: chalk and talk, as well as desks and texts, predominate now as they did then. Yet this nineteenth-century teacher would be shocked by the demands of today’s curricula. For example, just a century ago, little more was expected of high school students than to recite famous texts, recount simple scientific facts, and solve basic arithmetic problems. Today, all high school students are expected to be able to read and understand unfamiliar text and to become competent in the processes of scientific inquiry and mathematics problem solving, including algebra.
This trend of rising expectations is accelerating because of the explosion of knowledge now available to the public and the growing demands of the workplace. More and more students will have to learn to navigate through large amounts of information and to master calculus and other complicated subjects to participate fully in an increasingly technological society. Thus, although the classroom tools of blackboards and books that shape how learning takes place have changed little over the past century, societal demands on what students learn have increased dramatically.
There is consensus among education policy analysts that satisfying these demands will require rethinking how educators support learning. The role that technology could or should play within this reform movement has yet to be defined. Innovations in media technology, including radio, television, film, and video, have had only isolated, marginal effects on how and what children learn in school, despite early champions of their revolutionary educational potential.. Furthermore, although computer technology is a pervasive and powerful force in society today with many proponents of its educational benefits, it is also expensive and potentially disruptive or misguided in some of its uses and in the end may have only marginal effects. Nevertheless, several billion dollars in public and private funds have been dedicated to equipping schools with computers and connections to the Internet, and there are promises of even more funds dedicated to this purpose in the future. As ever-increasing resources are committed to bringing computers into the classroom, parents, policymakers, and educators need to be able to determine how technology can be used most effectively to improve student learning. Enhancing How Children Learn
## Learning Through Active Engagement
Learning research has shown that students learn best by actively “constructing” knowledge from a combination of experience, interpretation, and structured interactions with peers and teachers. When students are placed in the relatively passive role of receiving information from lectures and texts (the “transmission” model of learning), they often fail to develop sufficient understanding to apply what they have learned to situations outside their texts and class-rooms. In addition, children have different learning styles. The use of methods beyond lectures and books can help reach children who learn best from a combination of teaching approaches. Educational reformers agree with the theoreticians and experts that to enhance learning, more attention should be given to actively engaging children in the learning process. Curricular frameworks now expect students to take active roles in solving problems, communicating effectively, analyzing information, and designing solutions—skills that go far beyond the mere recitation of correct responses.
Although active, constructive learning can be integrated in classrooms with or without computers, the characteristics of computer-based technologies make them a particularly useful tool for this type of learning. For example, consider science laboratory experiments. Students certainly can actively engage in experiments without computers, yet nearly two decades of research has shown that students can make significant gains when computers are incorporated into labs under a design called the “Microcomputer-Based Laboratory” (MBL).
The structure and resources of traditional classrooms often provide quite poor support for learning, whereas technology—when used effectively—can enable ways of teaching that are much better matched to how children learn.
Using technology to engage students more actively in learning is not limited to science and mathematics. For example, computer-based applications such as desktop publishing and desktop video can be used to involve students more actively in constructing presentations that reflect their understanding and knowledge of various subjects. Although previous media technologies generally placed children in the role of passive observers, these new technologies make content construction much more accessible to students, and research indicates that such uses of technology can have significant positive effects.
## Learning Through Participation in Groups
Some critics feel that computer technology encourages asocial and addictive behavior and taps very little of the social basis of learning. Several computer-based applications, such as tutorials and drill-and-practice exercises, do engage students individually. However, projects that use computers to facilitate educational collaboration span nearly the entire history of the Internet, dating back to the creation of electronic bulletin boards in the 1970s. Some of the most prominent uses of computers today are communications oriented, and networking technologies such as the Internet and digital video permit a broad new range of collaborative activities in schools. Using technology to promote such collaborative activities can enhance the degree to which classrooms are socially active and productive and can encourage classroom conversations that expand students’ understanding of the subject.
## Learning Through Frequent Interaction and Feedback
In traditional classrooms, students typically have very little time to interact with materials, each other, or the teacher. Unlike other media, computer technology supports this learning principle in at least three ways. First, computer tools themselves can encourage rapid interaction and feedback. For example, using interactive graphing, a student may explore the behavior of a mathematical model very rapidly, getting a quicker feel for the range of variation in the model. If the same student
Students who participate in computer-connected learning networks show increased motivation, a deeper understanding of concepts, and an increased willingness to tackle difficult questions.
Research indicates that computer applications such as those described above can be effective tools to support learning. One study compared two methods of e-mail-based coaching. In the first method, tutors generated a custom response for each student. In the second, tutors sent the student an appropriate boilerplate response. Students’ learning improved significantly and approximately equally using both methods, but the boilerplate-based coaching allowed four times as many students to have access to a tutor. In another version of computer-assisted feedback, a program called Diagnoser assesses students’ understanding of physics concepts in situations where students typically make mistakes, then provides teachers with suggested remedial activities. Data from experimental and control classrooms showed scores rising more than 15% when teachers incorporated use of Diagnoser, and the results were equally strong for low, middle, and high achievers.
The most sophisticated applications of computers in this area have tried to trace students’ reasoning process step by step, and provide tutoring whenever students stray from correct reasoning. Results from Geometry Tutor, an application that uses this approach, showed students—especially average or lower achievers or students with low self-confidence in mathematics—could learn geometry much faster with such help. Also, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that urban high school students using another application, Practical Algebra Tutor, showed small gains on standardized math tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), but more than doubled their achievement in complex problem solving compared to students not using this technology.
## Learning Through Connections to Real-World Contexts
Computer technology can provide students with an excellent tool for applying concepts in a variety of contexts, thereby breaking the artificial isolation of school subject matter from real-world situations. For example, through the communication features of computer-based technology, students have access to the latest scientific data and expeditions, whether from a NASA mission to Mars, an ongoing archeological dig in Mexico, or a remotely controlled telescope in Hawaii. Further, technology can bring unprecedented opportunities for students to actively participate in the kind of experimentation, design, and reflection that professionals routinely do, with access to the same tools professionals use. Through the Internet, students from around the world can work as partners to scientists, businesspeople, and policymakers who are making valuable contributions to society.
One important project that allows students to actively participate in a real-world research project is the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program. Begun in 1992 as an innovative way to aid the environment and help students learn science, the GLOBE Program currently links more than 3,800 schools around the world to scientists.Teachers and students collect local environmental data for use by scientists, and the scientists provide mentoring to the teachers and students about how to apply scientific concepts in analyzing real environmental problems. Thus, the GLOBE Program depends on students to help monitor the environment while educating them about it. Further, the students are motivated to become more engaged in learning because they are aiding real scientific research—and their data collection has lasting value. In a 1998 survey, 62% of teachers using the GLOBE Program reported that they had students analyze, discuss, or interpret the data.
Although no rigorous evaluations of effects on learning have been conducted, surveyed GLOBE teachers said they view the program as very effective and indicated that the greatest student gains occurred in the areas of observational and measurement skills, ability to work in small groups, and technology skills.Expanding What Children Learn
In addition to supporting how children learn, computer-based technology can also improve what children learn by providing exposure to ideas and experiences that would be inaccessible for most children any other way. For example, because synthesizers can make music, students can experiment with composing music even before they can play an instrument. Because communications technology makes it possible to see and talk to others in different parts of the world, students can learn about archeology by following the progress of a real dig in the jungles of Mexico. Through online communications, students can reach beyond their own community to find teachers and other students who share their academic interests. The most interesting research on the ways technology can improve what children learn, however, focuses on applications that can help students understand core concepts in subjects like science, math, and literacy by representing subject matter in less complicated ways. Research has demonstrated that technology can lead to profound changes in what children learn. By using the computers’ capacity for simulation, dynamically linked notations, and interactivity, ordinary students can achieve extraordinary command of sophisticated concepts. Computer-based applications that have had significant effects on what children learn in the areas of science, mathematics, and the humanities are discussed below.
## Science: Visualization, Modeling, and Simulation
Over the past two decades, researchers have begun to examine what students actually learn in science courses. To their surprise, even high-scoring students at prestigious universities show little ability to provide scientific explanations for simple phenomena, such as tossing a ball in the air. This widely replicated research shows that although students may be able to calculate correctly using scientific formulas, they often do not understand the concepts behind the formulas. Computer-based applications using visualization, modeling, and simulation have been proven to be powerful tools for teaching scientific concepts. The research literature abounds with successful applications that have enabled students to master concepts usually considered too sophisticated for their grade level. For example, technology using dynamic diagrams—that is, pictures that can move in response to a range of input—can help students visualize and understand the forces underlying various phenomena. Involving students in making sense of computer simulations that model physical phenomena, but defy intuitive explanations, also has been shown to be a useful technique. One example of this work is ThinkerTools, a simulation program that allows middle school students to visualize the concepts of velocity and acceleration. In controlled studies, researchers found that middle school students who used ThinkerTools developed the ability to give correct scientific explanations of Newtonian principles several grade levels before the concept usually is taught. Middle school students who participated in ThinkerTools outperformed high school physics students in their ability to apply the basic principles of Newtonian mechanics to real-world situations. Other software applications have been proven successful in helping students master advanced concepts underlying a variety of phenomena. The application Stella enables high school students to learn system dynamics—the modeling of economic, social, and physical situations using a set of interacting equations—which is ordinarily an advanced undergraduate course. Another software application uses special versions of Logo, a programming language designed especially for children, to help high school students learn the concepts that govern bird-flocking and highway traffic patterns, even though the mathematics needed to understand these concepts is not ordinarily taught until graduate-level studies. And yet another application, the Global Exchange curricula, reaches tens of thousands of precollege students annually with weather map visualizations that enable schoolchildren to reason like meteorologists. Research has shown that students using the curricula demonstrate increases in both their comprehension of meteorology and their skill in scientific inquiry.
## Mathematics: Dynamic, Linked Notations
While seeking techniques for increasing how much mathematics students can learn, researchers have found that the move from traditional paper-based mathematical notations (such as algebraic symbols) to onscreen notations (including algebraic symbols, but also graphs, tables, and geometric figures) can have a dramatic effect. In comparison to the use of paper and pencil, which supports only static, isolated notations, use of computers allows for “dynamic, linked notations” with several helpful advantages, as described below:· Students can explore changes rapidly in the notation by dragging with a mouse, as opposed to slowly and painstakingly rewriting the changes. · Students can see the effects of changing one notation on another, such as modifying the value of a parameter of an equation and seeing how the resulting graph changes its shape. · Students can easily relate mathematical symbols either to data from the real world or to simulations of familiar phenomena, giving the mathematics a greater sense of meaning. · Students can receive feedback when they create a notation that is incorrect. (For example, unlike with paper and pencil, a computer can beep if a student tries to sketch a nonsensical mathematical function in a graph, such as one that “loops back” to define two different y values for the same x value.) Another example of a software application using screen-based notations is Geometer’s Sketchpad, a tool for exploring geometric constructions directly onscreen. Such applications are revitalizing the teaching of geometry to high school students, and in a few instances, students even have been able to contribute novel and elegant proofs to the professional mathematical literature. Graphing calculators, which are reaching millions of new high school and middle school students each year, are less sophisticated than some of the desktop computer-based technologies, but they can display algebra, graphs, and tables, and can show how each of these notations represents the same mathematical object.
## Social Studies, Language, and the Arts
Unlike science and math, breakthrough uses of technology in other subject areas have yet to crystallize into easily identified types of applications. Nonetheless, innovators have shown that similar learning breakthroughs in these areas are possible. For example, the commercially successful SimCity game (which is more an interactive simulation than a traditional video game) has been used to teach students about urban planning. Computer-based tools have been designed to allow students to choreograph a scene in a Shakespeare play or to explore classic movies, such as Citizen Kane, from multiple points of view to increase their ability to consider alternative literary interpretations. Through the Perseus Project, students are provided with access to a pioneering multimedia learning environment for exploring hyperlinked documents and cultural artifacts from ancient civilizations. Similar software can provide interactive media environments for classes in the arts. An emergent theme in many computer-based humanities applications is using technology that allows students to engage in an element of design, complementing and enhancing the traditional emphasis on appreciation. In one innovative project, elementary and middle school children alternate between playing musical instruments, singing, and programming music on the computer using Tuneblocks, a musical version of the Logo programming language. Compelling case studies show how using this software enables ordinary children to learn abstract musical concepts like phrase, figure, and meter—concepts normally taught in college music theory classes. In another example, a tool called Hypergami enables art students to plan complicated mathematical sculptures in paper. Experiences with Hypergami have produced significant gains in boys’ and girls’ performance on the spatial reasoning sections of the SAT.
## The Challenge of Implementation
The preceding overview provides only a glimpse of the many computer-based applications that can enhance learning. But simply installing computers and Internet access in schools will not be sufficient to replicate these examples for large numbers of learners. Models of successful technology use combine the introduction of computer tools with new instructional approaches and new organizational structures. Because any typical educational system is somewhat like an interlocking jigsaw puzzle, efforts to change one piece of the puzzle—such as using technology to support a different kind of content and instructional approach—are more likely to be successful if the surrounding pieces of teacher development, curriculum, assessment, and the school’s capacity for reform are changed as well. |