Web-Based Learning: Much to Gain, And Many Barriers
Some of us who have advocated Internet use for teaching and learning are starting to despair, in fact, of ever seeing the bright future we once envisioned.
Effective technology integration in schools, especially using online resources, is less likely to be widely accepted now than at any time in the recent past. The forces actively working against it are now stronger than the forces working for implementation. And the barriers to change are more entrenched. As a result, there is little momentum to add technology and its somewhat complicated curriculum- development models. Some of us who have advocated Internet use for teaching and learning are starting to despair, in fact, of ever seeing the bright future we once envisioned. But learners have so much to gain that overcoming the barriers and continuing to forge a path for change should be an important objective for all educators.
Let us take a closer look at the forces working to impede technology- integration efforts. They are fourfold: political, economic, philosophical, and empirical.
In political terms, a standards-based, high-stakes-testing environment has forced educators to focus on traditional forms of classroom practice. Emphasis on tests that affect students' futures (and even on tests that affect only school reputations) leaves little time for supplemental methods, new ideas, or anything seen as a nonessential activity.
Thus, a test- conscious school ends up with a back-to-basics approach. For their students' good (that is, to help them pass the tests), teachers focus on skills first and frills last. This strategy employs a simplistic answer to a complex problem. When we look at what is driving school change these days, it is more often standards-based reform than comprehensive school reform. With the former, we narrow our goals to test results. With the latter, we seek to improve the whole system.
At the same time, our economy has weakened significantly. When tax revenues fall, states cut back on education funding, and districts cut back on activities like class-size reduction, arts education, technology, and professional development. With less money to go around, there's also less incentive to use it to upgrade equipment and networking infrastructure and to provide teacher training and support. Prior investments in technology, professional development, and networking infrastructure may well be squandered in this environment.
Along with the criticism that technology spending provides inadequate return on investment, there is a cottage industry of technology critics who argue that using technology may adversely affect a child's development. Some critics cite poorly conceived "edutainment" as detrimental. Others view technology literacy as the only goal and question the rush to put young children in front of computers. Some even prefer static devices such as television to interactive software, or suggest implausibly that students should travel to locales like the rain forest, instead of taking electronic field trips to study issues and conditions.
And finally, there are the empirical detriments. Unfortunately, evidence from rigorous research studies is difficult to obtain. Longitudinal studies are needed, and finding schools with stable technology, comparable students, high-quality software, and educators with time to learn and experiment has been a major challenge.
Moreover, much of the research that is funded does not produce the types of results that lend themselves to sound bites and headlines. So the goal of Web- infused learning becomes harder to promote. The data that are available, meanwhile, indicate that more time is needed. A study this year of 90,000 Michigan teachers, for example, showed that most of them use the Web for professional advantage and do not yet know how to integrate it into their teaching.
Compounding the impact of these negative forces are four constraints within schools that act to perpetuate past practice and sustain an environment resistant to change. The blocks to progress include teachers' inertia for applying new tools, the concomitant need for pedagogical modifications, a general lack of time, and pure and simple fear. Let's look more closely at each:
- Inertia. For many teachers, past success determines future plans, and the way they have always taught (or even the way they were taught) is often the way they will continue to teach. While they accept that students should learn to use technology (much as they learned to touch-type) for their careers, using the Internet for other purposes in their own classrooms is more than they want to take on.
- Pedagogical Change. Technology is not just added to practice. It is a catalyst for other classroom changes. If students share computers, for example, they may end up working collaboratively in teams or groups. There also is evidence that to integrate technology effectively really requires using a constructivist approach, which is a new way of thinking and designing instruction for many teachers. Changing one's teaching style takes effort, practice, and support. And most educators don't have the luxury of shared planning periods or the opportunity to observe one another's model lessons that infuse technology.
- Time. People in schools usually cite time as the No. 1 enemy. There is not enough time to cover the curriculum, let alone to reconceptualize learning or practice. In fact, overwhelmed as they are with all the other requirements of their profession, teachers find little time to learn how students could take advantage of the Web's potential. Simplistic attempts at training fail to inspire them.
- Fears. We cannot underestimate the impact that fear of online dangers has on teachers and administrators. With the possibility that students will encounter pornography or predators, the disincentives to allow access are great. Even the solutions bring anxiety. What if students circumvent a filtering system, or it doesn't screen out the right sites? Who is legally liable? Also hampering progress are worries about online privacy, intellectual-property infringement, and outright student plagiarism. Traditional fears of employing tools that might fail in front of the class also play a part.
With the lack of good professional development, curriculum- integration specialists, adequate technical-support systems, and answers to these fears, apathy wins.
Let us be perfectly clear: We are not promoting technology and Web use for their own sake. The World Wide Web can provide real benefits for teachers and students. Teachers can use incredible resources, and students can learn in unprecedented ways. Teachers have access to lesson plans, supplemental materials, professional articles, primary sources, interactive models, and other tools for teaching. Students have access to source materials, peers and experts at distant locations, and opportunities to publish their work.
If those options aren't enough, technology also can expand students' horizons with online field trips to historic sites and to museums to study art and artifacts. They can follow expeditions, engage in simulations, and gather environmental data to share with other students. What's more, they can use alternative, interactive approaches to better understand lessons they somehow didn't comprehend before. Teachers who guide their students to learn in these new ways prepare them for lifelong learning.
If some teachers find it difficult to consider these newer uses of technology, at least they should know that they could accomplish traditional goals in easier and better ways. There are many Web sites with lesson plans and materials linked to standards, for example, that would help them prepare for what students need to know. While many training models fail to succeed as intended, models do exist for preparing teachers to use all the tools at their disposal.
If we want to harness the World Wide Web for learning in the best ways possible, here are a few simple steps we need to take:
- First, we must recognize that the Web provides ways to address standards and acquire information that students need, and it expands their opportunities to learn.
- Second, we must recognize that many free, high- quality resources are available online. These primary sources, interactive games, simulations, and other materials optimize the investment we've already made in equipment and infrastructure.
- Third, to reach true classroom integration, we have to invest in professional development that will enhance teacher comprehension and comfort with what the Web offers.
- Fourth, we have to link Web-based activities with standards-based curricula and topics needed for tests. All eyes are on test results, so we should use technology to help prepare students to think—in all ways possible.
- Fifth, we have to prepare future educators to integrate technology as easily as previous generations used textbooks and chalkboards.
- Sixth, we must involve parents and community members in understanding the value of using Web-based activities for student learning, as well as engage them in dialogue about educational goals and values.
The warning signs that technology integration is threatened are real and should be of concern. But the need to employ technology tools for learning will not go away. Advocates know that the Web can provide real benefits for teachers and students. At the very least, schools must not waste the amounts of money already spent on infrastructure. The investment can be leveraged only if teachers use the many free, high-quality resources available online.
A little more investment and staying power—mostly in preparing teachers and recognizing what works—will brighten our outlook for the long term.
Vol. 21, Issue 38, Pages 34-35, 48