Special Report

A Tool for Learning

By Debra Viadero — November 10, 1997 20 min read

Were it not for the age of the students, this 8th grade language arts classroom could easily be mistaken for a modern office in some sleek, glass-and-steel building downtown.

Everyone is working at a computer, the machines arranged in horseshoes of six that fan out from the center of the room like petals on a flower. Each cluster, separated by a padded partition, has its own printer, videodisc player, monitor, and electronic sound-effects board.

Students use the equipment to include sound and film clips in their class presentations or compose music to accompany the blues poems they write. As they read an excerpt from All Things Bright and Beautiful, they can watch videodisc clips on veterinary work on a 9-foot-by-12-foot screen that descends from the ceiling.

Blackstock Middle School, located just north of Los Angeles, has put millions of dollars into 11 “smart” classrooms such as this one under the belief that educational technology improves student achievement.

But educators here are hard-pressed to say for sure if the investment has paid off.

Blackstock’s students—most of whom are poor and members of minority groups—are clearly more technologically literate than they used to be. Their teachers say they are also more motivated and spend more time writing and collaborating on projects. And the school won a coveted “Blue Ribbon” from the U.S. Department of Education for its efforts.

“My gut feeling tells me something significant is going on here,” Stephen Carr, the school’s technology coordinator, says.

But is technology helping Blackstock’s children learn more? Educators have no way of knowing. And in that regard, the school’s story is a familiar one.

Tens of billions of dollars have been spent to equip the nation’s schools with calculators, computers, printers, videodisc equipment, satellite technology, televisions, software, and connections to the Internet. The average ratio of students to computers is now 7- to-1, compared with 25-to-1 just a decade ago.

And President Clinton has upped the ante, campaigning for schools “where computers are as much a part of the classroom as blackboards.”

Yet, research on the effectiveness of educational technology offers, at best, mixed results. Some applications have been unquestionable successes; others have yet to prove their mettle.

Ask any expert if technology can improve schooling, and the immediate response is inevitably, “It depends.”

“It’s kind of like asking, ‘Are pencils effective?’ It depends on what you’re going to do with them,” says Ted Hasselbring, a co-director of Vanderbilt University’s Learning and Technology Center in Nashville.

A teacher might use technology poorly, use it well, or not use it at all, he says.

Thus, the real question for educational technology is not “Does it work?” Rather, it’s “When does it work and under what circumstances?”

Educational technology comes in many different forms, from film strips to the Internet. But most of the research has focused on computers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when they were first introduced to schools, computers were set aside in separate labs. Teachers used them largely to teach stand-alone courses on computer programming.

That effort, it turned out, proved to be a bust. The equipment and programming languages were changing too rapidly for schools to keep up, and students were going out into the work world with outmoded skills.

Eventually, however, educators began to view the technology as a more efficient way to provide some of the same instruction they were already providing and to offer practice in basic skills. These programs, for example, might use colorful graphics and cartoon figures to quiz students on simple math equations.

In that regard, the computer’s track record was better.

“Computer tutorials are about as effective as personal tutoring,” says James Kulik, a research scientist at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan. He and his colleagues have reviewed more than 100 studies, each of which compared a classroom using computer-aided instruction with a classroom that did not.

Overall, he concludes, students in the computer-using classrooms learned more and learned it faster. They gained the equivalent of about three months of regular classroom learning—progress that is about par for many kinds of classroom interventions.

“About the only thing we found raising students’ examination performance higher was curricular adjustments made for gifted and talented kids—the kind of thing where kids are taught things beyond their grade level,” Kulik says.

Other studies suggest that computer-based lessons were particularly effective for teaching basic skills to disadvantaged students—partly because they started out in school further behind their more affluent classmates in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

But, as the thinking in the education field changed, it became clear that these kinds of “drill and skill” programs were not enough.

Inspired by the research of cognitive scientists, educators began favoring classroom environments in which students take charge of their own learning, learn to think critically and analytically, work collaboratively, and create products to demonstrate what they have learned. By putting learning in the hands of students, the “constructivist” model turns on its head the old style of schooling in which a teacher stands in front of a room and lectures.

Computers and other kinds of classroom technology, it has become increasingly evident, can help bring about that transformation. But, while there is no shortage of anecdotes on schools that have successfully used technology to reshape teaching and learning and to raise student achievement, the definitive, large-scale studies that make the case for these newer, more integrated uses of technology are harder to find and less clear-cut.

Students in Union City, N.J., for example, made significant learning gains after the district underwent an extensive technological conversion. But it’s hard to tell how much of the success was the result of the equipment and how much could be attributed to other educational innovations taking place in the district’s schools at the same time.

“At this point, there are more claims about what technology can do than there are well-designed evaluations with conclusive findings,” concludes a draft report conducted for the U.S. Department of Education by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research.

Part of the problem is that the trend toward constructivist learning is relatively new, and technology has been used to support it only in the past few years.

“There hasn’t been enough time to accumulate a huge amount of evidence,” says Christopher Dede, a senior program director for the National Science Foundation. “The literature is positive. There’s just less of it.”

One of the few documented successes in using educational technology to foster constructivist learning is “The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury,” a set of 12 video-based adventures designed to improve the mathematical thinking of students in grades 5 and up.

In one adventure, called “Journey to Cedar Creek,” Jasper reads a newspaper advertisement for a 1956 Chris-Craft cabin cruiser that needs fixing up. He takes his aluminum fishing boat to Cedar Creek, where he meets the cruiser’s owner. He tries out the boat, buys it, and then discovers that the running lights don’t work, leaving him 15 minutes to get off the river by sunset.

The challenge to students: Can he make it? The clues they need to answer this lengthy time-rate-distance problem, such as the amount of gasoline in the tank or the distance home, are embedded in the video. Students must solve at least 15 problems to arrive at a conclusion.

When researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Learning and Technology Center tested the program, they found that students in Jasper classrooms did as well as students in traditional classrooms at solving standard, one-step word problems. But they were significantly better than children in the control group at solving multistep word problems—the kind of complex reasoning that many education reformers say is so important.

National Geographic Society’s Kids Network is another technology-based program with data to back up its effectiveness.

This program, which is now almost 10 years old, matches each participating class with nine to 15 others around the country. Via the Internet and a central computer at the National Geographic Society, the classes collaborate on eight-week-long research projects on everything from water quality to recycling.

An independent study of the project involving 36 California schools found that students who participated in the network outscored students in traditional classrooms on their grasp of some scientific concepts. The Kids Network students also outperformed control-group students on questions unrelated to their unit of study, such as a task that asked test-takers to interpret bar graphs of children’s ice cream preferences.

Another project, called SimCalc, uses advanced computer technology to introduce elementary and middle school students to basic calculus concepts—what project developer Jim Kaput calls the “mathematics of change and the rate of change.”

With some of the SimCalc programs, students can create mathematical functions to control the movements of animated characters that they see on their computer screens. Individual students in a classroom, for example, can each be in charge of a different character in a marching band. Students can also use motion sensors to pick up their own motions and import that data into the computer.

University of Massachusetts researchers, who are working on SimCalc in conjunction with TERC, a Cambridge, Mass., research firm, have tested their programs in inner-city middle schools. SimCalc students, the researchers found, were able to perform as well as— or better than—typical high school or college-age calculus students on problems involving graphical representations of motion or that require the interpretation of velocity-vs.-time graphs, among other calculus skills.

“People often think of technology as doing old things better,” says Kaput, a math professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. “But we are doing something previously not thought possible.”

Even simple technology, such as word processors to help in writing instruction, has proved its worth in the classroom. But again, the circumstances must be right.

“Where technology is used wisely and where the teachers are given the right kinds of support and training and the right kind of equipment, then [they] are able to actually implement some of the best theory and practice regarding the teaching of writing,” says Stephen Marcus, a co-director of the South Coast Writing Project and a researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “Students are more willing to do more editing, to spend more time reviewing their text and improving it.

“But to provide a computer and think that students’ writing will somehow magically improve— that’s just wishful thinking,” Marcus adds.

Computers and word processors that are poorly integrated into the curriculum might even distract students from learning, says Barbara Means, a researcher with SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.

“I’ve seen kids spending a whole period illustrating a color cover of a report, pixel by pixel, when they haven’t even done the report yet,” she says.

Teachers also have to be careful not to let the fun quotient overtake serious learning. A 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress survey found that the most frequent use that 4th graders make of computers is to play games. For 8th graders, playing games is the second most common use, behind writing papers. The survey does not specify whether these activities took place at home or at school, however.

The recent advent of the Internet presents a whole new range of issues for educators. Some educators have compared the Internet to a giant library in which all the books have fallen down. The challenge for teachers is figuring out how to sift out the information that is educationally worthwhile.

“There’s so much junk on the Net and ‘blue’ stuff that children want to see that it’s going to become a real issue,” Robert Bracewell, an associate professor of educational psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, predicts.

Some schools are responding by supervising students closely and asking students to sign written pledges promising not to use the Internet inappropriately. Others are installing electronic filters to screen out pornographic content.

But Richard Benz, a high school biology teacher in Wickliffe, Ohio, worries that the new buffers may censor out the good with the bad. “If I have students doing research on breast cancer, will that be knocked out because of the word ‘breast?’ ” he asks.

Veteran Internet educators say that helping students weed out the bad information can become a lesson on critical thinking.

These kinds of uncertainties surrounding classroom computer use only amplify the calls of policymakers for hard data on whether the nation’s investments in educational technology are paying off. But some educators wonder whether traditional tests can really measure what their students get out of the equipment.

Stephen Carr, Blackstock’s technology coordinator, recalls the difficulty he had as a history teacher at the school before he began incorporating technology into his lessons.

“I love history, and I saw that regardless of how enthusiastic and animated I tried to be, I had a tough time engaging 8th grade kids whose hormones are popping all over the place,” Carr says. “But when I used technology to let them discover information on their own, I’d see kids on task.

“It made me realize the measurement that I was using or the state was using or the district was using is perhaps not indicative of what they were really getting from [technology],” Carr says.

Besides, asks Gary Peterson, a California-based educational technology consultant, “How would you assess a multimedia project that is being collaboratively put together by four kids and presented?”

Probably not with a standardized test, he says.

Even performance assessments intended for students to show what they can do with what they know may be missing something if they don’t use technology, says Walt Haney, a researcher at Boston College.

In one study, Haney administered a writing task to two groups of middle school students. One group wrote in longhand, while the other typed their essays on computers. All of the essays were then typed and evaluated by independent raters using the same grading criteria. The raters judged the writing samples that were written on computer to be better.

But most performance assessments, according to Haney, ask for handwritten responses from students. He wonders whether they are accurately rating students’ full capabilities.

Haney has asked students for years to draw pictures of their schools and classrooms. Where students once drew a teacher lecturing in front of rows of desks, many are now incorporating computers into their drawings. In one, a student works at a computer while his teacher stands behind him. Out of the teacher’s crayoned mouth comes a cartoon bubble with the words, “Good job!”

The drawing evokes more than the advent of technology in schools. It suggests how computers can change the relationship between students and their teachers.

That changing relationship is one of a number of side benefits to computer use that have turned up in studies. The existence of these added benefits, technology proponents say, may be further proof that traditional testing methods are not capturing the full extent of the advantages that computer use may bring to the learning process.

In 1985, Apple Computer Inc. provided dozens of schools with a range of technologies, including computers, videodisc players, video cameras, scanners, and CD -ROM drives, and then set out to study the effects.

In a summary of that 10-year effort, researchers concluded that students in the technology-rich classrooms performed no better than students in traditional classrooms on standardized achievement tests, but that the classes were reaping other kinds of benefits. Students were writing more and finishing units of study more quickly. They were becoming independent learners and self-starters, working cooperatively, expressing positive attitudes toward the future, sharing their expertise spontaneously, and representing information in a variety of forms.

And teachers began to act like the teacher in Haney’s crayoned drawing—more like coaches and less like lecturers.

“It’s like being a conductor. Sometimes a conductor teaches a particular piece and sometimes he just orchestrates,” Robin Freeman, Blackstock’s principal, says.

Janet Ward Schofield, a psychology professor and senior scientist with the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, says the computer almost requires teachers to shed lecture-style teaching.

“The changes that occur in schools as a result of computers are as much a function of the changes that computer use creates in teachers as they are a function of the actual computers themselves,” adds Schofield, who spent three years observing one urban high school’s conversion to the information age.

What happened, in part, was that teachers in classrooms with large numbers of computers began circulating around the room out of necessity. The teachers also began to give up some of their authority as it became evident that some students knew more than they did about the newfangled machines in their midst.

As a result, the student experts began helping their peers more often. It became natural to lean over to a classmate and say, “How do you do this?”

A few teachers, however, found those dynamics threatening.

“As one teacher put it to me, there’s a very high fool quotient,” Schofield says. “Some teachers recognize the fool quotient and were comfortable with it. There were many who were not.”

The classrooms of the latter group continued to operate much like traditional classrooms, Schofield says.

The increase in student collaboration that takes place in some technology-rich classrooms has caught some educators and observers by surprise.

“Everyone thinks it makes students antisocial,” says Diane Oshiro, the assistant superintendent of telecommunications for the Hawaii Department of Education. “Yes, it will make them antisocial if you’re doing drill and skill, but if you’re using the technology to solve problems, it almost forces that interaction between students and teachers.”

In her state, schools are experimenting with “virtual” classes, offering a select number of Internet courses to schools scattered throughout the Hawaiian islands. Educators found, however, that they had to have an adult on site to guide students through their courses and to keep students from dropping out.

“What we found was that students just needed someone to talk to,” Oshiro says.

Research also points to a change in technology-using students that has long been obvious to teachers: Motivation soars.

Study after study suggests that attendance rates have gone up in classrooms where students are using technology for interactive kinds of learning activities. (With basic-skills programs, however, the novelty may wear off after a while.)

One possible reason is that students tend to perceive technology as being less judgmental than their teachers. Students also get excited about creating products that look every bit as polished as things they see in the adult world, experts say.

“You can produce a book with handwriting, but that’s not a book. You can call it that, but students know that it’s not a book in the way adults use books,” McGill’s Bracewell says.

“There’s also a sense in which technology is valued in our culture, and they perceive that, too,” Means of SRI says. “They associate it with high prestige jobs, power, and money.”

While zeal for computers is commonly associated with boys, girls can embrace technology just as wholeheartedly, researchers say. Most of the evidence in this area is anecdotal, however.

“There’s nothing in technology that says girls won’t get involved, it’s the content we impose on it,” says Margaret Honey, the deputy director of the Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology in New York.

While girls may not warm to video games that are rife with super heroes and violence, they do respond to computer programs in which students determine the content—desktop publishing programs, for example, electronic pen pals, and certain kinds of Internet “moos.” The latter is short for “multi-user object oriented” environments, which allow more than one person to log on at the same time as ‘‘characters’’ and interact with one another.

But the social milieu surrounding the machines can be a deterrent for girls. School computer labs, for example, can turn into “clubs for white boys,” Schofield says.

At the high school she observed, “boys would come and play games together and horse around. Girls would come in and people might not even say hello to them,” Schofield recalls. In the computer programming class at the school, only two of the 15 students were female.

“There were real problems the girls faced in finding a social place for themselves,” she says.

Another benefit of technology, teachers say, is its ability to break down the four walls of the classroom. Through the Internet, students can access information and interact with people thousands of miles away.

“Once you get connected to the world, it brings the world’s issues to the classroom,” says Honey Kern, an English teacher at Cold Spring Harbor High School in New York.

Kern is an adviser for students participating in an Internet-based project on the Holocaust run by the International Education and Resource Network. The project enabled Cold Spring Harbor students to communicate with three Holocaust survivors.

“We sent them questions and they answered us directly on-line,” says Benjamin Goldner, a senior. “This is not something I could have done without a computer. It was simply horrifying and yet amazing to hear firsthand accounts from the lips of survivors.”

The Internet also allows students to conduct research in partnership with scientists. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s FeederWatch program, for example, enlists students nationwide to monitor the comings and goings of birds at their local bird feeder. The scientists then use the data, which this year they will receive electronically from students in a pilot program, to produce reports on the migration patterns and population declines of winter birds.

And educators in Monterey, Calif., are working with marine scientists on a project called “Virtual Canyon” that will enable students to hypothetically plumb the depths of a deep-water canyon in the Monterey Bay.

The program, a hybrid of CD-ROM and Internet technology, uses a real-life marine research vessel as a metaphor to help students tap into a rich database of information collected by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute on the bay and its inhabitants.

From the ship’s “moon bay,” for example, students can take “dives” into the ocean. Some dives feature actual video footage taken at depths of thousands of feet by the institute’s remotely operated vehicles. Students can click on a creature they see in the video and learn its scientific name, or they can gather information on salinity, water pressure, and light at various depths of the canyon.

Elsewhere on the ship, the captain, the first mate, and institute scientists can “talk” to students about their jobs and the bay.

“The whole purpose behind this piece is for kids to randomly explore and investigate,” says Kam Matray, the principal investigator for the project, which the Monterey district is spearheading.

Once students have a testable hypothesis, they enter the program’s research section, where they can pose questions, take notes on a notebook, and post their reports on the Internet.

It’s the kind of experience, Matray says, that most students get only on an occasional—maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime—field trip. “Teachers, by themselves, just can’t break down those classroom walls,” she says.

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1997 edition of Education Week as A Tool for Learning