Ahead Of The Curve

November 01, 1999 4 min read

In Florence McGinn’s Honors Imaginative Process class at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, students examine artistic creativity through literary works, including Oedipus Rex and the stories of Henry James. But the 11th and 12th graders’ own creative projects, poems, and “free writes” are a key element of the course.

A simple matter of putting pen to paper? Not in this classroom. Students in “Cyberlit"--as the class is informally called--often create elaborate presentations around their writings with software called HyperStudio. They add their best work to a class Web site, creating a permanent Internet resource available to absent students, parents, or anyone else. And last year, students practiced the literary skills of observation and description by digitizing pictures of themselves as both preschoolers and teenagers and then writing essays contrasting their then-and-now looks. Publishing their work “intensifies the learning process,” McGinn says. “The learning is not isolated-that’s very important to me.”

There’s no question that McGinn, 52, is ahead of the curve when it comes to using technology for learning. In a new survey of teachers by Education Week, a sister publication of Teacher Magazine, 97 percent of respondents said they use a computer at home and/or school for professional activities. But only 53 percent said they use software for classroom instruction, and 61 percent use the Internet for instruction. Nearly four in 10 teachers said their students don’t use computers at all during a typical week.

Some technology experts say teachers need to wake up to the learning potential of computers. They should stop wondering whether to use computer-based learning resources and figure out how to best use them. “We’re at the point that we have [computer] technology in about 80 percent of our classrooms,” says Linda Roberts, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of technology. “Now is the time to look at content.”

Several factors seem to influence whether teachers dive into the growing pool of digital education tools--which includes CD-ROMs and Web sites created specifically for educators and students, general-purpose software tools such as spreadsheets and desktop-publishing packages, and the virtually limitless number of archives and reference materials on the Internet--to enhance their instruction. A high computer-to-student ratio in the classroom appears important. In the Education Week survey, 67 percent of teachers in classrooms with six or more instructional computers say that they rely on digital content to a “very great” or “moderate” extent. That compared with 40 percent of teachers whose classrooms have one or two computers. Technology at McGinn’s high school approaches the saturation point--1,200 computers for 2,400 students, and a network powered by 39 file servers. McGinn’s specially designed classroom has 16 late-model computers--more than one for every two students--loaded with creative tools for publishing projects.

Respondents to the Education Week survey also indicated that they would increase their use of digital content in the classroom if they had more time to try out software and received training on integrating technology into the curriculum.

The 20,000-student Olathe, Kansas, school district incorporated digital content into lesson plans when it recently rewrote the high school science curriculum. But the depth of the technology integration varies, depending on the nature of each course. In astronomy, digital content has become the primary medium for instruction: Lessons are centered around two software programs, Redshift 3 and Starry Night Deluxe, and teachers download images of stars, planets, and other objects from a variety of Web sites to illustrate their lectures. The biology curriculum, meanwhile, continues to rely on real-life laboratory experiences--which teachers agreed are a better way to show biological principles than Web simulations--and a textbook, Holt’s Modern Biology. Teachers are encouraged to use digital tools--such as the Biology Place, a fee-based Web site that guides students through specific lab experiments--to supplement the book.

For McGinn, listening to her students has been the key to developing learning activities. It was one of her students who approached her with the idea of publishing Electric Soup, the award-winning, Web-based literary magazine that McGinn supervises. In fact, she says, her students have been her best source of technology training: “Students can model for us because of the natural affinity they have for technology.”

Notably absent from McGinn’s classroom are CD-ROMs designed for instruction. “We use tools in here more to create our own content,” says Emily Judson, a junior in one of the teacher’s classes. McGinn prefers CD-ROM archives that students can tap for music or photographs to combine with words. She also does not subscribe to online educational services; instead, her students use the Web to access information, communicate with others, and present their work.

McGinn believes students should be using the Web in ways that are “interactive, collaborative, and global.” Such uses involve turning over to students a lot of control of the curriculum-an approach that doesn’t always sit well with teachers, administrators, or policymakers. Regardless, McGinn says, “You’ve got to be willing to let the kids contribute.”

--Andrew Trotter and David J. Hoff