Teachers and students don’t just use digital content. More and more often, they make it as well, thanks to the growing popularity of computer tools for creating, analyzing, and publishing data and information.
These include word-processing software, spreadsheets, presentation packages, and multimedia authoring programs—often bundled together in office “suites.”
But they also include a new generation of scientific tools, such as image processors and data-modeling software, that have been adapted to the needs and abilities of youngsters.
“These new digital, computational-based tools enable children and teachers to grapple with content in a way they simply could not do before,” says Elliot Soloway, who helped develop a software package called Model-It. “Until now,” Soloway adds, “content was presented as static words and video that were given to them by someone else.”
Educators are using both types of tools in powerful ways, and some experts believe they herald the future of educational software.
Even if the homemade digital content is not as sophisticated as the latest computer games or professional Web sites-though sometimes it is-that’s not the point.
The goal is to motivate students to be active learners. “When kids create their own content-using data and comparing it, or turning reporting on a subject into a Web site-they do more work and of better quality, because they are reaching a wider audience than just their teacher and classmates,” say Gwen Solomon, a co-director of techlearning.com, a Web site for teachers that is owned by Miller Freeman.
“They become experts in order to teach,” she says, adding that students also learn from the work of their peers.
Making Models, Creating Knowledge
One school that relies heavily on productivity and computational tools is Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich. The school built its science curriculum around investigations that use Model-It, a package that allows students to create scientific “models” of relationships among different pieces of data without bogging them down in the high-level math that such analyses usually require.
“As the kids are creating the knowledge, they actually retain it more,” says science teacher Michael Mouradian. “It’s like the process of writing; it’s almost more educational than the final product.”
In one project, his student collect data that relate to pollution levels in a nearby stream and interpret it using Model-It to form theories about factors that affect those levels.
“We find the biggest part of the learning is when kids are making the models,” Mouradian says.
Students aren’t the only ones creating knowledge at the school Community High’s teachers used a popular authoring tool, HyperStudio, to form a multimedia model of the solar system. Students can move about the virtual solar system, collecting data that they then use for their own HyperStudio projects.
“We’re using it as a content provider, and as a way for kids to display their research,” Mouradian says.
These uses of software tools dovetail with a growing emphasis in education on inquiry-based learning, the notion that students should pursue answer’ to complex, meaningful questions much as a scientist does. Such activities are often described as “constructivist,” following the theory that the best way for people to learn a concept is by building their own understanding of it.
‘A Money Thing’
Creating digital content using tools doesn’t necessarily mean passing up other commercial products. Archives on CD-ROMS and the Web, along with library books and other traditional sources, provide raw materials. And instructional software, computer games, and simulations offer technical models and ideas for homemade productions.
But teachers who use class-produced content cite a number of other advantages over prepackaged material. Content that students collect or assemble can be updated every day, and drawn from an enormous range of sources-everything from NASA to a backyard telescope, for example.
Activities can also be precisely matched to a state’s standards, and indeed a class’s particular curriculum. That is especially valuable in subjects that software publishers have somewhat neglected, such a high school English and mathematics, and in states whose academic standards are markedly different from the large “adoption states"-chiefly California, Texas, and Florida-that many publishers bow to in developing their products.
Educators also have a strong economic incentive to use digital tools. They are a good value, because they can be used for more purposes than software that is focused on a narrow part of the curriculum.
“It’s a money thing,” Mouradian says. “You try to get the biggest bang for the buck, even in science. I balance what I buy again t the time I’m going to use it.”
In addition, many schools want students to learn how to use these productivity and publishing tools to help them gain the technological literacy they’ll need in their careers.
“A lot of teachers see students’ use of tools as fulfilling the goal of learning content but also learning generalizable skills,” say. Barbara Means, a senior researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.
Using Tools Not for Everyone
Despite the apparent benefits of using these improved digital tools in class many teachers aren’t comfortable with them. For one thing, they invariably require more preparation and class’s time than popping a commercial CD-ROM into a computer drive. Teachers in schools that are held to strict, content-specific academic standard have to be especially selective about the type and number of technology-based explorations that they can schedule.
Then there’ the matter of the technical skills required. Students and teachers sometimes get so wrapped up in learning how to use the tools that the academic material gets pushed aside.
Finally, many teachers just aren’t ready.
Using tools “require a greater level of comfort with technology and requires reorganizing the classroom to do independent work,” Means say.
She adds that those teachers may need to rely on stand-alone software products in the classroom as a starting point, until they gain experience and comfort in using tools.
And Solomon warns that schools that adopt tools for the purpose of being more “constructivist” should be sure that’s what they’re getting in the classroom. “I’d want to know whether many teachers understand the concepts of constructivism and the hands-off attitude that teachers must take,” she says. “It’s not an easy thing to pull off, and I’d hazard a guess that many [teachers] don’t.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1999 edition of Education Week