Special Report

Technology as Motivational Tool

By Jessica L. Sandham — October 01, 1998 7 min read

Zooming in on the face of fellow classmates, three members of Bob Schroeder’s video communications class concentrate on holding their cameras with steady hands.

The students are scheduled to film several community events in the next few weeks, including two graduations, and Schroeder has prescribed a fast-paced drill to help them perfect their skills.

“Head and shoulders, stay with the head and shoulders,” the former television producer instructs, scrutinizing the teenagers’ work on three monitors.

When a shaky image on one screen exposes a student’ less-than-careful camera handling, Schroeder doesn’t mince words.

“Oh, Sarah, barf!” the 50-year-old teacher teases. “Everybody watching TV at home just threw up on their living room floor.”

Joking aside, the students in Schroeder’s class at the 125-student Columbia Basin Alternative High School here Ray they know this is serious business.

Some even say it’s the most important thing they do all day-the reason they want to come to school at all.

“I love this class,” says Bryan “Sharkey” Warren, while using a classroom computer to design press passes for his classmates. “I come before school and stay after school. You see [the technology] here, and it makes you want to use it.”

Such unabashed enthusiasm is especially significant at Columbia Basin, a high school designed for students in this working-class farm community who have had trouble succeeding in a traditional academic setting.

Some students are teenage parents, some have drug problems, and others got into fights or were simply “1ost in the shuffle” at the town’s 1 ,500-student high school, Schroeder says.

But ever since January, when Columbia Basin installed video equipment with a 14,000 federal Carl D. Perkin grant for vocational and applied technology programs, many of the students involved in video communications have undergone a transformation of sorts, school officials say.

They come to class regularly and act out less. They work as a team on projects. Some even take time out on weekend to film community events, or “remotes,” such as the Miss Moses Lake pageant or an elementary school play.

Some of these kids who weren’t doing anything before, now I can’t get them out of my classroom,” Schroeder says. “The discipline problems have been going away. They’re excited about class.”

Direct evidence of technology’s impact on student motivation is still largely anecdotal. But many educators who have worked with technology in the classroom report that it can tum students on to school in a way that traditional teaching tools usually can’t match. Often, they say, it can help cut down on discipline problems, increase attendance, and make students more enthusiastic about learning.

The 8,300-student Union City, N.J., school district, for example, realized a systemwide improvement in attendance and dropout rate after implementing a series of reforms that included a substantial investment in classroom technology. In the first five years of the reforms, the district’s student-mobility rate-the rate at which students transfer between schools-dropped from 44 percent in 1989 to 22 percent in 1994.

“Technology is motivational because it’s interactive,” says Carolyn Thorsen, the director of technology programs for the college of education at Boise State University in Idaho. “Computers give students a lot of feedback that you don’t get from a pencil and paper.”

The effects can be especially strong for at-risk students, says Helen Birenbaum, the director of the Stanton/Heiskell Center for Public Policy in Telecommunications and Information Systems at the graduate center of the City University of New York.

In a seven-year research project sponsored by Bell Atlantic, the Stanton/Heiskell Center gave personal home computers and training to 125 underachieving minority 6th graders in the New York City public school system, and kept tabs on their progress through junior high and high school.

When they first received computers in 1990, the students were considered at risk of dropping out of school. At the end of 8th grade, all were still in school, compared with only 75 percent of a 125-student control group that did not receive computers.

After four years of high school, however, the computers’ impact seems to have diminished.

Forty-six percent of the students with home computers finished high school in four years, a percentage just slightly higher than the systemwide graduation rate for minority students of 41 percent. Forty percent of the computer-using students are now in college, with more planning to attend next year.

“The number’ aren’t staggering,” Birenbaum says. “But these kids were expected to drop out.”

The students in the study who were the most academically successful were those who regularly attended computer tutorials and logged on most frequently at home, she adds.

Birenbaum emphasizes that technology is almost meaningless without adult guidance and encouragement, and that it can’t be expected to insulate students from other negative influences in their lives. Even with the best efforts of teachers, it’s not going to hook every student.

“The technology itself is not a panacea,” she says. “It doesn’t change their home lives, their neighborhoods, or the environments they live in. But it can give them a step up.”

Many of the students in Columbia Basin’s video communications class say the rush they get from operating cameras or editing videotape every morning does not easily translate into enthusiasm for, say, biology homework.

They still hate science,” Schroeder acknowledges when none of his students bother to show up for a science class held just one hour before school recesses for a three-day holiday weekend.

But the video communications class does at least provide an incentive for the students to stay in school.

When a 3,500 tape deck mysteriously stopped working last spring, Schroeder had to learn from a repair technician that it had likely been dropped. The two students responsible said they didn’t immediately own up to it because they feared being expelled.

“We like this class so much we didn’t want to tell him,” Sharkey Warren says.

Despite the incident, Schroeder says he tries to let the students work as independently as possible. Learning from mistakes, he says, is part of the process.

In turn, the students say that being trusted with the equipment is part of what makes them excited about using it.

“At the beginning of the year, all we had was a little RCA camera because we didn’t have the grant,” Darrell Holloway says. “Then, we finally got the cameras and the editing equipment. They put this stuff out here in the middle of nowhere and totally trusted us with it. It’s pretty surprising that they put it with us instead of at the high school.”

Part of what makes video communications different from other classes, the students say, is that they see how they could apply the skills to a future job.

Schroeder fosters an atmosphere of vocational training by having the students sell tapes of an elementary school play, for example, to parents and teachers. Any profits are applied to future equipment purchases.

He also took the class on a field trip to the Kingdome in Seattle last year to talk to people who are successful in the television business. “It’s very real work for them,” says Patty Jo Austin, the principal of Columbia Basin. “They realize it’s something they can earn a living doing.”

Technology-assisted learning can also be particularly stimulating for at-risk students, researchers say, because it can more easily meet individual needs or interests, and allows students to work more independently.

At Columbia Basin, not everyone can operate the same machine at the same time, so when two students work at a tape deck, another makes phone calls to work out the logistics for an upcoming “remote,” while another works on a computer designing matching “Alternative TV” T-shirts for himself and his classmates.

The students take pride in specializing in a specific step of the video production process.

Holloway boasts that he’s “the only one around who knows how to use the title maker,” while Adam Sutter has earned the nickname “the wizard” because of his graphic design capabilities.

Because all of the individual contributions ultimately result in collaboratively produced videos, the students say they have another reason to apply themselves to their work: Everyone else is depending on them.

“I need to be here,” Sarah Wilson says. “The work is getting so technical that I’m going to have to know this stuff.”

And the students seem to be making progress.

And the students seem to be making progress. ‘We’re not NBC quality yet,” Schroeder says, while watching footage of a recent student production. “But we’re getting there.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1998 edition of Education Week