A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Using Technology to Support Education Reform -- September 1993

Chapter I: Introduction

Political leaders, employers, and the public are expressing an unprecedented level of concern with the state of education in America. Since the stark warning in A Nation at Risk that the erosion of educational standards "threatens our very future as a Nation and a people", we have seen a proliferation of education reform efforts. Most prevalent during the 1980s were efforts aimed at raising course requirements and scores on standardized achievement tests. Critics have characterized these earlier reform efforts as quantitative rather than qualitative in nature (i.e., "more of the same"). The result was an increase in the number of school courses with advanced academic titles, but the nature of instruction remained unchanged and course content often failed to live up to course titles. Achievement of more advanced skills in subject areas showed no discernible gains.

Currently, prevailing opinion is that piecemeal attempts at reform get swallowed up by the multiple levels and component parts of an education system that perpetuates the status quo and that if we want drastic improvements, we will have to undertake fundamental and comprehensive change (Smith & O'Day, 1990). A new willingness to consider fundamental change and innovative approaches is apparent in the current wave of reform efforts that are involving governors and state legislatures, business coalitions, and others as well as educators themselves including teachers associations, colleges of education, and school administrators. Educators, policy makers, and citizens are now seriously debating kinds of structural reforms that would have seemed wildly idealistic just a decade ago.

Many critics of American schools see technology as an important tool in bringing about the kind of revolutionary changes called for in these new reform efforts. Having seen the ways in which technology has transformed the workplace, and, indeed, most of our communications and commercial activities, the business community and the public in general are exerting pressure for comparable changes within schools.

Thus, support for the use of technology to promote fundamental school reform appears to be reaching a new high. At the same time, we have the opportunity to profit from the experiences of those educational institutions that already have implemented various technological innovations within the context of serious reform efforts. In these cases, technology is viewed as a means of supporting goals related to increased student involvement with complex, authentic tasks and new organizational structures within classrooms and schools (Sheingold, 1990).

The primary motivation for using technologies in education is the belief that they will support superior forms of learning. For this reason, theory and research in learning provide an extremely important source of ideas. Advances in cognitive psychology have sharpened our understanding of the nature of skilled intellectual performance and provide a basis for designing environments conducive to learning. There is now a widespread agreement among educators and psychologists (Collins, Brown & Newman 1989; Resnick 1987) that advanced skills of comprehension, reasoning, composition, and experimentation are acquired not through the transmission of facts but through the learner's interaction with content. This constructivist view of learning, with its call for teaching basic skills within authentic contexts (hence more complex problems), for modeling expert thought processes, and for providing for collaboration and external supports to permit students to achieve intellectual accomplishments they could not do on their own, provides the wellspring of ideas for many of this decade's curriculum and instruction reform efforts.

Concurrently, we are at a time of great technological advance. Computing power is more available and affordable than ever before. Satellite transmission can beam instructional material to sites thousands of miles away. Computer graphics can create "virtual environments" in which the individual sees and interacts with an artificial three-dimensional world. Tools to support computer applications make it possible for school children to do everything from communicating with their counterparts on the other side of the world to building their own curriculum materials in hypermedia formats to collecting and analyzing data much as practicing scientists would. While the most sophisticated technology remains in the hands of the few, it is becoming more and more affordable and available. At the same time, we are finding educationally sophisticated uses of commonplace technologies, such as videotape and word processing.

Over the years, educators have heard enough drum beating to become jaded about technologies ability to transform the school. Yet, there are enough cases where technology and school reform have been successful partners to tell us that the marriage can be a productive one (Sheingold & Tucker 1990; Stearns et al. 1991; Zorfass 1991). On the other side of the coin, there are many cases where school districts invested in technology that turned out not to be well used (computers gathering dust in the corner of a classroom), or to be used in ways that merely perpetuated the status quo (e.g., Mehan 1989; Oakes & Schneider 1984). From the "successes" we have learned that technology often produces unexpected benefits for students and teachers (Stearns et al. 1991). From failures we have learned that implementation without thoughtful planning or sustained support is nearly always futile.

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