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 III: Support for Student Learning Activities

Capabilities Provided by Technology

Technology offers powerful support for learning skills through inquiry and problem solving. In this chapter, we explore specific ways in which technology enables the kind of challenging instruction depicted in the right- hand portion of Figure I-1. Technology can promote student exploration through collaborative involvement in authentic, challenging multidisciplinary tasks by providing realistic complex environments for student inquiry, furnishing information and tools to support investigation, linking classrooms for joint investigations, and presenting data in ways that support mathematical thinking and problem-solving.

Realistic Complex Environments for Inquiry

Teachers can draw on technology applications to simulate real-world environments and create actual environments for experimentation, so that students can carry out authentic tasks as real workers would, explore new terrains, meet people of different cultures, and use a variety of tools to gather information and solve problems. Working on "authentic tasks", which Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) define simply as the ordinary practices of the culture, engages students in sustained exploration and provides multiple opportunities to reflect on the decisions made in trying to address the problem. Authentic tasks are highly motivating for students, leading them to acquire advanced skills and knowledge because they become engrossed in the problems that, for example, navigators, anthropologists, or historians face. Just as important, simulations address the problem of "inert knowledge". Many typical school tasks are stripped of the meanings and the context that they hold for real practitioners. In learning tasks in this stripped-down form, students are unable to extract anything that they can apply in richer, more complex situations outside of school (The Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt 1990; Sherwood, Kinzer, Bransford & Franks, J. J. 1987; Whitehead 1929). "Case-based instruction", as it was termed by earlier writers (Gragg 1940), presents students with the same problems that expert practitioners attempt and provides a motivating environment for cooperative learning and teacher- directed mediation (Bransford, Goin, Hasselbring, Kinzer, Sherwood & Williams 1988; Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer & Williams 1989). Simulated environments allow students to get involved with the problem, often through visual media, which provide integrated context and help students comprehend new ideas more easily (Hasselbring, Goin, Zhou, Alcantara & Musil 1992).

Simulations are student centered, since students make decisions and see the results of their actions. The teacher is present, but in the role of coach, using discussion to prompt students to explore different aspects of the problem space, answering students' questions, and encouraging students to elaborate their thinking and listen to other points of view. Because the problem space is always accessible (unlike real-life situations), students can revisit and revise their conceptual understanding. The nature of the teacher student relationship is altered as both become co-learners; knowledge is constructed in collaboration rather than transmitted from teacher to student. Students help each other learn, working together in a generative and cooperative environment (Center for Technology in Education 1991). The examples below are provided as illustrations of how technology can support student involvement in authentic tasks.

Voyage of the Mimi-- Since 1985, when it first became available for commercial use, teachers have been using The Voyage of the Mimi I, developed by Bank Street College, to create environments for exploration. The centerpiece of the first voyage is a 13-part television drama that portrays the adventures of a group of young scientists, including several adolescents, who are studying whales off the coast of New England. Viewers observe the crew conducting scientific experiments and solving technical problems. A separate documentary accompanies each television show, portraying scientists engaged in their work. Four computer modules engage students in using navigation concepts and instruments, for example, to free a trapped whale in the Atlantic. The modules also include a microworld ecosystem, a tool for measuring and graphing physical events, and a programming environment. A book version of the TV show, classroom activities, and additional resources are also available for teachers.

Not all of the Voyage of the Mimi environments are simulated. One video shows young scientists studying the sound frequencies of whales. In their classroom labs, students can then carry out careful studies of their own voices and of musical instruments and create real-time audio frequency spectra.

The Second Voyage of the Mimi exposes students to archaeology and to the culture of the ancient Maya in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. The goal of the curriculum is to motivate children's interest in science as a real- world activity, and to make various scientific concepts understandable to a wide range of children (Wilson 1987, p. 1). The multimedia package includes a 12-episode television series as well as two software programs Maya Math and Sun Lab.

The latest development effort by the Bank Street researchers/developers of the Mimi materials is the Palenque project, a digital video interactive (DVI) prototype described in Chapter II. The locations and several of the characters from The Second Voyage of the Mimi have been used again in the Palenque project. Palenque embodies the same instructional strategy as its Mimi predecessors in a DVI system that provides for electronic as well as thematic integration (Wilson & Tally 1991).

Immigrant 1850--Developed by Project Zero at Harvard University, Immigrant 1850 encourages students (upper elementary through high school) to identify with the Irish immigrant experience of the mid 1800s by taking on the role of one who leaves Ireland to face the difficulties of establishing a new life in Boston (Morrison & Walters 1989; Walters & Gardner 1990; Walters & Gardner 1991). Students have access to a core set of computer-based activities in which they can adopt an immigrant family and "live through" the complex decisions the family may have made in finding housing and a job, calculating finances, and shopping within their earnings. Students can use a database, spreadsheet, and word processor to calculate expenses and keep diaries. In multiple rounds of field testing Immigrant 1850 with more than 100 classrooms, researchers found that both regular and special-needs students could sustain involvement with this learning environment for periods ranging from several weeks to an entire school year.

Many teachers involved with the Immigrant 1850 unit used the existing materials as a starting point to create additional innovative learning environments for their particular students, drawing on additional technology applications (e.g., an extensive on-line, visual database) and corollary activities (e.g., tracking the population of American cities, Indian tribes in Texas, etc.). Researchers also found that some teachers used Immigrant 1850 as a model to create their own engaging computer-based curriculum units (Walters & Gardner 1991).

In all of these programs, the technology both draws groups of students into a richly complex setting a whaling vessel, muddy streets of an earlier Boston, a Mayan city that stimulates their questions and provides them with the resources to gather and integrate information themselves. Thus, these technology applications support student exploration, engagement with complex, multidisciplinary tasks, and collaborative work. The benefits of these authentic, challenging environments for students increase as both teachers and students get comfortable with the materials and the various learning pathways within them.

Information and Tools to Support Investigation

The applications just described provide the content, the materials, and the varied pathways students can follow in learning through interaction with a simulation. Alternatively, technology can be used to enable students to investigate questions within curriculum units that individual teachers or teams of teachers have designed. Teachers make accessible to students technology applications that allow students to gather information (e.g., CD- ROM, videodiscs); to store, organize, and analyze information (databases, spreadsheets, timelines, graphing programs); and to represent and convey to others what they have learned (multimedia applications, desktop publishing, graphics programs). As discussed in Chapter II, these technologies are primarily general-purpose tools. The essence of the innovation lies in the development of an instructional framework within which these tools are used. The overarching themes and "big questions" investigated in these projects are usually interdisciplinary, and they need to be carefully selected to respond to students developmental needs and interests and to reflect issues of social and scientific consequence. Students work individually or in collaboration with others in these inquiry-oriented units, and work over extended periods of time on projects culminating in presentations or "exhibitions" that provide the basis for assessing their learning.

Two examples of projects using technology to provide information and tools for student inquiry are provided below.

MAKE IT HAPPEN!--In four middle schools in New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, teachers used a rich variety of technology applications within an interdisciplinary, I-Search unit (based on the work of Macrorie 1988). An I-Search unit has four instructional phases:

The teachers implementing this approach were field testing MAKE IT HAPPEN!, a manual developed by Education Development Center based on 5 years of research and development (Zorfass et al. 1989; 1991; Zorfass, Morocco & Lory 1991). MAKE IT HAPPEN! guides interdisciplinary teams of teachers in designing and implementing an I-Search Unit. Each of the four field test sites carried out a different inquiry-based, thematic unit that integrated various technology applications.

In a suburb of New York City, the unit was on the human body. Teachers and students used simulations (The Human Body Pump, Inner Body Works, Life and Death), a CD-ROM magazine index, videos, and word processing. The suburban Boston school in this study implemented a unit focused on Africa ("Dispelling the Myth of the Dark Continent") . Teachers and students used videos, word processing, MacPaint, and Inspiration (a mind-mapping and outlining tool). In a rural community in New Hampshire, the unit focused on the history of the town. The technology that became part of the unit included TimeLiner, meccGraph, a teacher-made video, a database program, and word processing. In a small urban area in Massachusetts, the unit was on Race and Culture. Besides using videos and filmstrips, the students used The New Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia and word processing.

Across all four schools, every student identified a question that he or she felt motivated to investigate. Students commented that they felt like explorers, learned information that would affect their lives, and found new ways of gathering, organizing, and conveying information:

I-Search has been a good opportunity for me. I liked leaving the classroom and going into the community to do my research. I met and interviewed important people. They were experts. At the museum I had the chance to "try it myself", not just read about it in books. These things showed me how fast I could learn just by asking questions and trying it. And I was happy when everyone was so willing to help me. (Student from New Hampshire)

This research taught me how to do a report an easier and more creative way. Books aren t your only source. You could interview people or go to a place that might have information. This means to me that I didn't have to use all books. I went and talked to someone about their life and was surprised that she would share something like that with me. (Student from New Hampshire)
Software Evaluation Project--Middle school social studies students participating in the Software Evaluation Project at the State University of New York at Buffalo used technology to navigate their own paths through a vast body of data (P. Stearns 1991b). By using a series of multimedia resources, including Point of View, The New Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia, and the CD-ROM interactive videodisc The War in the Persian Gulf, teachers created a research environment that both motivated and guided the students in searching for and presenting information. Within the classwide theme of the Persian Gulf War, small teams of students worked cooperatively to research particular aspects of the war that interested them and then created a culminating multimedia presentation. Using the software program Point of View as an authoring tool for the presentation, students were able to articulate their insights about complex issues (P. Stearns 1991a; 1991b).

Students take the initiating role in these classroom-designed curriculum units, with the teachers in a support and facilitating role. Rather than transmitting a body of facts and information about the subject to the students, teachers used technology applications such as Point of View to stimulate and then help structure the students' individual or small-group investigations. One teacher introduced that program using a projection system, then asked students to suggest various paths for exploration of the different lists. Even during the class demonstration, students could take the initiative to move around in the system, looking at maps, charts, documents, and text, and suggesting keywords for searching for information. Once students were working on individual or small-group projects, the teacher provided guidance when students needed it as they searched for information and pictures and wrote brief essays to include in their presentations. Encouraged to carry out their investigations with partners, students got help from teachers when they needed it to work effectively in cooperative small groups.

Peggy Healy Stearns (in press), like others researching computer- supported inquiry programs, finds that students sustain a high level of interest and curiosity when they are using a database to explore their own questions. According to Stearns, "The information that students retrieved in their investigations took on special significance because the questions were their own and the answers were viewed as personal discoveries. Students had a sense of ownership that is absent when they are spoon fed".

Programs such as MAKE IT HAPPEN!, the Software Evaluation project, and the Discover Rochester program described in Chapter II use technology extensively, but they are critically dependent on the teacher to set the context, model appropriate research strategies, and, until students become more expert computer users, cue students to the ways that technology can help them over the course of their projects. It is the selection of complex, interdisciplinary topics to explore, organization of learning into long-term inquiry-based units, and setting up of collaborative work teams that constitute the heart of the innovation. Technology supports this kind of work and adds to students sense of excitement and belief that they are doing something important. An additional benefit of technology is the resulting products (e.g., the hypermedia exhibits in the Discover Rochester project described in Chapter II), which are motivating because they look much more professional than more conventional student work and provide products that can form the basis for meaningful assessment.

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This page was last updated December 18, 2001 (jca)