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 IV: Support for Teacher Functions

Capabilities Supported by Technology

Technology supports teacher functions that are fundamental if teachers are to provide authentic, active learning experiences as envisioned by education reform goals. These functions include developing and tailoring instructional materials, conducting ongoing assessment of student learning, expanding teachers content and instructional knowledge, and communicating with parents. In addition to being necessary for providing the kind of learning experiences described in Chapter I, these functions constitute important aspects of the professionalization of teachers, another goal of education reform.

Develop and Tailor Instructional Materials

In inquiry-based environments, students pursue different questions, work at different speeds, use a variety of materials, engage in different activities, and work in flexible groupings. Teachers are increasingly able to draw on technology resources to develop and tailor instructional materials to better meet individual student needs. Two different ways in which teachers can work with technology to provide appropriately tailored instruction are described below.

Creating Technology-Based Instructional Materials--Technology that enables teachers to invent their own materials can be immensely attractive. Teachers in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District in California participated in a hypermedia project whose original intent was to train them to incorporate existing hypermedia stacks into their curriculum (Smith, Chlebicki & Hartman 1991). Once the teachers recognized the limited availability of appropriate hypermedia stacks, however, they asked for training on how to write their own interactive stacks. By the end of the first year of the project, the teachers had received 36 hours of paid training and 4 days of release time. They were able to create 65 original hypermedia stacks along with corresponding lesson plans. This significant support for teacher training--30 percent of the project budget was an important factor in the teachers confidence and success with this new technology application.

During the second year of the project, each teacher developed another new hypermedia stack and lesson plan and served as the mentor for another teacher in using existing hypermedia lessons. Given support and time, many teachers would enjoy the challenge of developing their own curriculum materials. Not all teachers would welcome the activity, however, and certainly teachers and administrators want to avoid expending time and money to needlessly "reinvent the wheel". An alternative way of involving teachers in developing technology-based instructional materials is described below.

Modifying Existing Materials--When Judy Jones, a biology teacher in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, began using Catlab, a simulation of trait inheritance in cats, for her unit on heredity she found that the activity suggestions that accompanied the software were too open-ended for her students. Because she valued the software's simulation environment, she decided to keep using the software but to modify the procedures for her students, developing four levels of activities that would allow them to acquire the concepts and skills more gradually.

The first activity level began with a very structured simulation in which the students "mated" cats who differed in only one trait. The next two activity levels involved cats who differed in two and three traits. Jones also developed "hint cards" for students who were having difficulty. The final activity level involved looking at statistics on a variety of cat traits and determining how this inheritance pattern could have happened. These activities moved along a spectrum from very structured to open-ended, with the final activity requiring the most independent and creative problem solving.

Hearing of the teacher's invention, the author of the Catlab program obtained her permission to incorporate those activities in the software package. As a result, Judy Jones activities are now distributed with every copy of Catlab.

Ideally, teachers and students would be involved in the development and field testing of educational software, but this is not always the case. Moreover, software that has been carefully tested and adapted to one group of students may not work well with students who are younger, have less background knowledge or less familiarity with computers, or have certain learning difficulties. Teachers would like to be able to adapt instructional materials to meet the needs of their particular students. Few teachers have programming skills, however, so the provision of tools to make it easy to extend and modify instructional software is very desirable. Although very feasible technically, this kind of capability is rarely built into commercial materials.

Support Ongoing Assessment

The discussion of individual student learning needs above points up the need for ongoing teacher assessment of students inquiry learning process. Technology can support the assessment of student work in ways that are useful for guiding instruction. Specifically, technology facilitates (1) obtaining a trace of student thinking processes, (2) collecting real-time feedback from multiple students, (3) storing and retrieving student work and associated comments, and (4) setting individual goals and managing instruction.

Create Trace of Student Learning Processes--Collins, Hawkins, and Frederiksen (1991) assert that appropriate technologies have a strong role to play in tracking the process of learning and thinking by

Earlier technology (the Mimi is an example) did not have built-in ways to monitor or track students progress, making it difficult for teachers to follow the actual learning process, especially for students with learning difficulties (Hawkins & Sheingold 1985; Morocco & Dalton 1990). To assess student learning of navigation skills for the Mimi cases, Education Development Corporation designed a hands-on "performance assessment"--placing students individually at the computer with a researcher who took on the role of clinical interviewer as the student played the navigation game individually that is usually played collaboratively with other students. This approach is one model for teacher assessment of individual student learning in a computer-based environment.

An alternative approach is made possible by recent HyperCard environments that have the capability to gather a "dribble file" of all of the students' activity in the environment. This file can be placed in a student's portfolio along with the student's visual and writing products. The teacher can examine the file in order to discern the blind alleys, alternative designs, and way of proceeding that characterized the student's efforts. Thus, more powerful technologies provide the capability of obtaining a "trace" of each student's thinking as he or she tackles problems.

In addition to supporting post hoc analyses of student performance, the increased visibility of work on a computer screen, as opposed to the more private nature of paper-and-pencil work, increases the likelihood that teachers will engage in informal, ongoing assessment as students are working (Morocco, Dalton & Tivnan 1989; 1992). As the teacher circulates in the computer lab or in the classroom, it is easy to stop, observe, and intervene while the student is working on an assignment or project. Hawkins and Sheingold (1985) found that teachers noticed more about the way their students were learning as they circulated among students working at computers. One teacher explained,

I learn a lot more about the individual learning needs of my students because I can watch them learn. Previously, when I was in the teacher-centered mode, I really couldn t watch them learn because I was busy delivering the curriculum. So my role has changed that way being able to learn a lot more about my students because of computers. (Wiske et al. 1988, p. 38)

Video technologies provide another means for recording and tracking student learning processes. For example, teachers at Skyline Elementary, a Model Technology School in California, have used video equipment (a MicroMacro Lab with table-mounted cameras attached to widescreen video) as a tool for observing and analyzing the strategies used by young children engaged in mathematical problem solving with manipulatives. While videocameras lack the diagnostic and summarizing capabilities of intelligent computer systems, they provide a rich source of data for examining learning processes in action.

Provide Contexts for Authentic Assessment--Technology can be used to present authentic tasks in a standardized manner, thus providing a context for assessing advanced skills. An ongoing SRI project, for example, is using videotaped problem contexts as a vehicle for assessing students' understanding of mathematical problem solving. Each video episode in this Becoming a Problem Solver series presents two child actors engaged in an extended effort to solve an interesting, real-life problem. Accompanying the episodes are paper-and-pencil instruments and open-ended questions to help teachers get at students beliefs about problems (e.g., Can there be more than one right answer?). The teacher's guide provides similar problems for classroom use and suggestions for classroom discussions regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the problem-solving approaches illustrated in the videos.

Real-Time Feedback from Multiple Students--A well-known problem in many conventional classrooms is the mismatch between the level of presentation and the understanding of many students. As teachers describe concepts and procedures, they depend on student feedback to indicate any comprehension problems. Unfortunately, the students who understand the material best are most likely to contribute to class discussion. Students who don t understand simply remain silent, and the instructor continues with an explanation that some students find incomprehensible.

Technology can help ameliorate this problem by providing an instructor with real-time feedback from all the students in a class. At the Saturn School in Minneapolis, teachers use an application for networked computers called the Discourse System to facilitate interactive group-based instruction (Bennett & King 1991; Bremer 1991; Hopkins 1991). All the computers in a room are networked to the teacher's computer so that a teacher or a student can present information to the class and then request a response from each student. Every student's response appears in small text windows on the presenter's screen. By using the Discourse System, the teacher or presenter can get frequent feedback from all students at one time, as opposed to calling on one student at a time. As a result, the teacher can adjust his or her instruction on the basis of students responses and can see which students are having difficulty.

Store and Retrieve Student Work and Associated Comments--The issue of assessing and meeting individual student needs in a simulated environment, where students are constructing knowledge over time through a variety of experiences, was a critical one in the immigration project described earlier (Walters & Gardner 1991). In a revised version of Immigrant 1850, researchers included an extensive chapter on how to assess student writing by providing guidelines for assessment along with samples of student work to exemplify those guidelines. Some teachers, particularly language arts teachers, found these to be extremely helpful, while others found them cumbersome. After further analysis, the research and development team determined that the development of separate assessments of writing, speaking, and drawing was counterproductive and that what was needed was a way to evaluate the student's whole learning experience This has led to their developing guidelines for developing and assessing portfolios, which are collections of student work produced over a period of time. Portfolios include drafts and plans, as well as final products, commentary, and reflection.

Until recently, no technology provided a comprehensive system for inputting, storing, retrieving, analyzing, and representing performance data. There has been a dearth of support for the teacher to create a systematic database on children's progress over time. In the area of writing, for example, where multiple thinking, language, and composing abilities are developing over time, teachers spend large amounts of time reviewing and commenting on student compositions, but these comments are generally lost from the system once the student has taken them home. The teacher has had no way of storing a history of changing comments on the student's work, or of easily rounding up pointed examples of writing strengths and problems to use for teaching material in the classroom.

Technology currently under development at Education Development Center by Midian Kurland will substantially enhance the teacher's ability to respond to, store, retrieve, assess, and manipulate student work (Kurland 1991). This tool, TextBrowser, provides an electronic analogue to teachers traditional methods for keeping track of assignments, marking student papers, providing feedback, and recording and monitoring student performance, but uses the power of the technology to vastly increase the extent and flexibility with which the teacher can accomplish those tasks. TextBrowser enables teachers to access anything a student writes on a computer, review the text, and mark and comment on the text (an electronic "red pen") . The tool maintains a database archive of every text linked with the teacher's annotations and comments, so that portfolios of student work can be created and analyzed. Comments and annotations are automatically entered into an electronic grade book.

The teacher can use the stored information to further analyze student work or create tables, graphs, or summaries of patterns and trends for each student. For example, the teacher could access all examples of a student's work that were marked "needs reorganization". In addition, the teacher can create custom writing exercises from the student's own work. TextBrowser can extract text units that meet specified criteria, such as a list of all words the student misspelled during the past week.

This tool supports and enhances the teacher's ability to use electronic writing tools in the classroom, giving the teacher the capability to store and manipulate an assignment so that it can be systematically reviewed, compared against previous work, or used for custom-designed writing exercises. Although TextBrowser originated as a system for writing assessment, it can be adapted to assessment in any content area. Kurland has said that critical issues in the effective use of this tool are teacher knowledge about the process approach to teaching writing, children's development of writing abilities, and the particular abilities and needs of individual children. Presumably, comparable requirements will hold as the tool is extended into other content areas (Kurland 1991).


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[Integrating Technology-Supported Inquiry Learning with the Larger School Experience] [Table of Contents] [Capabilities Supported by Technology (Continued)]

This page was last updated December 27, 2001 (jca)