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Using Technology to Support Education Reform -- September 1993

Technologies for Exploratory Learning

Exploratory uses of instructional technology allow students to direct their own learning. Through the process of discovery, or guided discovery, the student learns facts, concepts, and procedures. In this section, we describe three broad types of technology used for exploratory learning: computer-based information retrieval systems (e.g., electronic databases), microworlds (including microcomputer-based labs and simulations), and interactive video. Although different in form and application, each of these uses of instructional technology provides a context in which the student may access, discover, and construct knowledge through a self-directed learning process. Exploratory uses of technology tend to deal with complex learning activities. Such uses of technology are very congruent with the goals of education reform.

Electronic Databases

Electronic reference works provide students with a way to access large bodies of information quickly and in a self-selected manner. In addition to serving as information retrieval systems, electronic databases can provide students with capabilities for organizing and manipulating data that they have accessed or entered. Within the physical and social sciences, databases can be used to explore and test the relationships between variables within complex systems. Some electronic reference works and databases incorporate graphics and/or sound, providing students with additional sources of information.

Electronic databases and references are developing at a dizzying speed. Some of these, such as Sony's Data Discman or Franklin's World Almanac, are at an elementary level beginning to fulfill Alan Kay's vision of a dynabook a powerful, hand-held computer that will allow students to access a wide array of information (Gillingham 1991). The Data Discman is a hand-held compact disc player that can read books published on compact disc. Each compact disc can hold up to 100,000 pages of text--enough for encyclopedias of all types. Currently available is an abridged Encyclopaedia Britannica, a health encyclopedia, and a comprehensive language translator. Although not yet widely in use, the Data Discman could become a compact, economical machine for knowledge retrieval. In a similar vein, Franklin Electronic Publishers is planning to introduce a hand-held, electronic version of The World Almanac and Book of Facts .

All of this hand-held power does have a potential disadvantage: it is easy to imagine students getting lost in the myriad of facts available to them at the touch of a button. It should be remembered that access to information is great, but true intellectual capability comes from having a conceptual framework within which to assimilate that information. Teachers need to take an active role to make sure that students have the conceptual structures needed to profit from the reference information.

Computer-Based Exploratory Applications

Microcomputer-based labs and microworlds have proven to be effective contexts for learning in mathematics and the physical and social sciences. Microcomputer-based labs put the tools of the scientist at the students disposal, enabling them to engage in scientific inquiry with real-life phenomena. Simulations create self-enclosed microworlds that mimic real-life phenomena, allowing students to explore and manipulate complex systems. Simulations are available for a wide variety of subject areas, including biology, genetics, geology, chemistry, physics, environmentalism, social studies, economics, and mathematics. Some simulations are multidisciplinary, allowing students to develop and apply their knowledge in a variety of subject areas. The examples that follow provide an exemplary, but by no means exhaustive, overview of the range of software supporting inquiry-based learning through interaction with microworlds.

Microcomputer-based laboratories (MBLs) allow students to explore real- life, real-time phenomena. Typically, MBLs consist of measurement equipment or sensors connecting a computer and the environment. The equipment (commonly referred to as probeware) measures physical phenomena, such as sound, light, or temperature, and records data that can be displayed as it is being recorded, or saved and analyzed at a later date. This real-time measurement with real-time display capabilities offers students an opportunity to better understand the connection between a phenomenon and its graphic or mathematical representations (Office of Technology Assessment 1988). Rather than fostering the rote memorization of unconnected facts, MBLs facilitate the direct observation of, and inquiry into, scientific phenomena. Students utilize the tools of the scientist to engage in the processes of hypothesis testing, data collection, and data analyses. (The way in which MBLs are used in classrooms is described in more detail in Chapter III.)

One of the earliest and best known examples of computer-based exploratory learning is the use of LOGO, a computer language developed in the 1970s by Seymour Papert and his colleagues at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. LOGO was specifically designed as a programming language to facilitate the acquisition of critical thinking and mathematical problem-solving skills in learners of all ages. In many schools across the country and around the world, LOGO, in its various incarnations, has been used by students to create microworlds in which mathematical and physical principles are tested and explored.

In one of its simplest forms, LOGO can be used by young children to create designs through programming the movements of a "turtle" on the computer screen. In the process of building upon simple commands to get the turtle to "draw" a variety of shapes, children discover and construct knowledge regarding geometrical concepts. In another, more advanced application, students learn the laws of physics through programming the movement of objects (such as dynaturtles) that simulate Newton's laws of motion. Concepts needed to understand these laws (velocity, acceleration, and position) are discovered, explored, and tested as students use simple commands to manipulate the objects within this microworld.

LOGOWriter provides students with the word-processing, graphics, and animation capabilities to create their own animated games and stories. With LegoLOGO, students use construction materials (Lego building blocks, pulleys, gears, motors), sensors (temperature, light, and sound), and the LOGO programming language to design, produce, and control real objects in the physical world. Taking on the roles of inventors and engineers, students have used LegoLOGO to build and operate mechanical devices (such as robots, cars, and moving sculptures), as well as whole environments (such as model cities). LOGO can serve as a project-based vehicle for multidisciplinary learning, as when students use LegoLOGO to create their own version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, or use LOGOWriter to create animated narratives on historical events. In providing students with the tools for creating their own microworlds, LOGO offers a meaningful context for learning about the design process as well as discovering complex scientific and mathematical concepts.

Although much of the exploratory computer software available concerns science phenomena, there is also a growing body of social science software that allows students to explore decision-making and complex relationships in sociopolitical spheres (Office of Technology Assessment 1988). Two rather new and popular software programs, SimCity and SimEarth, allow users to act as civic or world leaders, manipulating variables to maintain the system. In the course of building and managing simulated cities or planets, students encounter a range of problems and issues (political, economic, environmental) that lead to learning and problem solving across interrelated domains.

The immensely popular Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and related programs in the series require students to track a fugitive by looking for clues and gathering information not only from the software but from outside reference sources, to make predictions, and to confirm hypotheses (Zorfass 1991). In addition to teaching geography, by requiring students to explore, experiment, evaluate, and revise, these self-contained worlds facilitate student collaboration in the higher-order thinking skills of deduction, inference, synthesis, and evaluation.

Stanley Pogrow of the University of Arizona designed the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) program to teach disadvantaged students advanced thinking skills (Office of Technology Assessment 1988). This program uses a combination of teacher activities and computer software to promote the development of metacognition, inference, generalizing, and synthesis (Pogrow 1990). In a typical unit, students spend one period using a computer simulation to study the dynamics of a balloon in flight. The next day, the teacher asks students to describe the effects of fuel, wind direction, terrain, and the balloon's capabilities on its movement. Students are asked to describe the strategies they used in controlling the balloon. Those whose balloons crashed are asked to describe their strategies and what happened. After a set of alternative strategies are elicited, they are tried out and tested with the simulation.

Pogrow (1990) reports that the HOTS program is used in more than 300 sites in 21 states; it is used mainly within Chapter 1 programs and its success supports the argument that students who have been labeled "at risk" can accomplish much more than they do in conventional classrooms if they are appropriately challenged. Research on the HOTS program has shown that students make greater-than-average gains in their standardized reading and math scores (Office of Technology Assessment 1988). Pogrow (1990) reported to the National Diffusion Network that HOTS students gained nearly twice as much on measures of reading and math as did Chapter 1 students nationally.

Video Exploratory Applications

Video exploratory applications support higher-order thinking by presenting complex, authentic tasks that transcend the boundaries of academic disciplines. Students engaged in video exploration may learn how to solve novel problems requiring several steps and involving several disciplines (e.g., arithmetic, geography, and reading). Recent theory and research suggest that children who learn with difficulty may particularly benefit from this kind of instruction with its focus on conceptual understanding and solving novel problems (Sutton 1991).

The Cognition and Technology Group (1991) at Vanderbilt University has designed a series of video adventures, known as the Adventures of Jasper Woodbury, requiring mathematical reasoning to solve complex problems in trip planning, probability and statistics, and geometry. Videos 17 to 20 minutes in length provide natural contexts for learning mathematics as well as geography, history, and science. Each video ends with a challenge, rather than a resolution. The information to solve the problem is embedded within the video, which can be reviewed and studied to pick out relevant facts.

The Cognition and Technology Group has based its design of these episodes on a set of principles drawn from research on cognition and instruction. These researchers argue that by being video based, the learning experience is more motivating and allows for more complex problems than could be presented in a written or audio-only medium. Motivation and comprehension are further heightened through use of a narrative format, that is, a story providing a realistic context and a familiar structure for the problems presented. The narrative format provides for the introduction of other subject matter topics; for example, the skill of map reading is used in an episode dealing with trip planning, thus providing links to geography and navigation. The learning format is generative; the stories in the Jasper series must be completed with a resolution provided by the students. Generating this resolution requires solving a complex mathematics problem. This is motivating and allows students to participate actively in the learning process. Data needed to solve the problem are embedded in the story itself, just as in other good mystery stories. The videos are created in pairs of related adventures so that students can transfer any mathematics or reasoning concepts learned in one video context to new contexts.

The Jasper videos are being designed to be available through a variety of media: videotape, videodisc, and in conjunction with hypermedia (Cognition and Technology Group 1991). In the hypermedia version, students can engage in basic skills practice, change parameters of the original problem to generate an analogous problem (new locations, goals, etc.), and explore related mini-adventures. The materials are being tried out and evaluated in 52 classrooms in nine states.

An earlier major exploratory video project, Palenque, consists of a videodisc and software that allow students to explore a Mayan ruin in southern Mexico. Begun at the Bank Street College of Education in 1985, Palenque was developed as a prototype demonstration of digital video interactive (DVI) technology. Slides, film, video, graphics, text, sound effects, and audio narration are all integrated on an optical videodisc. Students use a joystick to take user- directed simulated journeys through a rain forest or a museum database of the ancient Mayan site at Palenque. The Palenque materials are designed to be student directed rather than dependent on a teacher's instructional sequence and objectives the materials foster browsing that will be both informative and enjoyable. Students are given simulated travel tools, such as a camera, photo album, and compass. When they want to know more about something they are seeing, they can click on a button and get commentary from a simulated 8-year-old Mayan specialist (Soloway 1991; Wilson & Tally 1991).

Other examples of exploratory video include GTV, a multimedia, video- based geography program produced by LucasFilms and National Geographic; Animal Pathfinders, an exploratory program focusing on animal migration (with footage from the Nova television series); and Civil War Interactive, a multimedia work based on the popular public television series by Ken Burns.


These exploratory applications can support the kind of student learning that is the goal of education reform. They can present complex, authentic tasks, engage students in active problem solving, require utilization and synthesis of knowledge from a variety of domains, and provide a context for collaborative learning activities.

There are, however, significant practical limitations, to many of these applications. First, there is the issue of scarcity--complex simulations and exploratory videos are expensive to develop, hence they are few. The problem is made worse by the fragmentation of the American education market, with its decentralized buying decisions and wide variation in curricula. Technology application developers have little hope of being able to match the curriculum of enough schools well enough to have a broad market base (Levin & Meister 1985). Without such a broad base, they see little hope of recapturing a major investment. From the teacher's standpoint, these exciting and imaginative applications are fine for enrichment but don t match the core curriculum. Hence, they may find a home in the margins of education but don t really transform the core. Finally, exploratory applications have a relatively short "shelf life'. Once students learn how to solve, complete, or engage in the complex tasks required by the simulation or video, they are ready to move on to something else.

One factor that may change the economics of producing multimedia educational materials is the potential for a much larger home-use market. These materials are sufficiently entertaining that the home market is a feasible primary or secondary target. Palenque, in fact, was designed for home use by families with children 8 to 14 years old. Another multimedia technology being developed for home use is Commodore Dynamic Total Vision (CDTV), a hybrid television, personal computer, compact disc technology system, which combines an optical disc player with a computer. Priced at under $1,000, CDTV hooks up to a standard television and allows control of sound, animation, text, graphics, and quarter-screen full-motion video. The fast pace of multimedia technology development for home use with the expected drop in technology prices may prove to be a catalyst for major investments in materials that have both educational and entertainment value.

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