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

Technology as Applications

One of the most significant shifts in the way that technology is being used in education today is toward greater use of computers and other devices as tools in the learning process rather than as instructional delivery devices. Such uses mirror the ways in which technology is used in the workplace and at home. Word processing, desktop publishing, database and spreadsheet applications, and drawing, painting, and graphing programs are examples of technology tools. Whenever students compose using a word processor, spell check their composition, use an on-screen calculator or graphing program, manipulate data in a spreadsheet, look up information in a database, or publish a classroom newspaper, they are using computers as tools. Video and audiotaping and editing equipment are other tools finding their way into schools.

Using technology as tools solves a major problem that frequently arises in the use of technology for tutorial or exploratory uses--that of the technology's curriculum not being consistent with the teacher's curriculum. Often, tutorial or exploratory products that are interesting in their own right do not have a place in a given school s course of study. In contrast, when technology is used as a tool, the teacher can still control the curriculum and the instructional strategy. The technology merely provides students with aids for studying that content or practicing those skills. Tool products can be applied in a variety of curricular--activities word processors for writing and revising assignments, graphing programs for mathematics instruction, desktop publishing systems for producing newspapers, and hypermedia systems for development of one's own study materials.

Technology tools are designed to facilitate educational and work-related tasks. They are flexible, lending themselves to a wide variety of activities across the grade levels and throughout the curriculum. From an education reform perspective, this flexibility is both a strength and a weakness. Whether technology tools are applied in ways that promote traditional instruction or education reform is dependent on the perspective, skills, and practices of the classroom teacher.

Word Processing and Related Applications

The most frequently used computer-based tool in U.S. education today is word processing software. When the first personal computers began to appear in the early 1970s, they were quickly followed by word processing software modeled after the early text editing programs. During the 1980s there was an explosion of microcomputers, and word processing applications became easier to learn and use. Both because facility with this software will assist students in higher education and work and because its support for revisions was expected to encourage students to edit their own work, teachers soon began experimenting with having students use word processing software for their compositions.

Over the past decade, a broad range of word-processing software has become available for educational use, covering virtually every grade level. Word processors may support higher-order thinking by allowing students to attend to the composing process, focusing more on ideas and ways to communicate them than on the mechanics of spelling and punctuation. With word processing software, students can easily review and revise their compositions, highlight key ideas, rearrange sentences or paragraphs to flow more logically, and try out alternative sentences or words to communicate their ideas better. The mechanics of spelling can be dealt with separately, assisted by a spell checker.

The authenticity of writing tasks is enhanced when students are given the opportunity to produce professional-looking documents, which can readily be shared with others. Standard word-processing software (which includes typestyle choices and formatting options), when used in conjunction with printers, provides students with a flexible tool for creating polished documents. Desktop publishing tools further enhance this capability. Many teachers have found this aspect of computer-supported writing to be tremendously motivating for students. In addition to taking personal pride in the look of their products, students are eager to share their work with others. Their writing skills develop within the context of meaningful activities, as they become increasingly aware of audience concerns and learn to plan and revise their texts more carefully.

More recent technology developments add to the tools that students can use to support writing and editing processes. For example, word processors incorporating speech synthesis 'read back" what the student has written, allowing beginning writers to explore the relationship between sounds and written symbols (Borg 1985; Rosegrant 1986). Instructionally enhanced word processors offer cognitive support, in the form of questions, prompts, and/or suggestions, for compositional tasks that are particularly difficult for many students, such as the planning (Rubin & Bruce 1985) and revision of text (Daiute 1986). Grammar analysis programs, electronic thesauri, integrated software packages, and desktop publishing software are additional examples of tools that may serve to support and extend students developing capabilities as writers.

Pea and Kurland (1987) see the next step in writing technologies as software that acts as critic, writing expert, teacher, audience, or collaborator. However, as Zorfass (1991) points out, it is the teacher, not the technology, who designs the context within which students will learn and practice their writing skills. Word processing software in and of itself does not facilitate higher-order thinking, revision, or collaboration unless the teacher creates a structure for doing so.

Hypermedia Tools

In addition to the new electronic databases and references discussed in the section on exploratory technologies, classrooms are starting to develop their own electronic reference and learning tools using hypermedia. Hypermedia consists of a database of information structured as nodes or frames, specified links between these nodes that allow for rapid movement through the information, and a user interface. Hypermedia can be used for (1) exploring a large database of information, (2) accessing elaborations on core information, or (3) building a database (Duffy & Knuth 1989). Although hypermedia can provide didactic instruction (by containing instructive text and graphics and tutorials) and exploratory learning (through simulations), in this discussion we stress its uses as a tool, either as a reference source for knowledge and information or as a tool for storing and structuring information to be accessed by others.

The most widely available hypermedia system is HyperCard, which has been distributed free by Apple Computer with its Macintosh computer systems. HyperCard stacks can contain still and animated graphics, text, and sound; they have been used for database management, demonstrations, and instruction. Given the ease of use of HyperCard, students and educators can create personal database stacks, educational simulation stacks, and tutorial stacks. With QuickTime, a multimedia integration package for the Macintosh, students and teachers can add video footage to their products.

In the Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments (CSILE) project in Canada, students use hypermedia to write, illustrate, read, and comment on material as they study science, history, and social studies. The system is used collaboratively, with students able to access each other's work and comment on it. Commenters may provide additional information, questions, or commendations. The author of the node being commented on is notified by the system, setting the stage for an electronic interchange concerning the content (Scardamalia, Bereiter, McLean, Swallow & Woodruff 1989).

In another project involving hypermedia, Discover Rochester, disadvantaged middle school students created a hypermedia exhibit, incorporating text, audio, graphics, maps, and music, describing their city for the Rochester Museum and Science Center. To gather material for the exhibit, the students conducted research on the city's weather, industry, culture, and economics. They worked in libraries and archives, performed observations in the field, interviewed people by telephone and face-to-face, and conducted experiments. Students learned to use a variety of computer software in order to best present their findings, and carefully crafted and revised their presentation (Collins, Hawkins & Carver 1991). Teachers in the Rochester project integrated computer tools, such as MacPaint, MacWrite, CricketGraph, and HyperCard, into the software environment to create a natural work environment, where tools for exploring real-world topics were an invisible part of the work space. Multiple experiences in using these tools in their research are designed to help students learn to select the appropriate tool for any stage of an investigation, without teacher guidance.

Hypermedia, insofar as it allows the creation of personal education applications, has the potential to circumvent the problems of "hard-wired" information retrieval systems (such as CD-ROM). If students themselves create or manipulate data in hypermedia (i.e., control the creation and linking of nodes or cards in hyperstacks), they should have better conceptual maps of the information. Research by Richard Lehrer (1992) and others supports this claim. Lehrer finds that students using hypermedia develop and retain more elaborated concepts, chiefly for those areas in which they themselves developed materials (personal communication). Hypermedia may be less useful for the person accessing information compiled by others. Students will not learn much from hypermedia if they get lost in a myriad of facts and information, lose track of where they are within the hypermedia, and do not understand the links created by another hypermedia author. Developers are working on tools to assist users in navigating through hypermedia stacks.

Video Production

With the increasing affordability and popularity of video cassette recorders and hand- held video cameras, this technology is finding its way into more and more schools. Many of the high-level planning and communication issues that enter into the process of composing written text have their analogs in designing video reports. Teachers are finding video equipment to be highly motivating and educationally valuable when used within a context that promotes study and analysis of socially important themes.

With more sophisticated technology, students can produce compositions combining computer text, video, and audio media. The MultiMedia Works Club (Pea 1991) is an example of an application that promotes an innovative and restructured conception of education, taking learning beyond the school walls. The technology used in the club, MultiMedia Works, is based on a film-making metaphor and allows students to combine text, video, computer graphics, and sound to compose, in effect, multimedia movies (Soloway 1991). The MultiMedia Works Club was held after school for students and teachers from a high-poverty area. The students selected topics, collected video and audio information in the field, assembled relevant media clips for their compositions, collaboratively produced their compositions, allowed their work to be critiqued, revised their work, and presented their compositions to others (Pea 1991; Allen 1991). Pea (1991) noted that "students learned to employ critical thinking skills while conducting their own discussions to analyze the media they had collected, focus on their chosen topic, and then select and logically organize the media to communicate their ideas".


Used well, technology applications can support higher-order thinking by engaging students in authentic, complex tasks within collaborative learning contexts. (The kinds of support provided by technology are discussed in more details in Chapter III.) Moreover, the projects described above have made it clear that projects using technology applications to support advanced skills can be successful with disadvantaged students.

Word processors facilitate the process of writing as a complex task. Both by facilitating the revision process and by handling mechanical aspects of writing, this technology can help focus attention on higher-level issues of content and organization. Use of this technology within a collaborative learning format appears particularly promising for providing students with modeling of the metacognitive skills involved in writing and editing.

Proponents of hypermedia argue that its nonlinear format, allowing students access to vast amounts of information with complex links to other information, promotes "rich" learning (Duffy & Knuth 1989). Although intriguing, these claims are still speculative. The clear advantage to hypermedia systems is their invitation to students to enter and manipulate information--copy it, modify or analyze it, or link it to other nodes. Thus, the technology invites active processing on the part of users. Additionally, hypermedia databases can be developed collaboratively by groups of students interested in particular information, subjects, or topics. Used in this way, hypermedia encourages students to act as researchers and to figure out how to organize the fruits of their research in a way that will be easy to use and interesting for others to explore.

Multimedia application systems redefine the teaching learning process and model the kind of education reform possible with new technologies. The tasks in which the students engage--library research, scanning media, talking to experts, recording information, writing or otherwise producing compositions--reflect the kinds of tasks in which they will continue to engage throughout their careers. The tasks are authentic and multidisciplinary. Additionally, students who use multimedia tools are active learners: choosing composition topics, doing fieldwork, and, at times, teaching the teachers. Students work collaboratively, not only with each other, but with researchers and teachers. Finally, given the complex nature of producing multimedia compositions, heterogeneous student groups function well; students with skills in different areas (e.g., videography, script writing, editing) complement each other and teach and learn from one another.

[Technologies for Exploratory Learning] [Table of Contents] [Technologies for Communication]

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