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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The World at Your Fingertips: Education Technology Opens Doors

Technology integration allows for limitless learning.
By Jan Hawkins
Credit: Marc Rosenthal

In 1997, when Jan Hawkins wrote this essay for The George Lucas Educational Foundation's resource book Learn & Live, she foresaw many of the exciting possibilities in educational technology now available to teachers and students. Although Hawkins passed away in 1999, her ideas are still vital and powerful.

Hawkins served for seven years as director of the Center for Children and Technology, in New York City, a nonprofit group conducting research and development on the appropriate use of technologies in schools, homes, and other settings. Work begun under Hawkins's direction continues at the center, and we are including her piece as a tribute to her vision.

Our schools have only just begun to explore the potential of information and communication technologies. They lag far behind businesses in using tools like computers and the Internet in their daily work. But there are already plenty of examples of how various electronic media can help students achieve more. This can be seen most dramatically in the ways that assistive technologies empower students with disabilities, allowing them to contribute in ways never before possible. It is increasingly clear that all students can benefit when technology is used intelligently to provide meaningful content and powerful tools for learning.

Students are conducting original research on the weather, for instance, using some of the same tools as professional scientists, then sharing their data and results with others all over the globe. Astronauts on the space shuttle and explorers in the jungles of Peru have involved students in the excitement of their discoveries as they happen. Using computer simulations, students are learning what it would be like to work in a particular career field, such as banking or hotel management, without leaving their classrooms.

Experiences like these help to prepare young people for a rapidly changing, highly technological world. In many jobs today, people use technology for communication, information gathering, and problem solving. Outside of work, growing numbers of people use electronic resources like the Internet to keep in touch with friends, do their banking, play interactive games, conduct research, and participate in online discussions. Since the power-price ratio of microchips continues to double every two years, it is likely that technology will play a ubiquitous role in as-yet unimagined ways throughout the lives of our nation's children and teachers.

Interactive multimedia and telecommunications technologies can be powerful tools for educational improvement -- but they're only tools. Like screwdrivers or space shuttles, high-tech hardware and software are most useful when used for clearly defined purposes. Their power can only be unleashed if we also pay sustained attention to curriculum, school organization, educational philosophies, instructional practices, family and community involvement, and the other components of successful schools.

Instead of asking, "Should schools have computers?" we need to focus on a more productive question: "How are technologies best used in education to help students achieve and prepare for the world outside of school?" In the rest of this essay, we'll explore three of the many facets of this question -- how interactive technology can offer richer materials for learning, affect the way time is used in schools, and support ongoing professional development for teachers.

Richer Materials for Learning

Traditional schools have long operated with fairly impoverished learning materials. In these schools, the primary sources of information are textbooks and the teacher's knowledge of the subject matter. While textbooks have a role to play, they are criticized rightly for often over-simplifying material and presenting it in bite-size packages that have little relation to each other. Additionally, they often provide outdated information. Teachers, in turn, should not be expected to be the main source of information, regardless of how deeply they understand their disciplines.

Technology brings into the classroom more interesting and diverse materials than ever before possible. Multimedia technologies and the Internet -- which come together in the World Wide Web -- are evolving rapidly and promise to offer easy access to everything from historical documents to breaking news. Hundreds of libraries and museums, including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, have already recorded parts of their collections in digital form and distribute these resources through electronic media. Science students are witnessing exciting astronomy discoveries as they unfold thanks to technologies that allow them to view images from the Hubble telescope.

Computer-based tools allow students to learn in a deeper and more immediate way. In a project called CoVis, for example, participants learn about science using some of the same research tools and data sets used by scientists in the field. Using sophisticated software, the students collect and examine data on the weather -- temperature, barometric pressure, and atmospheric chemistry -- and are able to display and view the information in color-coded maps and graphs that aid in understanding.

Using Time Differently

Ask any teacher and she'll tell you that one of the biggest obstacles to learning is the press of time. Given enough time and attention, any child can learn. But when a teacher is responsible for delivering instruction to a class with thirty or more students, she can rarely afford to give any individual substantial attention.

Using technology can change the dynamics of time in schools. By helping students work more independently, it gives teachers more time to work one-on-one or with small groups of students. With digital record keeping, phones in the classroom, and access to local networks to communicate with parents, administrators, and colleagues, teachers can spend more time teaching and less on paperwork.

By the same token, since it doesn't take as long for students to find information, they can spend their time evaluating, analyzing, and using it. Those with computers at home can continue to work on projects in much the same way as they would in school. By connecting to their school network or carrying their work home on a small disk, students can extend their learning. (The value of more time for learning at home is so great that some states and school districts are now loaning computers to families who do not already have them.)

More time for learning gives students the opportunity to wrestle with complex, real-life problems instead of being moved through material at a predetermined pace. They can develop useful skills while collaborating with other children around the world. iEARN and the National Geographic Kids Network are examples of programs that connect students so they can work together on projects over an extended period of time.

Through telecommunications technologies, iEARN participants share their knowledge and experiences and, at the same time, they make contributions to the health and welfare of others. During one project, students helped collect food and clothing for victims of Hurricane Andrew in Florida. Through the Kids Network, students work collaboratively to examine scientific issues, such as the effects of acid rain on vegetation in their area. This is just one area in a science and geography curriculum facilitated by the Kids Network. It gives students first-hand, investigative experience and broadens their knowledge of the world around them.

True knowledge -- understanding -- develops through exploration, rumination, interpretation, judgment, and the application of information. Thoughtful work on projects and problems requires roaming through complex resources, seeking inspiration, messing around, making missteps and mistakes, and experiencing serendipitous discoveries. This kind of student learning and the in-depth interactions with teachers that it entails requires time. The intelligent use of technology can help to provide that time.

Professional Development

As educators strive to guide students to meet higher standards and gain deeper understanding, teachers need to become expert with a new set of skills and knowledge. The lecture and drill methods many learned in college are no longer adequate to attain these goals. Professional development in new practices and in the technological tools they require need to be merged. Technology can assist with each of the four components I consider essential for professional development:

  • Intensive sessions where teachers are able to explore new ideas and materials.
  • Follow-up support over an extended period of time with mentors when teachers return to the classroom and try to implement new practices.
  • Ongoing, reflective conversations with colleagues doing the same job and trying to make similar changes.
  • Observation of other teachers in their classrooms, both for exemplary practice and observing the process of change.

As teachers begin learning a new practice or idea, they can use technology in the same ways their students would. Teachers who plan to use computers with cooperative groups, for instance, need to experience what it's like working together around a computer. They can then see the kinds of issues that are likely to arise and be more prepared to deal with them in their own classrooms.

Follow-up assistance, after teachers return to the classroom, is an essential part of professional development often skipped because of the expense. With telecommunications technologies, however, the experts or mentors don't need to be physically on site. They can answer questions, conduct seminars, and offer support via e-mail, teleconferencing, or other online forums.

Telecommunications can also help colleagues talk over the issues that arise when they are making changes to their practice. Teachers are among the most isolated professionals in society, particularly if they teach specialized subjects, like physics or calculus. A number of networks, such as LabNet and Access Excellence, have sprung up to address this need.

LabNet connects almost a thousand science and math teachers who solve problems together, share resources, and engage in collective professional development. Access Excellence connects several hundred of the nation's physics teachers with each other and with scientists at Genentech, a California biotechnology firm.

Finally, videotaping has created a new and more convenient way for teachers to observe other teachers -- or themselves. A number of teacher preparation and professional development programs now use videotaped case studies to analyze specific classroom practices and situations.

Technology is a powerful tool that gives teachers, students, and others new ways to address problems like chronic shortages of time, materials, and professional development. Used in the context of intelligent decisions about other aspects of education, technology enables learning to be limited by only one thing -- imagination.

Jan Hawkins was director of the Center for Children and Technology at the Education Development Center, in New York City, when she wrote Teaching and Telecommunications for The George Lucas Educational Foundation in 1993 and The World at Your Fingertips in the Foundation's resource book Learn & Live.

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

E. Thompson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am on board with the concept of technology integration but the question that is constantly recurring in the back of my mind is "What about SOLs?" In Virginia, like most other states, we have standardized tests that we are responsible for covering in our classes. We also have district wide curricula to which we are supposed to adhere. I can imagine covering the standards and using technology to do so but when I try to put the specific curriculum into the equation I get overwhelmed. I don't want to give up and maintain the status quo, which is what most other teachers do. I teach English and the tests are skills based not content based. How can I convince the powers that be that as long as the skills are covered I should be able to not follow the curriculum?

B. Bigelow's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey E,

I, too, am an English/Language Arts teacher---although not at the high school level----and I would argue that you should rephrase your question. Instead of convincing the powers that be that you should be able to deviate from the curriculum, find ways to incorporate the elements of the curriculum into your classroom technology integration efforts and then document for the powers that be the ways that your tech work is meeting required goals.

My classroom blog and podcast program---called The Blurb---is directly connected to multiple Language Arts and Social Studies goals for our students....and it increases motivation on the part of my students tenfold! While the kids earn no credit for participating on our site----students choose to participate during their lunch periods right now----we had hundreds of posts related to classroom current events last year that generated over 20,000 page views from 126 countries.

Don't view technology as an "add-on" to the required skills you're teaching. In the words of a fellow Virginian, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach---who currently teaches at William and Mary University----view technology as a vehicle for delivering your required curriculum in a format that your students will find motivating.

Rock on,
Bam Bam Bigelow----who keeps his real identity a secret as a model of Internet Safety practices for his students!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that our schools lag behind with the latest technology, as opposed to businesses! As we continue, to play "catch up" I do believe technology is a very powerful tool for our students. I love taking my students to Mali on a virtual field trip! I do continue to think about the best ways to use technology in my elementary school classroom. Finally, as educators, we are the most isolated professionals in society! Without a strong technology support team this can all be very overwhelming...

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is no doubt that schools lag behind mainstream living with the integration of technology as a student tool on a consistentbasis. The real question is how to change the "culture" of our schools to truly address the need to graduate 21st century citizens.

V. Mast's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Don't deviate from the curriculum but add to the learning experience. This website will give you more ideas than you can incorporate in the next 5 years. http://eduscapes.com/ -Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, authors of the site, are both long serving educators and educational consultants who have devised unique and inventive ways to bring technology into every subject area in a meaningful manner.

B. Rich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently taking my masters (integrating technology) and one of our requirements is to visit a blog. This is very interesting to me, as we all typically communicate with those around us. It's amazing that technology allows everyone to communicate together, no matter where they are in the country.
Back to the topic... You mentioned that you have a classroom blog and podcast. Since I am new to blogs can you share with me how it works in your classroom? Is it on a classroom website? How do you set it up? How do you use it? What requirements do you have for your students? I feel this is something that would motivate my fifth graders. They love doing anything on the computer and I am always looking for new ways I can incorporate technology into the classroom.

Nicole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wiki's are a great way to have a class interactive technology page. Students can participate and add to discusion, they can also add podcasts (such as writing their own history with a photostory and podcasting it to a class wiki) this is great for history teachers! I will be more than happy to share ideas and show you some sites to help.

B. Rich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I had not heard about Wikis until last night. I am definitely interested in how this works. What grade to you teach? I teach 5th grade and would love to hear a few ways you use this in your classroom and any sites you would recommend!

s. Thibault's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a second year 8th grade Science teacher. As much as I love my job, I find it extremely difficult and challenging a good portion of the time. I suppose, as a novice, this is to be expected. I work in a technologically challenged school. Our resources are limited. Fortunately, my boss has taken this issue by the horns and hopes to make great strides within the next few years. I am currently part of a technology committee, as well as a professional development blogging group. We've been learning about blogging for the past five weeks and this is the first time I have actually sat down to write a blog. Why is this? I am not exactly sure. I feel this whole idea of blogging and technology integration is essential for today's classroom. Yet, I have only become more overwhelmed and anxious when I think about how I will incorporate it into my classroom.
I am working hard to keep my head above the water. Everyday comes and goes so quickly. How can I slow things down enough to make these big changes to my classroom learning? Any suggestions on where I should begin or resources that may help me out?

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