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.
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.
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.