Instructional Technology Through The Use Of The Internet
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Internet access and more constructivist teaching practices are commonly called for by national and state level commissions and plans. This raises two questions that were the focus of a study that I had the opportunity to be involved in. First, does Internet use result in an increase in constructivist teacher practices? Second, what other features of classroom life are impacted when the Internet is used as a source of information for student research projects? I will discuss the following questions as well as give feedback regarding my findings after reviewing several classrooms in the Riverside Unified School District.
While there are many definitions of "constructivism," most educators would agree that constructivist practices involve teachers facilitating students who engage in activities that garner their interest and build on their experiences. These practices also offer opportunities for higher-order thinking that routinely take students beyond finding and reporting facts to forming and defending opinions and solving open-ended problems.
Being that I am a Riverside Unified School District Computer Education teacher, I was chosen to be a part of a technology study team, headed by our Instructional Technology Specialist, Jay McPhail. Our objective was to see if well-supported Internet access changes practice in constructivist directions. Each school that was observed had a level of Internet access, technical support and staff development opportunities commonly called for by the district. Thus, the impact of classroom Internet access could be examined in an environment where the typical excuses related to the lack of some key ingredient were absent.
The classrooms that were observed are at the leading edge of instructional technology. The participating teachers and students are in a program called Tech Stars that deals with technology based instruction inside the classroom. Each elementary classroom has four to six Internet workstations with bandwidth equal to T1 or higher. Teachers have support from an elementary computer specialist and access to abundant staff development courses after school, which they are paid to attend. Each school containing these classes also has a computer lab with 28 workstations that classes use for about an hour a week. All three teachers were veterans with more than 15 years of teaching experience and more than 10 years of experience using computers in their classrooms. The Internet workstations had been in place for at least two years, and four of the five teachers had used them previously as sources of information for student projects.
At first glance, the activity associated with the Internet projects had a constructivist look. Teachers spent very little time giving direction and students were very active. Students were eager to help each other, and teachers spent most of their time facilitating student work. Students had many opportunities to tell teachers what they had found, and it was common to hear teachers respond with comments such as "I didn't know that." (Gardner & Gillingham, 1996) Most of the assignments offered students some degree of choice, increasing their level of interest and providing the opportunity to relate to their experiences.
The students seemed comfortable and motivated as they clicked from site to site, and while some students seemed interested in what they encountered, most were also intent on satisfying the requirements of the particular assignment. A closer look at the assignments, however, suggested that teacher practice had not changed in constructivist directions. In general, the assignments expected students to answer a number of factual questions. All but a few of the questions could be categorized as knowledge retrieval. Exceptions were found at the end of the states and the stock exchange assignments in which the final questions asked students for their opinions.
A look at some assignments that did not involve the Internet showed a similar emphasis on finding and reporting facts, as well as on higher-order thinking. All teachers indicated during their interviews that getting the students to think was the most difficult thing they did. However, it was clear to us that the addition of the Internet to the classroom had not yet increased the frequency with which students were expected to go beyond fact finding.
The idea that students spend some time teaching others is also consistent with the constructivist theory. Teachers understand that explaining something to others is an effective way to help fortify one's own knowledge structure. For this reason, many modern lesson plans allow for peer teaching on the part of the students. I found that using the Internet promotes this type of peer interaction and that it often allowed students to go one step further by teaching the teachers. In this context, teaching may be defined as nothing more than sharing simple facts, although it is not necessarily limited to such a fundamental learning activity.
Instructional Technology History
“Since microcomputers first entered the classroom more than 20 years ago, students have helped teachers learn how to use various operating systems, programming languages and applications.” (Newby, Stepich, Lehman & Russell, 1997) Computer experts among the teaching ranks have often been those teachers with the highest predisposition to learn from the most capable students. With the introduction of the Internet as an information source, the opportunities for all students to teach the teacher have greatly expanded. Given the massive amount of information available on the Internet, any student is now able to find information not formerly known by the teacher. “Students are likely to be energized and motivated as they report new information to teachers. Teachers who accept this notion can then build it into their plans so that all students are expected to teach the teacher.” (Forcier, 1996)
My observation of students and teachers support the notion that the Internet increases this type of interaction. Teachers and students alike felt this was a good thing. Students enjoyed telling teachers things they didn't know, and the teachers felt this added to the students' excitement and motivation. The message for teachers considering Internet use is to be prepared to learn more from the students as they dig for information. This requires that teachers adjust their attitudes to accept this type of role reversal.
During my observations, I noticed girls were at least as comfortable as the boys were in searching for information on the Internet. I found this to contradict the current research that supports the notion that computers favor males in the school population. Many studies show boys are more likely to take computer courses and are generally more comfortable using computers than girls. If our observations are any indication, the Internet appears to shift this advantage toward females. It changes the face of the computer world from one centered on programming and adventure games to one that includes a significant communications focus. For those who have only used the computer to browse the Internet and send e-mail, the computer must seem like nothing more than an innovative communications device.
The girls in the observation were comfortable searching for information on the Internet and were also more likely to take the time to read what they found. Boys, however, were more likely to look at the pictures and quickly move on to the next link. It was common to see one or two girls reading multiple pages of text, while boys in general only lingered when they found something entertaining. Several sites featured in the stock exchange project offered games or animations. Boys were quick to engage in these activities and share them with friends. Girls were not immune, however, from the urge to just finish the task at hand. During one visit, students were shown how to preview Web pages prior to printing. This was done to save paper and printer supplies. After finding a Web page that seemed valuable, one girl determined that the print command would produce five printed pages. So, she elected only to print the first two since she didn't want to read all five pages.
Forms of Communication
Although the schools had not started to engage students in two-way communications, student focus groups revealed that girls spent at least as much time, and probably more, communicating via the Internet at home. Instant messaging was popular with most of the students. At first we didn't understand why students would type messages to each other when it would be easier to call each other on the telephone. Several students indicated their parents would rather see them working on the computer than talking on the telephone. I realized that instant messaging allowed groups of students to communicate. It also allowed each student to be part of more than one conversation at a time. Such activities were much more similar to the conversations in which girls typically engage at lunchtime. Conversely, during such free time, I found that the boys were more likely to play computer games they brought from home or browse sites related to their favorite toys.
Using the Internet as an additional source of information increased the data available, and in some cases, allowed for assignments that were otherwise impossible. While the Internet projects featured active students and teachers guiding student work, this was not remarkably different from student and teacher project behavior before the Internet arrived. If districts expect teachers to use the Internet in a manner that increases higher-order thinking, they need to build this into their staff development plans. In my opinion, this should be part of the district's overall instructional plan rather than something that is solely relegated to the technology plan. It makes more sense from my viewpoint for the district plan for instruction to include the role of technology rather than a district technology plan that tries to change fundamental teaching practices.
The very nature of the information found on the Internet should also provide an opportunity to increase the frequency of higher-order thinking efforts. Finding information is now easier and much more is available; however, there is a price to pay for this additional information. Teachers, librarians or textbook publishers do not necessarily prescreen Internet information, unlike information from textbooks or library sources. The teachers and students in the observation seemed to understand that information on the Internet could not always be trusted
Once a district has the infrastructure in place, what can be done to increase teacher practice in constructivist directions? The key is to ensure the staff development program promotes active students facing cognitive challenges. This is at the heart of constructivist practice. “Assignments should be designed to give students higher-order thinking tasks at the beginning, while showing them that fact finding is a way to solve problems and support conclusions.” (Forcier, 1996) In the case of some of the projects we studied, students could have been told that forming and defending an opinion was the main task rather than the last of 10 questions. If possible, tasks should be open-ended so students will stop asking if they have the correct answer and start evaluating their efforts.
Garner, Ruth and Gillingham, Mark G. (1996). Internet Communication in Six Classrooms: Conversations across Time, Space, and Culture.
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Michael R. and Thompson, Ann. (1997). Educational Computing Foundations.
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Forcier, Richard C. (1996). The Computer as a Productivity Tool in Education.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Newby, Timothy J., Stepich, Donald A., Lehman, James D. and Russell, James D. (1997).
Instructional Technology for Teaching and Learning. W.Lafayette, IN: Prentice-Hall, Inc.