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«ALLAN COLLINS is a principal scientist at Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., Cambridge, Mass., and is a professor of education and social policy at ...»

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The Role of Computer Technology

in Restructuring Schools

by Allan Collins

Most work in the U.S. is becoming computer-based, and the nature of schoolwork will make

a parallel shift, Mr. Collins predicts. The outcome is likely to be a more constructivist view of


ALLAN COLLINS is a principal scientist at Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., Cambridge, Mass., and is a professor of education

and social policy at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.

In a society where most work is becoming computer-based, school work cannot forever resist the change. Computer technology and electronic networks have slowly been infiltrating the schools.1 Because of the widespread and growing use of such technology in both the home and the workplace, computer equipment is unlikely to end up in closets or even to sit idle most of the time. Hence, for both students and teachers, there is a kind of "authenticity" associated with using this equipment; for students, the technology represents the future.2 When a technological innovation - be it the book, the automobile, or television - becomes widely available, its ramifications spread throughout the society, and that includes education. For example, the invention of the printing press - and with it the advent of affordable books - had profound effects on education.3 It made the ideas of universal literacy and public schooling possible and led to a de-emphasis on teaching the art of memory. The automobile - and the bus - led to the consolidation of rural schools, the dispersion of people to the suburbs, the split between urban and suburban education, and the practice of busing to achieve racial integration. The impact of television and video technology on education is already evident in the decline of the print culture and the rise of a visual culture, in shorter attention spans, and in a loss of innocence among children.4 Similarly, the computer and the electronic network are likely to have significant effects on education, and it behooves us to consider what those effects might be as we think about the issue of restructuring schools.

TWO VIEWS of education have been at war for centuries: the didactic (or information transmission) view and the constructivist view.5 The didactic view prevails among the general public. It holds that teachers should be masters of particular domains of knowledge and that their job is to transmit their expertise about these domains to students through lectures and recitations. Students should memorize the facts and concepts of the domain and practice its skills until they have mastered them, and they should be able to demonstrate that mastery on appropriate tests.

The constructivist view, which under girds the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, and Maria Montessori, holds that teachers should be facilitators who help students construct their own understandings and capabilities in carrying out challenging tasks. This view puts the emphasis on the activity of the student rather than on that of the teacher. Despite its predominance in the leading schools of education the constructivist view has made little headway in penetrating public education in America or, more generally, in the world at large. But the trends I describe below may change that.

Computer technology can be used in the classroom in three ways: 1) as tools such as word processors, spreadsheets, programming languages, and electronic network systems; 2) as integrated learning systems that present exercises for students to work on individually and that keep records of student progress for reporting to the teacher;7 and 3) as simulations and games that engage students in computer-based activities designed to be motivating and educational.

My argument in this article is that integrated learning systems and simulations (though important for educational purposes) will penetrate schools only to the degree that the need for tools provides a rationale for buying computers.

So the trends discussed below assume the use of computers as tools, though they apply to other uses as well.

It is obviously difficult to anticipate all the effects of computer technologies, and it may well be that I will overlook some of the most important ones. But researchers have begun to observe the impact of these new technologies on the schools, so we can at least make some informed speculations. There are a minimum of eight major trends that can be identified from the literature and from observations in schools that have adopted computers.

1. A shift from whole-class to small-group instruction. When teachers use computers, one or two students are normally assigned to each computer. Teachers do not find it feasible to maintain all the students in lockstep, and so they move to an individualized model of teaching. In their study of Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) classrooms, Maryle Gearhart and her associates report a dramatic decrease in teacher-led activities (from constituting over 70 % of class time when computers are not in use to constituting less than 10% when computers are in use) and a corresponding increase in independent or cooperative activities.9 This shift means that teachers begin to talk to individual students and to develop an idea of how much students understand and what their confusions are. Usually teachers have an inflated idea of how much their students understand, so watching individual students' struggle with problems may give teachers a more realistic picture of their students. The use of computers also means that students are more likely to go at their own pace - and often in their own direction - which can create problems of control for teachers. 10

2. A shift from lecture and recitation to coaching. As part of the shift from whole-class to individualized instruction, there is a shift from didactic approaches to a constructivist approach. Janet Schofield and David Verban document this shift in terms of language: teachers switch from second-person constructions ("You should do ") to first-person constructions ("Let's try this"). Gearhart and her colleagues found that, in ACOT classrooms, activities facilitated - as opposed to directed - by teachers increased from about 20 % of class time to 50 %. The introduction of a third party, the computer, into the situation encourages the teacher to play the role of a coach, in much the same way that a piano encourages the teacher to play the role of a coach in a piano lesson. Much of the learning is meant to take place between the student and the computer, so the teacher becomes an observer and a guide who ensures that those interactions are beneficial to the students' learning.

3. A shift from working with better students to working with weaker students. In whole-class instruction, teachers carry on a dialogue with their better students.11 This is because it is the better students who raise their hands to offer ideas. Teachers do not like to call on weaker students, because they do not want to "embarrass them in front of the class." In a classroom in which students are working on computers, the teacher is naturally drawn to students who need help, and those students are generally the weaker ones. Schofield and Verban document that, in one classroom with individual computers, two of the weaker students received four to five times as much attention from the teacher as the more advanced students. We see this same shift in the classrooms we have observed in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, as Schofield points out, there may be a tendency for the teacher to overlook students who need help but do not ask for it, because the teacher is usually very busy in these classrooms.12

4. A shift toward more engaged students. In settings in which computers have been put at the disposal of students as part of some long-term activity or project, researchers have reported dramatic increases in students' engagement.13 For example, Sharon Carver found that students who are so bored with their classes that they sleep through them are eagerly engaged in a project to construct a HyperCard museum exhibit about their city. Similarly, Schofield and Verban report that students compare how far along they are in the geometry curriculum and even fight over who gets to use the computer during the time between classes. David Dwyer, Cathy Ringstaff, and Judy Sandholtz cite several examples of teachers in ACOT classrooms who were encouraged to assign more activities on computers because students were so highly engaged during such activities.14 It may be that the reported increases in engagement are due to the novelty of the computer, but it is unlikely that this factor accounts for the entire increase. To the degree that the computer supports long-term effort rather than short exercises, there is suggestive evidence from these studies that students become invested in the activities they carry out on computers.

5. A shift from assessment based on test performance to assessment based on products, progress, and effort.

Assessment in most classes is based on students' performance on tests that are given after different sections of the curriculum have been completed. The introduction of computer technology and the shift to individualized instruction move assessment away from the classroom test, which seems inappropriate to teachers under the circumstances.

Schofield and Verban report that, in the geometry class they studied, the computer system would not let the students go on until they had solved each problem. Thus the teacher moved toward assessing students in terms of the effort and progress they made. When the teacher sets up a project-based curriculum, evaluation of students tends to be based on the products that emerge from their efforts. But for the present this creates problems for many teachers, because they do not know how to assess such products objectively. This problem has been solved for writing assessment in terms of holistic and primary trait scoring methods, and clearly some such scheme is needed for project-based work. 15

6. A shift from a competitive to a cooperative social structure. In the normal classroom, students work individually and compete against one another for grades, except when students drop out of the competition because of social pressures or repeated failure. A number of researchers have found a shift toward a more cooperative social structure in classrooms in which a network provides a common database for students.16 Marlene Scardamalia and her colleagues describe how students comment on one anothers notes, telling what they find interesting and what they cannot understand. Dwyer, Ringstaff, and Sandholtz note striking increases in cooperative behavior in ACOT classrooms, as reported from the teachers' journals they collected. Geuhart and her colleagues observed that, when computers were introduced into mathematics classrooms, instances of cooperative behavior increased from 10% of the time to 40% of the time, but they observed essentially no cooperative behavior in language arts classrooms, either with or without computers. Even Idit Harel, who studied fourth-graders working independently to produce a Logo program to teach fractions to third-graders, found students sharing ideas and expertise on how to accomplish certain things in Logo.17 However, Schofield and Verban found an increase in competition in the geometry classroom they studied, and it may well be that integrated learning systems generally encourage students to compete to get through the material faster. A study conducted in Israel suggests that the degree of competition depends on how easy the program makes it for students to compare their progress.18

7. A shift from all students learning the same things to different students learning different things. An underlying assumption of the education system is that every student must acquire certain basic knowledge and skills. This assumption leads to failing students who haven't mastered parts of the curriculum and directing students' efforts toward their weaknesses rather than their strengths.19 Electronic networks and shared databases foster a different view of knowledge in which expertise is spread among different participants and brought together in a common space.20 The National Geographic Kids' Network, which enables students all over the country to collect scientific data and to exchange ideas with one another and with working scientists, is an embodiment of this idea of distributed knowledge.21 Because of the trends toward individualized education, there is likely to be a secondary trend toward breaking the lockstep pattern of everyone learning the same thing in the same way at the same time. This secondary trend can be seen in the classrooms described by Dwyer, Ringstaff, and Sandholtz, in which students worked on different parts of complex projects, such as a model of their city; in the classroom described by Carver, in which students studied different aspects of their city to develop a museum exhibit; in the classrooms described by Scardamalia and her colleagues, in which students conducted research on different social studies and science topics; and in the school described by Denis Newman, in which students collected different data on the weather.

8. A shift from the primacy of verbal thinking to the integration of visual and verbal thinking. As Neil Postman has argued, the invention of the book took society from concrete, situated thinking to abstract, logical thinking. 22 The visual media - television, film, and computers - have begun to bring about a new kind of visual thinking, and a number of educators are exploring how to use visual media to enhance learning. 23 Computers and electronic networks potentially provide instant access to the world's accumulated knowledge, in both verbal and visual forms. This development may slowly undermine the primacy of the book, the lecture, and their accouterments, such as the multiple-choice test and the recitation class.

These eight trends are subversive to some of society's most deeply held beliefs and assumptions about education. In particular they make tenuous the view that the teacher's job is to impart expertise to the students and that the role of assessment is to determine whether students have acquired that expertise. So, inadvertently, technology seems to be coming down on the side of the constructivists, who have been trying - unsuccessfully to date - to change the prevailing societal view of education.


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