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April 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 7

Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow: What We've Learned

After nearly eight years of studying the computer's effects on classrooms, ACOT researchers have observed profound changes in the nature of instruction, learning, assessment, and the school culture itself.

Instructional StrategiesClassroom ManagementTechnologyTechnology
We are at a point in the history of education when radical change is possible, and the possibility for that change is directly tied to the impact of the computer.—Seymour Papert, Mindstorms, 1980
Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow™ (ACOT) was launched at a time when excitement about the potential of technology to enhance learning abounded. Seymour Papert promised that technology in schools would someday be as common as paper and pencils, and many educators believed that technology would revolutionize America's ailing education system.
This optimism, however, rested on very thin evidence. In 1986, we set out to investigate how routine use of technology by teachers and students would affect teaching and learning. Our vision and mission have evolved as we've gathered experience and evidence of technology's impact.

Beyond Technocentric Myopia

The idea that children might someday use computers routinely for learning seemed a natural follow-up to the success of technology in science, industry, and business. Detractors, however, worried that computers in schools would isolate children from one another and that teachers, woefully prepared for the technological age, would never learn to use technology successfully. Others criticized software, pointing to its limited drill-and-practice design. What would happen to creativity if children had to channel their ideas through keyboards into programs governed by severe rules of syntax? And, oh, by the way, computer use in schools was just the latest fad that students and teachers would certainly tire of—wouldn't they?
ACOT began work in seven classrooms that represented a cross section of America's K–12 schools. We gave each participating student and teacher two computers, one for the home and one for the classroom. Since hardware in 1986 was big and heavy, the two-computer formula was the only way to simulate a time when students and teachers would have constant access to technology by virtue of some future state of miniaturization, portability, and cost.
Beyond the technology donations to these schools, however, we worked closely with participants and implemented a university-based, long-term research agenda to track the project's development. Like most projects investigating instructional technology at the time, we were focused on the computer as the key change variable. While lessons were learned, it was just a first step.
  • Teachers were not hopeless technical illiterates. In fact, over time they personally appropriated technology for creative expression and personal work.
  • Children did not become social isolates. In fact, cooperative and task-related interaction among students in the ACOT classrooms was spontaneous and more extensive than in traditional classrooms.
  • Children's interest in and engagement with the technology did not decline with routine use. In fact, they demonstrated a steady fascination with the technology and used it more frequently and imaginatively as their technical competence increased.
  • Children, even very young ones, did not find the keyboard a barrier to fluid use of the computer. In fact, with as little as 15 minutes of keyboarding practice daily for six weeks, 2nd and 3rd graders commonly typed 20–30 words per minute with 95 percent accuracy. By comparison, children at that age typically write 9 to 11 words per minute by hand.
  • Software did not prove to be a limiting factor, even in the high school classrooms where Macintosh was the tool of choice. (In the 1986–87 time frame, there was virtually no education software for the Macintosh.) In fact, ACOT high school teachers took an early lead in imaginative integration of technology across the curriculum by adapting general productivity tools—word processors, graphics programs, databases, spreadsheets, and HyperCard—to educational ends. Elementary teachers, too, learned the benefits of tool software, and by the second year of the project, drill-and-practice software was used less and tool software more.
Teachers successfully translated traditional text-based, lecture-recitation-seatwork instructional approaches to the new electronic medium, and for a time, whole-group instruction predominated in the classrooms. Student deportment and attendance improved across all sites, and student attitude toward self and learning showed progress. Test scores indicated that, at the very least, students were doing as well as they might without all of the technology, and some were clearly performing better.
At our site in Memphis, Tennessee, for example, computers were used purposefully to raise student test scores. Two years in a row the district reported that ACOT students had significantly higher scores on the California Achievement Test than students in non-ACOT classrooms in vocabulary, reading comprehension, language mechanics, math computation, and math concept/application.
At other sites, students already performed well on achievement tests, and no emphasis was placed on basic skill acquisition. Analysis of scores at those sites showed no significant increase or decrease, even though students were spending far less time on standard curriculum as they developed keyboarding and other technology-related skills. Our research showed that ACOT students wrote more, more effectively, and with greater fluidity. Teachers also found that their students finished whole units of study far more quickly than in past years. In one instance, a class completed the 6th grade math curriculum by the beginning of April, creating a quandary of what to do for math for the remainder of the year. In other words, student productivity increased.
While the addition of technology failed to radically alter the learning context of students in this phase, our observational data began to hint at other kinds of change. For example, teachers reported and were observed to interact differently with students—more as guides or mentors and less like lecturers. At times, students led classes, became peer tutors, and spontaneously organized collaborative work groups. Students had to be chased out of classrooms at recesses, and in some instances, worked with their peers after the formal end of the school year. Teachers reported they were personally working harder and longer hours, but enjoying their work more and feeling more successful with their students.
Despite general enthusiasm, as the curtain closed on the project's first two years, teachers were nagged by a sense of abandoning their traditional school roots. A quote from a report by Phelan, one of the project's research associates, captured the staff's dilemma: Children interacted with one another more frequently while working at computers. And the interactions were different—the students spontaneously helped each other. They were curious about what others were doing. They were excited about their own activities, and they were intently engaged.These behaviors were juxtaposed against a backdrop in which the adults in the environment variously encouraged and discouraged alternative patterns of operating. It was as if they were not really sure whether to promote or inhibit new behaviors.

Transformations in Thinking and Working

As the project entered its third year, we continued to gain new insights. In-depth study of a sample of students' thinking processes began to show significant change in the way they thought and worked. Teachers began teaming, working across the disciplines, and modifying school schedules to accommodate ambitious class projects. Most teachers also used the technology as a tool to accomplish personal tasks. In addition, teachers' lessons and students' projects began demonstrating mastery of technology and frequently integrated several kinds of media. The comment of a teacher at the high school expressed a common sentiment: As you work into using the computer in the classroom, you start questioning everything you have done in the past, and wonder how you can adapt it to the computer. Then, you start questioning the whole concept of what you originally did. I guess I have to realize that what I am doing is learning how to undo my thinking. For this teacher and others, personal efforts to make technology an integral part of their classrooms opened them to the possibilities of redefining how they went about providing opportunities for students to learn.
By the end of year four, ACOT classrooms had become an interesting mix of the traditional and nontraditional. Teachers were experimenting with new kinds of tasks for students. In addition to becoming comfortable with new patterns of collegial interaction, they also encouraged far more collaboration among their students. In most instances, teachers had altered the physical setup of their classrooms and modified daily schedules to permit students more time to work on projects. They also provided more opportunities for students to use a broader mix of learning and communication tools. Finally, teachers struggled with the need for new methods of evaluation that could capture the novel ways that students were demonstrating their mastery of skills and concepts. Experimentation with both performance- and portfolio-based assessment began across most sites.
Today, if you observed ACOT's 125 students in 9th through 12th grade at West High School in Columbus, Ohio, you would still see relatively traditional high school activities: lectures and recitations, writing assignments, and math problem sets. But you would also notice differences even in those basic activities. Students deliver lectures along with their teachers, and they take notes on portable computers—with the soft clicking sounds of keyboards filling in lecturers' pauses.
In English, you might find students composing gothic short stories on the computer, adding a sense of mystery with multimedia special effects. In algebra, students collaboratively solve problems, exchange homework, and criticize one another's solutions. Sometimes they build animated HyperCard stacks that demonstrate problem-solving techniques for use as tutorials with other students. When exam time comes, you may see students individually downloading tests from the network and proceeding to solve problems that are evaluated as they work. ACOT teachers create these interactive systems as easily as other teachers generate and administer paper-and-pencil tests.
In less traditional moments, you might observe groups of students building multimedia presentations about diverse topics—everything from Chinese history to First Amendment rights to the works of French and Spanish artists (written in French and Spanish). Or you might see work in progress on a whole-class, interdisciplinary project.
In one such effort, students created a scale model of the renovated business district in Columbus. They spent a month researching buildings, interviewing occupants and architects, and measuring and scaling skyscrapers to size. As a final product, the students created a 20-by-20-foot scale model, including robotic elements they had built and programmed, controlled by a dozen computers. To share their effort with the city of Columbus, the students produced a videodisc, designed and built a HyperCard interface, and proudly displayed the model in the lobby of the city's museum of science and industry.
Experiences such as these are not limited to ACOT's high school students. In elementary and middle grade settings, traditional recitation and seatwork have been gradually balanced with interdisciplinary, project-based instruction that integrates the same advanced technologies in use in the high school. ACOT middle school students, for example, work with Image, a professional scientific visualization tool developed by the National Institutes of Health. They also solve problems using planetary images downloaded from satellites and visual data sets from government agencies that make current data accessible to schools. A few years ago when Hurricane Bob ravaged the east coast, middle school students used digital satellite images and National Weather Service maps to track the storm and determine the multiple forces that interact to drive hurricanes across the face of the planet.
At the elementary level, children practice basic skills at individualized rates, including keyboarding. Using a variety of word processing software, students compose reports on computers and then desktop-publish them. Other times, they may produce their reports using video cameras, VCRs, videodiscs, animation tools, flatbed and hand-held scanners, and sound digitizers. In 2nd grade, children learn to program using Logo and HyperTalk™. By 3rd grade, students construct robotic devices and program their movements using LegoLogo™. During the year, they also master telecommunication, database, and graphic software.

The Benefits and The Barriers

Do these kinds of changes in learning environments benefit children? The record of students graduating from the ACOT program at West High School in Columbus, Ohio, provides one perspective. For example, as 8th graders, half of the 1991 ACOT graduating class had not elected college preparatory classes. But after choosing to join the program, they were required to take those courses anyway.
After four years in the program, their collective record compared to the entire 216-student, traditional graduating class showed a marked difference. They accumulated an impressive array of accomplishments. For example, the average rate of absenteeism was cut almost in half, and 90 percent of the ACOT graduates went on to college. Further, the 21 ACOT graduates garnered 27 academic awards, including being inducted into the National Honors Society and “Who's Who Among High School Students” and receiving recognitions for outstanding accomplishments in history, calculus, foreign language, and writing.
But more important, a four-year longitudinal study of these students showed their greatest difference to be the manner in which they organized for and accomplished their work. Routinely they employed inquiry, collaborative, technological, and problem-solving skills uncommon to graduates of traditional high school programs. These skills are remarkably similar to the competencies recommended by the U.S. Department of Labor. Beyond basic language and computational literacy, they call for high school graduates to master the abilities to organize resources; work with others; locate, evaluate, and use information; understand complex work systems; and work with a variety of technologies. That employers want these kinds of skills is demonstrated by the fact that several Columbus-area businesses have offered to immediately hire any ACOT students choosing employment over post-secondary education.
Achieving these kinds of changes in teacher and student performance, however, is extremely difficult without broad support at higher levels in the school systems. Nascent programs require the encouragement, resources, and buffering that only administrators in their role as instructional leaders can provide. ACOT teachers need the cooperation of their principals to develop the flexible schedules and grouping required by the new kinds of interdisciplinary and project-based work. Further, when teachers begin to team, their efforts are enhanced by teaching in adjacent classrooms. And the new instructional approaches demand that teachers have time to plan together routinely during the school day.
If we were asked to identify the most serious, systemic barrier to the transformations we witnessed, our answer would be student and teacher assessment. When students demonstrated new learning outcomes such as creative problem-solving strategies or heightened abilities to collaborate in performing tasks, their teachers struggled with how to translate those demonstrations into quantitative measures that could be entered into grade books. Rewarding students for their successes with the new competencies proved difficult. In defense of their own careers, ACOT teachers sometimes interrupted the natural flow of project-based activities to “demonstrate” whole-class direct instruction for the benefit of district evaluators, whose instruments were too inflexible to accommodate more active classroom environments. Thus, if the kinds of shifts we've reported are to have any hope of thriving in American schools, thinking and practice in the domain of assessment of student and teacher performance must change at all levels of education.

Lesson Learned: A Broader View

In the beginning, we believed that technology supported individualized learning, self-expression through writing, and drill-and-practice. We also maintained that technology provided greater motivation for students than anything in recent memory. Aside from more freedom for students to work at their own pace, we expected a smooth integration of technology into fairly traditional classrooms. In short, we believed more knowledge could be “transferred” to students more efficiently with the simple addition of this new instructional tool.
While teachers did achieve these kinds of outcomes, broader implications for schooling became apparent. Meaningful use of technology in schools, we realized, goes far beyond just dropping technology into classrooms. By the time our sites were reporting new kinds of outcomes for students, we had witnessed what amounted to a transformation of their learning cultures. For example, teachers' instructional beliefs and practices underwent an evolution, and we believed the improvement in students' competencies to be a result of teachers' personal appropriation of the technology.
Further, the greatest student advances occurred in classes where teachers were beginning to achieve a balance between the appropriate use of direct instruction strategies and collaborative, inquiry-driven knowledge-construction strategies. In those classes, interaction among students was ordinary and purposeful; children were seen as learners and as expert resources; and students were challenged by problems that were complex and open-ended. In assessing students' work, teachers looked for evidence of deeper understanding—statements of relationships, synthesis, and generalization of ideas to new domains. And, of course, students had opportunities to use a variety of tools to acquire, explore, and express ideas (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Shifts Underlying New Student Competencies

Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow: What We've Learned-table



Classroom ActivityTeacher-Centered DidacticLearner-Centered Interactive
Teacher RoleFact Teller Always ExpertCollaborator Sometimes Learner
Student RoleListener Always LearnerCollaborator Sometimes Expert
Instructional EmphasisFacts MemorizationRelationships Inquiry and Invention
Concept of KnowledgeAccumulation of FactsTransformation of Facts
Demonstration of SuccessQuantityQuality of Understanding
AssessmentNorm-Referenced Multiple-Choice ItemsCriterion-Referenced Portfolios and Performances
Technology UseDrill and PracticeCommunication, Collaboration, Information Access, Expression
What is technology's role in all of this? Personal computers, printers, laserdisc players, VCRs, scanners, and general-purpose tool software like word processors and HyperCard provide an excellent platform—a conceptual environment—where children can collect information in multiple formats and then organize, play, visualize, link, and discover relationships among facts and events. Students can then use the same technologies to communicate their ideas to others, to argue and critique their beliefs, to persuade and teach others, and to add greater levels of understanding to their own growing knowledge. Simply put, an array of tools for acquiring information and for thinking and expression allows more children more ways to enter the learning enterprise successfully. These same experiences provide the skills that will enable students to live productive lives in the global, digital, information-based future they all face.
  • encourages fundamentally different forms of interactions among students and between students and teachers;
  • engages students systematically in higher-order cognitive tasks; and
  • prompts teachers to question old assumptions about instruction and learning.
Technology stands out in our classrooms as a symbol to teachers, parents, and students that schooling can and will change, that classrooms may have some bearing on the 21st century after all.

About Technology and People

The ACOT program has come a long way since the myopic days of the mid-80s. We know, today, that the problem of bringing technology meaningfully into schools is both human and technological. Our current mission statement reflects this point: Change the way people think about and use technology for learning.
To this end, we are focusing our efforts on two related problems in the human domain: how to support teachers through the kind of significant instructional shifts described above, and how to bring such a program of staff development to scale. In 1992, with assistance from the National Science Foundation and the determination of our school partners, we began an experimental, ongoing program of week-long teacher practicums and month-long summer institutes at our sites in Columbus, Ohio; Cupertino, California; and Nashville, Tennessee. Since that time, they have become clinical teaching centers, where teams of teachers from all over the country work with ACOT mentors—in their classrooms—observing and developing models of curriculum, pedagogy, alternative assessment, and technology integration. All of these factors add up to authentic learning for students. This year, through partnership with the National Alliance for Restructuring Education—one of the New America School Development Corporation's projects—we are opening seven additional ACOT Teacher Development Centers in California, Kentucky, Vermont, and Washington.
A final challenge in the human development domain does relate directly to technology or, more to the point, to the rate of innovation and change. We look with envy at educational innovators of the past; for example, those who introduced McGuffey Eclectic Readers to classrooms in the 1800s. Their task was somehow easier because book-based information technology evolved in the mid-15th century and had been virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. Now, we are engaged with an information technology that reinvents itself with startling rapidity.
Unimaginable barely 15 years ago, the concept of enhanced personal productivity based on desktop computers is rapidly giving way to metaphors of data highways and virtual communities. The appearance of palm-sized and wireless devices, multimedia-capable laptops, virtual reality headsets, and voice-driven computing—all in the last couple of years—promises continuing waves of change in how we work, learn, and recreate.
Our teacher development challenge, then, includes helping to build a teacher force aware of, and eager for, change—a teacher force that is fleet in mind and steady in heart and rededicated to helping all children find success in their world.
End Notes

1 E. L. Baker, J. L. Herman, and M. Gearhart, (1989), The ACOT Report Card: Effects on Complex Performance and Attitude, paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

2 Memphis Public Schools, (1987), ACOT: Right Here in Memphis, Memphis District Newsletter.

3 E. Hiebert, (1987), “Report on the Writing Program at ACOT's Cupertino Site,” unpublished report, Berkeley, Calif.

4 E. Hiebert, (1987), “Report on the Writing Program at ACOT's Cupertino Site,” unpublished report, Berkeley, Calif.

5 P. Phelan, (1989), “The Addition of Computers to a First-Grade Classroom: A Case Study of Two Children,” unpublished report, Palo Alto, Calif.

6 R. J. Tierney, (1988), “The Engagement of Thinking Processes: A Two-Year Study of Selected Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Students,” unpublished report, Columbus, Ohio.

7 While the 1991 graduating ACOT graduating class was not a random sample of West High School students, the magnitude of difference between their performance and their peers is provocative. Moreover, we have seen similar outcomes in four graduating cohorts, 1990–1993.

8 R. J. Tierney, R. D. Kieffer, K. Whalin, L. Desai, and A. Gale, (1991), “Computer Acquisition: A Longitudinal Study of the Influence of High Computer Access on Students' Thinking, Learning, and Interactions,” unpublished report, Columbus, Ohio.

9 R. J. Tierney, R. D. Kieffer, K. Whalin, L. Desai, and A. Gale, (1991), “Computer Acquisition: A Longitudinal Study of the Influence of High Computer Access on Students' Thinking, Learning, and Interactions,” unpublished report, Columbus, Ohio.

10 D. C. Dwyer, (February 1984), “The Search for Instructional Leadership: Routines and Subtleties in the Principal's Role,” Educational Leadership 41, 5: 32–39.

11 D. C. Dwyer, C. Ringstaff, and J. H. Sandholtz, (May 1991), “Changes in Teachers' Beliefs and Practices in Technology-Rich Classrooms,” Educational Leadership 48, 8: 45–54.

David Dwyer has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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