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April 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 7

The Link Between Technology and Authentic Learning

A new climate in school reform welcomes technology as never before. Case studies show that as a tool for complex, authentic tasks, technology will be a powerful performer.

Instructional StrategiesTechnologyTechnology
Television in the 1960s, computers in the 1970s, videodiscs and artificial intelligence in the 1980s—all were predicted to transform America's classrooms. As we know, they did not.
Certain technologies have definitely found niches in education, but the technology of the last two decades has changed schools far less than it has the worlds of work, entertainment, and communication. On the whole, teachers have simply closed their classroom doors and gone right on teaching just as they were taught (Smith and O'Day 1990).

Why Earlier Efforts Failed

Despite its disappointing record, technology now has the potential to exert a much stronger impact on learning in schools. The greater potential is not due solely to technological advances per se—the exciting new capabilities like multimedia and wireless communication, the increasing accessibility of technology, and the beginnings of a national information infrastructure. A more important basis for optimism is progress in education reform.
In our view, early efforts to introduce technology in schools failed to have profound effects because the attempts were based on the wrong model of teaching with technology. Product developers believed in their content knowledge, pedagogical techniques, and in the power of technology to transmit knowledge to students. With satisfaction, the developers touted the so-called “teacher-proof” instructional programs.
How surprised they must have been that most of their applications were never used for very long. The applications had, as it turned out, a primary problem. They were an imperfect and incomplete match with the bulk of the core curriculum.
Two types of software were common. The dominator of the software market, computer-assisted instruction, tended to focus narrowly on drill and practice in very basic skills. Thus, CAI was used extensively among students with disadvantaged backgrounds. At the other end of the software spectrum, instructional games, simulations, and intelligent tutoring systems generally conveyed more challenging material, but only covered a very narrow slice of a subject domain and were often a poor match with state curriculum guidelines or teacher preferences. This genre of software, too, was commonly reserved for limited populations: gifted students, those who finished their work early, or students in innovative schools serving affluent neighborhoods.
Because of their narrow applicability, these two classes of software had little effect on what most teachers did with the bulk of their students for the majority of the school day (Cohen 1988). In contrast, today's applications software is likely to fare much better because of a new climate in school reform.
In the 1980s, reform efforts tried to improve student performance by increasing course requirements. Reformers did not, however, examine the way that teaching and learning unfold. Today's reform efforts, in contrast, strive to change the education system by fostering a different style of learning (David and Shields 1991). The efforts seek to move classrooms away from conventional didactic instructional approaches, in which teachers do most of the talking and students listen and complete short exercises on well-defined, subject-area-specific material. Instead, students are challenged with complex, authentic tasks, and reformers are pushing for lengthy multidisciplinary projects, cooperative learning groups, flexible scheduling, and authentic assessments.
In such a setting, technology is a valuable tool. It has the power to support students and teachers in obtaining, organizing, manipulating, and displaying information. These uses of technology will, we believe, become an integral feature of schooling.
When technology is used as a tool for accomplishing complex tasks, the issue of mismatch between technology content and curriculum disappears altogether. Technological tools can be used to organize and present any kind of information. Moreover, it is not necessary for the teacher to know everything about the tools that students use; students and teachers can acquire whatever technology skills they need for specific projects. In fact, one of the best things that teachers can do with respect to technology is to model what to do when one doesn't know what to do.

Technology in the Hands of a Skilled Teacher

As part of an ongoing project funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, we are conducting case studies in schools that are using technology as part of a concentrated program of school reform. On one of our initial site visits to a school in our study, we found a 5th grade classroom that illustrated how a skilled teacher can use technology to help orchestrate a project.
Frank Paul Elementary School is located in an agricultural area of California, which is troubled by poverty, crime, drugs, and gangs. The student population is 86 percent Hispanic, 7 percent African American, 4 percent Anglo, and 3 percent Asian American. A third of the students qualify for migrant education. Nearly two-thirds are limited-English-proficient.
One of the school's goals is to produce students who are literate in both English and Spanish, so some students do their content reading in English, while others use comparable materials in Spanish. The school's philosophy shows up in three other concrete ways as well: an ethic of respect for everyone's contributions; the extensive use of collaborative learning and small-group work; and an attempt to provide a homelike atmosphere (lighting is soft, and in classroom reading corners, kids can lounge on pillows as they read).
The 5th grade teacher, Cliff Gilkey, has 12 years of teaching experience, 9 of them at his current school. In his prior teaching experience, Gilkey used computers with primary school students. Accordingly, when the opportunity arose to obtain 4 computers for his 31 current students, Gilkey welcomed it. He shared the school's commitment to thematic instruction and collaborative learning, so he did not necessarily need enough computers for the whole class to use at once.
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  2. All students practice advanced skills. Complex tasks involve both basic and advanced skills. In this regard, the heroes project was typical. It involved students in a wide range of tasks, some of which called for high-level thinking.For example, the students prepared to conduct their interviews by analyzing interviews with famous people. From these, they developed a set of questions that would elicit certain information and generate interesting responses.Through this process, students learned concepts (such as the difference between open- and close-ended questions) and presentation techniques (like maintaining eye contact during an interview). Further, as the class organized its activities, selected appropriate local leaders, and carried out the videorecording and editing, the students learned and practiced complex skills in a variety of domains (cognitive, social, and technical).
  3. Work takes place in heterogeneous, collaborative groups. Initial practice convinced students that it is hard to conduct a good interview and take notes at the same time, so three-student teams went out to conduct each interview. One student asked the questions, a second videotaped, and a third recorded notes.After completing the fieldwork, each team of students reviewed and critiqued its videotaped interviews. In their groups, students discussed ways to improve their technique and considered additional questions that should have been asked. Students also prepared a written transcript and summary of the key points in the videotape and recorder's notes. While entering text onto the computer for later editing and formatting, the individuals on a team each took responsibility for aspects of the task (such as typing, spelling, or remembering and repeating what was said on the videotape).
  4. The teacher is a coach. Coaching, as Cliff Gilkey practices it, does not mean fading into the background. It means providing structure and actively supporting students' performances and reflections.As we observed the classroom, small groups of students were working on a range of project activities—creating a large mural of famous minority leaders, telephoning local leaders to schedule interviews, transcribing videotapes, and practicing interviewing skills. Gilkey moved from group to group, checking on progress, monitoring students' practice, and suggesting questions to explore.At the video monitor, Gilkey helped a group improve its interviewing technique. He asked, “What could you have asked when she mentioned that she had dropped out of school? What will the listener want to know?” Moving on to another group, Gilkey sat on the floor with students as they practiced opening an interview with a simulated microphone and camera (for 5th graders, simply introducing themselves and asking the first question brings on waves of self-consciousness). Gilkey had students work on maintaining eye contact and posing the initial question without looking down at the prompt sheet.
  5. Work occurs over extended blocks of time. Serious intellectual activity doesn't usually fall neatly into 50-minute periods for a set number of days. Thus, complex tasks put pressure on the conventional small blocks of instructional time.
Gilkey's project began in January 1993 and was expected to continue through the rest of the school year. In fact, at the time of our visit, Gilkey was contemplating extending the project into the next year by teaching a mixed 5th and 6th grade class, allowing him to continue working with a core of students from the first year of the project.

The Contributions of Technology

In the Local Heroes Project, technology itself is not the driving force behind the learning. Nevertheless, our observations in settings that couple technology with education reform suggest that the technology certainly amplifies what teachers are able to do and what they expect from students.
One reason that technology has this positive effect is that teachers see complex assignments as feasible. For example, in some case-study schools, the availability of database programs and graphing capacities is leading teachers to think in terms of extensive data collection and analysis projects.
Technology also appears to provide an entry point to content areas and inquiries that might otherwise be inaccessible until much later in an academic career. For instance, when we start assuming that 1st graders will have access to word processing programs, it becomes much more sensible to think about asking them to write before they are fluent readers.
A third benefit from technology is that it can extend and enhance what students are able to produce, whether the task at hand is writing a report or graphing data. The selection and manipulation of appropriate tools for such purposes also appear to stimulate problem solving and other thinking skills.
In addition, technology lends authenticity to school tasks. Because the products of student efforts are more polished, schoolwork seems real and important. Students take great pride in using the same tools as practicing professionals. At one school we visited, a student informed us with glee that “I know musicians who would die for the technology we have in our music class.” Technology also supports collaborative efforts (like Gilkey's interview teams).
Finally, in many of the classrooms we visited, the introduction of technology has given teachers the opportunity to become learners again. The challenge of planning and implementing technology-supported activities has provided a context in which an initial lack of knowledge is not regarded as cause for embarrassment. As a result, teachers are eager to share their developing expertise and to learn from one another. As they search out the links among their instructional goals, the curriculum, and technology's possibilities, they collaborate more, reflect more, and engage in more dialogue.
What technology will not do is make the teacher's life simple. The kind of teaching and learning that we have described requires teachers with multiple skills. The subject matter is inherently challenging, and because it is evolving and open-ended, it can never be totally mastered. Especially at first, the technology itself poses challenges, like learning to set up equipment, remembering software commands, and troubleshooting system problems. New roles pose many challenges, too. The teacher must be able to launch and orchestrate multiple groups of students, intervene at critical points, diagnose individual learning problems, and provide feedback.
Nevertheless, in classrooms where teachers have risen to this challenge, a profound change is occurring in the learning environment. Technology plays an important role, but it is a supporting role. The students are the stars. The playwright and director—and the power behind the scene—is, as always, the teacher.
References

Cohen, D. K. (1988). “Educational Technology and School Organization.” In Technology in Education: Looking Toward 2020. Hillsdale, N. J.: Erlbaum.

David, J. K., and P. M. Shields. (1991). From Effective Schools to Restructuring: A Literature Review. Menlo Park, Calif.: SRI International.

Means, B., and K. Olson. (1994). “Tomorrow's Schools: Technology and Reform in Partnership.” In Technology and Education Reform: The Reality Behind the Promise, edited by B. Means. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, M. S., and J. O'Day. (1990). “Systemic School Reform.” In Politics of Education Association Yearbook, edited by R. S. Nickerson and P. P. Zodhiates. London: Taylor and Francis.

End Notes

1 This article is based on work conducted as part of the Studies of Education Reform program, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Office of Research, under contract RR 91-1720-2010. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

2 This article is based on work conducted as part of the Studies of Education Reform program, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Office of Research, under contract RR 91-1720-2010. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

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