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April 1994 | Volume 51 | Number 7
Realizing the Promise of Technology
Since integrating computers into classwork, teachers at one middle school have found that computers have improved communication, promoted investigation, and inspired creativity.
Four years ago at Skowhegan Area Middle School in rural, western Maine, we threw out our computer classes and integrated computers into our curriculum. Now, instead of using educational software or spending a lot of time on training, students are writing stories with word processors, illustrating science diagrams with paint utilities, creating interactive reports with hypermedia, and graphing data they have gathered using spreadsheets. Learning to use the computer is only a secondary objective. The primary objective is to learn ideas from math, science, language arts, social studies, or some other content area.
Since their classroom teachers and I (as computer resource specialist) have been working together to integrate computers into the curriculum, students have become even more actively involved in their work. During a recent set of hypermedia projects, I saw two special needs students turn out a report to rival anyone else's in the class. A student who is usually a behavioral problem was running around the computer lab patiently teaching other students. Students discovered “special effects,” animation, and other features on their own; then I watched as the ideas spread around the classroom. A pair of “troublemakers” were intently on-task for two weeks while they completed their project. “Average” students grew as involved and interested as “gifted” students. Each child brought his or her own abilities and strengths to the projects, and the product was a collection of interesting and informative reports that made use of graphics and animation as well as text.
Skowhegan Area Middle School, often called SAMS, serves 500 7th and 8th graders. We teach students computer applications and fulfill their Computer Proficiency Graduation Requirement entirely from within the core curriculum. Instead of being broken into subject-based departments, the teachers at SAMS are divided into five interdisciplinary teams. Each team has a language arts teacher, math teacher, social studies teacher, and science teacher. Teams are heterogeneously grouped and special needs students are main-streamed with pull-in assistance. There is also a cadre of “exploratory” teachers (home economics, physical education, industrial arts, music, art).
We put a lot of energy into rethinking our computer program. Historically there have been two approaches to educational computing: (1) “teaching about computers,” in which courses about computers range from focusing on vocabulary and the history of computers, to providing training for students in keyboarding, programming, and various applications such as word processors and spread sheets; and (2) “computer as electronic teacher,” which has led to the success of “educational software” and integrated learning systems (ILSs) that are being installed at great expense in more and more schools.
In light of what we know about learning, meaningful projects that use the computer as a tool seemed to us a third and more appropriate solution. We know that students learn by constructing their own knowledge through using new information in meaningful ways. This new knowledge must build directly on what each student already knows, and the students must see the connection between the new ideas and their world. Further, students need to be actively involved in their own learning and the decisions about their learning. To achieve this, we decided to make computers a part of the school infrastructure.
Computer projects at SAMS are now firmly grounded in the core curriculum. We were able to do this because of the right mix of equipment, administrative support, computer resource personnel, and teacher initiative.
I am responsible for managing the computer lab, instructing students, and supporting other teachers. Sometimes I will approach a teacher with an idea for a project and sometimes the teacher will come to me. We collaborate in designing the project, and the classroom teacher comes with his or her students to the lab, where we team-teach the lessons. At first, I focused on the computer part and the classroom teachers on the curriculum part, but we have worked together for long enough now that there is no clear line between our roles.
Our students have completed a variety of projects. Some have prepared research reports using either the word processor or HyperCard. Other students have used the electronic almanac to explore a region or country, entered their data into a spreadsheet, and then generated charts or graphs. Other mediums our students have used to represent information include topographic maps, weather maps, mappings of volcanos and earthquakes, and maps using tectonic plates.
Time in our computer lab is flexibly scheduled around the curriculum-based projects. This ensures that projects are scheduled when they fit into the classroom teacher's curriculum, and that students have enough time to complete the projects. Each student gets approximately 25 periods a year of computer time. I maintain a Lab Log and Project Log to keep track of how much time each class has had, what projects different classes have completed, and Computer Literacy Checklist information for each student. Classes that are behind in lab time get priority in scheduling.
In addition, teachers may send students to the lab any period there is no class scheduled. This option has grown in popularity in the last year, and we have many more students working independently on the computers than ever before. Students also have an average of five periods a week of Open Lab, a time for completing homework or working on their own computer projects (students working on homework get priority, of course). Except on rare occasions, games are not allowed in the computer lab.
Our computer lab has 27 student work stations (Mac Plusses, SEs, and Classics). There are also printers, an LCD projection panel (for displaying a computer's screen onto the wall), a MacRecorder (for digitizing sound), a scanner, and a laserdisc player. Each academic team has in its classrooms between four and seven Macintosh Plus computers, with one or more printers (some teams have computers in each room; others have set up minilabs). Additional machines for academic use are scattered around the building, including two CD-ROM-equipped research stations in the library.
We are not a rich school. Our wealth of equipment comes from extensive grant-writing and working closely with the administration and school board to recognize technology as valuable and to develop a district-wide technology plan with on-going budgetary support.
Knowing that students learn best when constructing projects to demonstrate their learning, we use very little “educational software” in favor of tool software. The programs we use most often are Microsoft Works (the word processor and spreadsheet components), SuperPaint, and HyperCard. The few educational programs we use, (for example, Oregon Trail, American Discovery, Number Maze) are used primarily as a choice activity during Open Lab time or when a student has finished a computer project.
My special area of interest is the many ways HyperCard can make learning more engaging to students. HyperCard is a communication tool that allows students to create interactive documents using text and graphics, as well as buttons. Buttons make things happen—they enable students to jump to more information, play recorded sound, control multimedia equipment, or initiate an animated sequence.
We teach students how to use various computer applications only when they are about to use that application for a project. Usually that includes how to start the program, how to create a new file, and how to save their work. Our goal is not to train students in the many features of various programs, but rather to make these powerful tools accessible to them. Most lab time is used for students to work on their projects. We make broad use of mini-lessons and peer teaching to introduce skills like printing or formatting when individual students have a need for them. “Cheat Sheets,” our name for printed lists of instructions for regularly used processes, are available for students to use. Posters around the room spell out answers to frequently asked questions.
Students who are interested in learning more about computers can join the Student Computer Managers. This group of three to five students from each team becomes a resource to teachers and peers. Managers are trained in routine maintenance and trouble shooting computer problems. They are also trained to use special equipment, like the scanner and laser disc player, and they act as peer tutors, helping their classmates to use these tools. I also try to involve managers in decisions concerning the use of computers at the middle school. Giving students the chance to be Student Managers meets the needs of those kids who have a high interest in computers and allows them to assist me with maintaining and keeping the computers running throughout the building.
Although our students are very enthusiastic about our computer program, not everyone is happy with our results. While the Business Department at Skowhegan Area High School recognizes the success of our program, it maintains that the program has a negative effect on students who wish to become clerks and secretaries. Given time constraints and limits on access to equipment, we have neglected training in skills such as touch typing in favor of our integrated approach. The lack of formal keyboarding skills does not limit the success of our students, but business teachers find-they now have to break “bad habits” students develop before reaching the high school. As more resources become available, we hope to find a systemic solution to keyboarding that will support both our program and the high school Business Department.
Other feedback from our high school has been warmer. The English Department has used word processing for several years. Before we redesigned our approach to educational computing, many of our students didn't retain what they had learned and the high school teachers often needed to retrain our students in basic computer and word processing skills. Even though training is not the focus of our new program, the high school English teachers are finding that our students have become quite adept at word processing. We are also hearing that students are requesting to use computers more than in the past.
At Skowhegan, we feel that if students find learning more interesting and engaging as a result of creating an interactive project (perhaps one that makes information pop up on the screen when you click a button), then computers have served their purpose. If students become more enthusiastic about research—because they know that their final report is going to look good and be fully interactive—then computers have made a valuable contribution to the educational process.
Author's note: Portions of this article have been adapted from my book, Kindling the Fire: Integrating HyperCard into the Curriculum, (in press), (Eugene, Ore.: International Society for Technology in Education).
Mike Muir is a Computer Resource Specialist, Skowhegan Area Middle School, Willow St., Skowhegan, ME 04976.
Copyright © 1994 by
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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