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Finding the Promise of Educational Technology

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Finding the Promise of Educational Technology

David Dwyer
December 1993

Research Note#25

Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) is a research and development collaboration among public schools, universities, the National Alliance for Restructuring Education, and Apple Computer, Inc. Funding is provided by Apple Computer, Inc., the National Science Foundation, and through the National Alliance--the New America Schools Development Corporation and Pew Charitable Trust. The views expressed in this article are explicitly those of the author.

"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 formulated at a time when promises and excitement about the potential of technology to enhance the learning process abounded. Seymour Papert promised that technology in schools would some day be as common and ordinary 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 actually affect teaching and learning. Our vision and mission have evolved as we gathered experience and evidence of impact.

Technocentric Myopia

The idea that children might someday use computers routinely for learning seemed a natural follow-on to the prevalence and success of technology in science, industry, and business. Detractors, however, worried that computers in schools would isolate children from one another, that teachers were woefully prepared for the technological age, and that they would never learn to use technology successfully for teaching. 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 technology 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.

Two years into the project, about 20 teachers and several hundred students had spent more time teaching and learning with technology than probably anyone on the face of the planet. Their experiences shattered the most commonly expressed fears of the time.

  • 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, second and third graders commonly typed 20-30 words per minute with 95% accuracy. By comparison, children at that age typically write nine to eleven words per minute with pens or pencils.

  • 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 their 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 towards self and learning showed improvement. 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.[1] At our site in Memphis, TN, for example, computers were used purposefully to raise student test scores. Two years in a row the district reported ACOT students to have significantly higher scores on the California Achievement Test than non-ACOT classrooms in vocabulary, reading comprehension, language mechanics, math computation, and math concept/application.[2]

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.[3] 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 sixth-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.[4]

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. 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, they 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 short quote from a report by Phelan, one of the project's research associates, captured the staff's dilemma.

It appeared that children interacted with each other 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. [5]

An Emergent, Systemic Perspective

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.[6] Teachers began teaming and working interdisciplinarily. School schedules were modified to accommodate unusually ambitious class projects. Most teachers used the technology as a personal tool to accomplish their own tasks. Teachers' lessons and students' projects demonstrated mastery of technology and frequently integrated several kinds of media. One teacher at the high school seemed to speak for all when she said:

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 staff member and others, personal efforts to make technology an integral part of the work in 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 non-traditional. Teachers were experimenting with new kinds of tasks for students. They had become comfortable with new patterns of interaction between themselves and their colleagues. They worked differently with their students and encouraged far more collaboration among their students. In most instances, they had altered the physical set up of their classrooms and modified daily schedules to permit students more time to work on projects. They provided more opportunity for students to use a broader mix of learning and communication tools. Finally, they struggled with the need for new methods of evaluation. Students were working and demonstrating their mastery of skills and concepts in new ways that traditional testing failed to capture. Experimentation with both performance and portfolio-based assessment began across most sites.

Today, if you observed ACOT's 125 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at West High School in Columbus, OH, 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. Notes are taken on portable computers-- the soft clicking sounds of keyboards fill in lecturers' pauses.

In English students compose directly on the computer. You might find them writing gothic short stories, adding a sense of mystery with multimedia special effects. In algebra students collaboratively solve problems, exchange homework, and criticize each other's solutions. Sometimes they build animated HyperCard stacks that demonstrate problem solving techniques that serve as tutorials for other students. When exam time comes, students often work on computers, individually downloading tests from the network and proceeding to solve problems that are evaluated and graded as they work. ACOT teachers create these interactive systems as easily as other teachers create paper and pencil tests and mimeograph them.

In less traditional moments, you might observe groups of students building multimedia presentations about topics they researched--everything from Chinese history to first amendment rights to cell division 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. Over a month period, they researched buildings in the area, interviewed occupants and architects, measured and scaled skyscrapers, and constructed models, including robotic elements they built and programmed. The completed effort was a 20 by 20 foot scale model driven by a dozen computers. To share the model with the city of Columbus, the students produced a videodisk, designed and built a HyperCard interface, and proudly displayed the result in the lobby of the city's museum of science and industry.

These kinds of experiences are not limited to ACOT's high school students. In ACOT elementary and middle-grade settings, very traditional recitation and seat work programs have been gradually balanced with interdisciplinary, project-based instruction that integrates the same advanced technologies that are in use in the high school. ACOT middle school students, for example, work with Image, a professional scientific visualization tool developed by the National Institute of Health. They solve problems using planetary images downloaded from satellites and visual data sets from a number of government agencies that make current data accessible to schools. A few years ago when Hurricane Bob ravaged the east coast, students tracked it using digital satellite images and National Weather Service maps and succeeded at determining the multiple forces that interact to drive hurricanes across the face of the planet. At Orange Grove Middle School in Arizona, seventh graders explore systems thinking, analyzing complex medical and environmental issues of the day. They debate and demonstrate their ideas with interactive models they generate with dynamic systems software.

At the elementary level, primary-grade students practice basic skills at individualized rates, including keyboarding. They compose their writing on computers using a variety of word-processing software. Their reports are sometimes desktop published and sometimes produced with multimedia tools--video cameras, VCRs, videodisks, animation tools, flatbed and hand-held scanners, and sound digitizers. Second graders program using Logo and HyperTalk. By third grade, students construct robotic devices and program their movements using LegoLogo, and they master telecommunication, database, and graphic software.

Do these kinds of changes in learning environments benefit children? The accumulating record of students graduating from the ACOT program at West High School in Columbus, Ohio, provides one perspective. For example, half of the 1991 ACOT graduating class had not elected college preparatory classes as eighth graders before hearing about ACOT. By electing to join the program, these students were required to take those courses of study anyway.[7] After four years of participation in the program, their collective record compared to the entire 216 student, non-ACOT graduating class showed a marked difference. (See Table 1.) Further the 21 ACOT graduates received 27 academic awards, including inductees into the National Honors Society and Who's Who Among High School Students and recognitions for outstanding

                                   ACOT  Graduates     Non-ACOT       
                                         (21)         Graduates (216)    
Absentee Rates (%/Yr)                    4.7%           8.4%                
Drop-outs                                 0%            30%                 
College Bound                            90%            15%                 
Full Scholarships                         7              6                   
Tied for Valedictorian                    3              0                   

Table 1: Comparison of 1991 West High School ACOT & Non-ACOT Graduates

accomplishments in history, calculus, foreign language, and writing. But more importantly, 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. They routinely employed inquiry, collaborative, technological, and problem-solving skills uncommon to graduates of traditional high school programs. [8]

These skills are remarkably similar to a set of competencies argued for by the U.S. Department of Labor. Beyond basic language and computational literacy, they maintain that high school graduates must 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.[9] The importance of these kinds of skills to employers is also demonstrated by the fact that several Columbus-area businesses offered to hire immediately any ACOT students choosing employment over post-secondary education.

We learned that achieving these kinds of changes in teacher and student performance was 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.[10] ACOT teachers needed the cooperation of their principals to develop flexible approaches to daily schedules and grouping required by the kinds of interdisciplinary and project-based work they were attempting. When teachers began to team, their efforts were enhanced when they taught in adjacent classrooms. And they needed to plan together routinely during the regular school day.

If we were asked to identify the most serious, systemic barrier to the changes we witnessed in our sites, our answer would be student and teacher assessment. When ACOT students demonstrated new learning outcomes such as creative problem solving strategies or heightened abilities to play productive and collaborative roles in the performance of their tasks, their teachers struggled with the problem of translating those demonstrations into quantitative measures that could be entered into grade books. Teachers found it difficult to reward students for their successes with the new competencies. In the defense of their own careers, we witnessed instances of ACOT teachers interrupting 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. Unless thinking and practice in the domain of assessment of student and teacher performance changes at all levels of the education enterprise, there is little hope for the kinds of shifts we've reported being institutionalized broadly in American schools.

Lesson Learned: A Broader View

In the beginning, our conception was that technology supported individualized learning, self expression through writing, and drill and practice in classroom settings. We also believed that technology provided more 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 achieved these kinds of outcomes, we also began to see broader implications for schooling when technology became a significant, routine, and integrated part of learning environments.

We saw that meaningful use of technology in schools went 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 change in the learning culture at our sites. First, we documented an evolution of teachers' instructional beliefs and practices.[11] We associated new student competencies with later stages that followed the personal appropriation of technology by teachers. We saw that the greatest student advances occurred in classes where teachers were striving to modify their traditional roles and beginning to seek 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 expert resources and as learners; and students were challenged by problems that were complex and open ended. In these learning environments, knowledge seemed to be viewed as more than the mere accumulation of facts. In their assessment of student 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 for the acquisition, exploration, and expression of ideas. These shifts are summarized in Figure 1.

                           INSTRUCTION < CONSTRUCTION                                   
Classroom Activity        Teacher Centered ` Learner Centered Didactic  ` Interactive   
Teacher Role              Fact Teller  ` Collaborator Always Expert  ` Sometimes        
Student Role              Listener  ` Collaborator Always Learner ` Sometimes Expert    
Instructional Emphasis    Facts   ` Relationships Memorization  ` Inquiry and           
Concept of Knowledge      Accumulation of Facts ` Transformation of Facts               
Demonstration of          Quantity  ` Quality of Understanding                          
Assessment                Norm-referenced ` Criterion-referenced Multiple-choice        
                          Items ` Portfolios and Performances                           
Technology Use            Drill and Practice ` Communication, Collaboration,            
                          Information Access, Expression                                

Figure 1: Shifts Underlying New Student Competencies

What is technology's role in all of this? Personal computers, printers, laser disk 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. The same technologies can then be used powerfully by students to communicate their ideas to others, to argue and critique their beliefs, to persuade and teach others, 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.

In ACOT classrooms, then, new roles, new instructional practices, new ideas about assessment, an openness to system change, and new ways to use technology underlie teachers' successes. But the catalytic impact of technology in these environments cannot be underestimated. We watched technology profoundly disturb the inertia of traditional classrooms. It encouraged fundamentally different forms of interactions among students and between students and teachers. It engaged students systematically in higher order cognitive tasks. It brought teachers to a point where they questioned old assumptions they made about instruction and learning. Technology stood 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.


The ACOT program has come a long way since the myopic days of the mid eighties. 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 successfully through the kind of significant instructional shifts we described above; and how to bring such a program of staff development to scale. With assistance from the National Science Foundation and the determination of our school partners, we began in 1992 to develop a program of week-long teacher practicums and month-long summer institutes on an experimental basis. This work is ongoing at our sites in Columbus, Ohio, Cupertino, California, and Nashville, Tennessee. In short, 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 that all 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 the states of California, Tennessee, 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 technological 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. We believe their task was somehow easier. Their 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. The concept of enhanced personal productivity based on desktop computers, unimaginable barely 15 years ago, 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 the ways 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. 1 Baker, Eva L., Herman, Joan L., and Gearhart, Maryl. The ACOT Report Card: Effects on Complex Performance and Attitude. San Francisco: Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, 1989.

2 Memphis Public Schools, ACOT: Right Here in Memphis. Memphis: District newsletter, 1987.

3 Hiebert, Elfrieda, Report on the Writing Program at ACOT's Cupertino Site. Berkeley, CA: Unpublished report, 1987.

4 Similar results have since been reported in other projects with significant deployment of technology. Trends indicate 10-15% increases in achievement scores and 30% gains in student productivity when computers are routinely used in instruction. See James A. Kulik, and Chen-Lin Kulik, Effectiveness of Computer-Based Instruction: An Updated Analysis, Ann Arbor, MI.: Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, The University of Michigan, 1991; James A. Kulik, Chen-Lin Kulik, and Robert L. Bangert-Drowns, "Effectiveness of Computer-Based Education in Elementary Schools," Computers in Human Behavior, 1985, Vol. 1, pp. 59-74; Robert L. Bangert-Drowns, James A. Kulik, and Chen-Lin Kulik, "Effectiveness of Computer-Based Education in Secondary Schools," Journal of Computer-Based Instruction, Summer, 1985, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 59-68.

5 Phelan, Patricia, The Addition of Computers to a First-Grade Classroom: A Case Study of Two Children, Palo Alto, CA.: Unpublished report, 1989.

6 Tierney, Robert J., The Engagement of Thinking Processes: A Two-year Study of Selected Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Students. Columbus, OH: Unpublished report, 1988.

7 While the 1991 graduating ACOT graduating class was not a random sample of West High School students, we believe that 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 Tierney, Robert J., Kieffer, Ronald D. Whalin, Kathleen, Desai, Laurie, and Gale, Antonia. Computer Acquisition: A Longitudinal Study of the Influence of High Computer Access on Students' Thinking, Learning, and Interactions. Columbus, OH: Unpublished Report, Inc., 1991.

9 The Secretary's commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, July 2, 1991.

10 Dwyer, David C. "The Search for Instructional Leadership: Routines and Subtleties in the Principal's Role." Educational Leadership. February, 1984, Vol. 41, No. 5, pp. 32-39.

11 Dwyer, David C., Ringstaff, Cathy, and Sandholtz, Judy H. "Changes in Teachers' Beliefs and Practices in Technology-rich Classrooms." Educational Leadership. May, 1991, Vol. 48, No. 8, pp. 45-54.

See Also