Technology: A Major Catalyst for Increasing Learning

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"If you can conceive of it, you can achieve it." (Kennedy Space Center, Florida) A rural Nebraska public school district adopted this philosophy when they applied for a three-year competitive Excellence in Education Grant in late 1995.

The school district serves approximately 1,400 students and is located in a community with a population slightly above 5,000. The economy is agri-related but somewhat diversified. Twenty-three percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch services; 11% for Title or Special Education services; and 14% for migrant education services.

Six school administrators and the District Technology Team of 18 staff members had the vision to design a plan for restructuring their schools and classrooms. Not unlike other educators and psychologists (Collins, Brown and Newman 1989; Resnick 1987), the staff recognized that the major skills needed by all students were comprehension, reasoning, composition and experimentation. Skills cannot be acquired through simply teaching facts but, instead, can be acquired by providing the learner with an opportunity to interact with the content, define learning goals, and explore new understandings through authentic, challenging tasks. Technology was the major catalyst identified by staff for encouraging the learner to interact with the content.

Purpose

The students involved in this study will live and work in the information age. Life outside the school doors provides opportunities for students to interact with their environment through television, simulation games, home computers and videos. Unfortunately our schools have not kept up with technology that has invaded our businesses, homes and marketplace. The purpose of this study was twofold: a) to examine the changes in teachers' and students' use of technology in the classroom and; b) to determine the changes in reading and math achievement for students in grades 1-3 over a three-year period. Students used an Integrated Learning System to improve basic reading and math skills and were tested annually on a norm-referenced test.

Research and evaluation of technology innovations linked to school reform have provided few definitive answers (Herman 1994). Attempts to answer questions focused on school reform with empirical data have provided little verification for policy makers, educators and the public. However, studies in public school settings produced evidence showing that increased access to information has positive effects on student learning. In order to measure these effects, evaluation in this study included alternative research and evaluation strategies that were qualitative in nature, longitudinal in design and context-centered.

Procedures

The information needed to answer the research questions in this study was collected from a rural Nebraska school district. The school district received funding for a three-year study to increase technology access and provide technology training to teachers and students. A computer was placed in each classroom (80 classrooms) and 27 computers were located in the elementary Integrated Learning Lab with Computer Curriculum Corporation Success Maker software. The computer software, Success Maker, automatically diagnoses and places students on the appropriate skill level while using the computer. The computer lab was used by 314 students and 13 teachers in grades 1-3 from January 1996 through May 1998.

A teacher survey was used to collect data on teacher and student use of technology in the classroom. The survey instrument was developed by Sandy Blankenship, a technology consultant for Educational Service Unit #6 in Nebraska. Previously, the instrument had been used in five Nebraska school districts to assess changes in teacher and student behavior relating to the use of technology. Following 3 years of technology staff development training (6 days per year), this instrument was distributed to 80 teachers. After two mailings, 51 of 80 subjects responded, for a return rate of 64%.

Blankenship, technology consultant for ESU #6 and developer of the Teacher Self- Assessment Survey, also observed in K-12 classrooms within the school district to determine if an observer could identify authentic activities taking place in the classrooms using technology. She spent two days in both the second year (1997) and the third year (1998) of the project making random visits to classrooms and recording the activities going on within the classroom. Activities that she observed will be presented with the results.

California Achievement Test (CAT) reading and math test scores were collected on 314 first through third grade students during a three-year period. By the end of the third year, 205 students had test scores that could be used for comparison. Twenty-five cases were rejected because of missing data. The information was analyzed and the results are reported in the following section.

Results

During the first six months of the study, the school district ordered and located a computer in every classroom and placed 27 computers in the Integrated Learning Lab. All K-6 classroom teachers were trained to utilize the lab. Technology staff development training for all K-12 staff members (87.5 classroom and specialized staff) was conducted continuously (6 days per year) during the three-year period based on input from the staff. Sessions were offered on areas such as the use of ClarisWorks, Microsoft Word, E-mail, Internet and Presentation Stations. Other sessions focused on the integration of technology as a tool in teaching and learning.

The six research questions addressed in the study were:

  1. Did the teachers' use of technology increase significantly in each area of the Teacher Self-Assessment Survey?

    A Teacher Self-Assessment Survey was administered in May 1998 following the completion of staff development training to determine changes in the use of technology in the classroom during the three-year period. The instrument was distributed to 80 classroom teachers. After two mailings, 51 of 80 subjects responded, for a return rate of 64%. Three of the 51 teachers responding had not been present all 3 years and, therefore, were not included in the results (48/60%).

    The survey contained 26 items, 13 of the items related to teacher use of technology. Teachers were asked to rate their own use of technology during the 1995-96 school year and 1997-98 year. A dependent t-test was performed on each item found on the Teacher Self-Assessment Survey. Items 1-13 were found to be significant at p<.001.

  2. Did the students' use of technology increase significantly in each area of the Teacher Self-Assessment Survey?

    The same survey as above contained 13 items related to students' use of technology. A dependent t-test was performed on each item found on the Teacher Self-Assessment Survey. Items 14-24 were found to be significant at p<.001 and items 25 and 26 were not found to be significant.

    Although Item 24 was significant on the number of students using the network on an average day in each classroom, Items 25 and 26 counting the number of times that students accessed the network and used Internet respectively were not significant. This may be due to the schedule change in the district's middle and high school after the study began. Although some classes are on a traditional schedule others are on a block schedule making it difficult for teachers to know how to respond to the survey. Some staff members indicated that they could not respond because of the varying schedule across periods in any given day.

  3. Did the teachers' involvement in staff development activities focusing upon the use of technology and constructivism impact the type of activities used with students in the classroom?

    In conjunction with staff training for technology, coursework for staff was offered on constructivism during the second semester of 1998. A local college designed the course to meet professional growth guidelines as well as to provide graduate credit for those staff members desiring credit. Sixty-three of 87.5 staff members audited or took the course for credit. The External Evaluator visited in May of 1997, prior to the course offering and again in May 1998.

    "During my visits I was able to observe many examples of students doing authentic activities. One very impressive project involved high school students building computers for the school. High school students also have a sophisticated CAD (Computer-Assisted Drafting) program available. They have developed building plans and created animation they could use to market a product. The Advanced Computers class designs Web pages and helps to maintain the school Web pages. They also digitize video and have created a videotape used to welcome people to the community. At the time of the second visit, students in eighth grade history class were learning to create panoramic views, where they make interactive virtual reality scenes. In Career Education class, students utilized technology to prepare letters of application, resumes and cover letters as well as to search the Web for jobs. In the K-6 elementary school, all students were constructing their own knowledge in the Technology Lab by working through modules specifically designed for each grade level. Teachers in this lab accompany their students, but are to serve as 'the guide on the side' rather than the 'sage on the stage.' Students figured out the challenges presented to them, only asking advice or interpretation of instructions from teachers. When visiting with teachers they commented that this type of instruction did take some adjustment" (Blankenship 1998).

  4. Did students with 2.5 years use of the Integrated Learning Lab (Computer Curriculum Corporation Success Maker) show greater gains in reading and math than students with one or two years of use?

    An Integrated Learning Lab containing The Success Maker Program software by Computer Curriculum Corporation (CCC) was purchased to be used with all students in grades 1-3 to provide increased opportunity for skill development and reinforcement in reading and math. Twenty-seven computers were available daily for use by each class in grades 1-3 for twenty minutes per day. Each classroom was assigned a 20 minute daily interval for their students to use the lab. Baseline, second year, and third year California Achievement Test (CAT) data were collected and analyzed. Although there was no significance in the means in reading and math found during any one-year period that students participated in the CCC program, there was a significant interaction between grade and time. The Mixed Subjects Analysis of Variance in reading and math for 65 students who entered the program in first grade and participated in the program for the entire 2.5 years showed a significant difference in scores over time (Figure 1 below).

  5. Did students who started below the 50th percentile make greater gains in reading and math than students who started with test scores above the 50th percentile?

    For students who were in the 50th percentile or lower in both reading and math on the CAT, there was a significant increase over time at the .006 level and .001 level respectively on the Mixed Subjects Analysis of Variance Tests of Between-Subjects Effects. Reading and math mean scores for students participating in the CCC Program are provided in Tables 4 and 5. Growth in student achievement in reading and math for students functioning below the 50th percentile is depicted in Figure 2 below.

  6. Did students who started above the 50th percentile make greater gains in reading and math than students who started with test scores below the 50th percentile?

Students who were above the 50th percentile in reading showed a significant decrease over time at the .000 level as measured by the Mixed Subjects Analysis of Variance of Between Subjects-Effects involving time. Math CAT scores of students above the 50th percentile did not decrease significantly over time at the .001 level.

Conclusions

The purpose of this study was twofold: a) to examine the changes in teachers' and students' use of technology in the classroom, and b) to determine the changes in reading and math achievement for students in grades 1-3 over a three year period. Students used an Integrated Learning System to improve basic reading and math skills and were tested annually on a norm-referenced test. The results showed that teachers in a rural setting generally perceived that their use of technology as well as their students use had increased during the three-year period of time. The External Evaluator recorded technology being used in a variety of ways in the classrooms during her visits.

Additionally, the CAT scores in reading and math for students using an Integrated Learning Lab for 2.5 years showed a significant difference between the means. The scores of students testing below the 50th percentile at grades 1-3 in reading and math increased significantly over time. These findings suggest that using an Integrated Learning Lab with rural primary age children daily over an extended period of time may positively impact achievement for students, particularly those students functioning below the 50th percentile.

Nationally, increased attention is being given to ways to increase student performance, especially for those children experiencing difficulty early in their school careers. The National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum and Assessment as well as the National Institute on the Education of At-Risk students have recently issued a call for proposals to conduct research to identify, develop and evaluate innovative and exemplary methods to improve student achievement. This interest is not new but comes with greater expectation since public school accountability is on the forefront.

Based on this study, future research in this area might include provisions for a larger sample involving a variety of settings including rural, suburban and urban areas.

In conclusion, rural schools with primary students testing below the 50th percentile might consider using an Integrated Learning Lab. Schools in search of a catalyst for change may want to consider the infusion of technology into the classroom. If another school district were to replicate this project, the Technology team members of the school district offer the following recommendations.

  1. Being the first school in the state to initiate a multi-platform network was a real challenge. There was great difficulty establishing network stability with Macs.

2. When considering vendors to provide access, be sure to examine all possibilities. Those that are most likely to be considered may not be the most cost-effective.

3. Be prepared to provide constant staff development when implementing projects such as this. The district's staff development budget needed to be increased to provide the necessary training.

4. Be prepared for staff to develop an additional list of needs once they become familiar with the new technology and see how it can benefit their students. Not only do they want increased hardware for student use but also many software needs were uncovered as they worked to improve student learning.

5. Be prepared for 6-9 months of chaos when you introduce a new program across a school district of this size. The learning curve causes much concern and stress for employees Ð especially those serving on Technology Teams servicing the needs of the employees.

6. The first year there was a great deal of pressure to get the project going and many other things were left undone. A project of this magnitude is definitely a three-year project or longer. The district did not allow enough planning time at the beginning of the project to make all the decisions necessary.

7. Schools should not attempt this kind of project without the services of a full-time network administrator. The person needs network experience in order to work out the quirks presented by a cross-platform network.

In summary, this school district philosophically believed that technology could be used as a catalyst for improving student achievement and impacting the types of activities that teachers use in their classrooms. Duckworth stated that "ideally, schools should be places where children have lots of opportunities, every day, to demonstrate that they are good at many things. But many schools, unfortunately, aren't those kinds of places. A project-based curriculum is intended to improve the environment for learning in schools -- to give students a fuller spectrum of opportunities for building their strength and confidence as learners" (Duckworth 1996). If you were to visit this school district, you would find students creating their own learning Ð whether it is in the high school hallways where they are doing a virtual reality project or the elementary exploratory lab. You could see students building computers during the daytime and, if you visit during the evening, there will be parents and children working in the labs. This school district set out to accomplish their plan and completed the project with data to support their beliefs.

 

Jody Isernhagen received her undergraduate degree from James Madison University and her Masters and Doctorate degrees from Virginia Tech. Beginning in a second grade classroom in Fayetteville, North Carolina her teaching career has taken her to Alabama (fourth, fifth and sixth grade remedial reading); Seoul, Korea (preschool and kindergarten); and Woodbridge, Virginia (second and sixth grade). She served as a teacher, Elementary Principal, and Supervisor of Elementary Education in Prince William County, Manassas, Virginia for 15 years. After moving to Nebraska, she served as an Elementary Principal in Hastings and as Superintendent of Schools for Crete Public Schools. Isernhagen recently joined the Educational Administration Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as an Associate Professor.

E-mail: jci@unlinfo.unl.edu

 

References

Blankenship, S. 1998. "Observations for Excellence in Education Grant: Final Report, May, 1998." (pp. 1-9). An unpublished paper for Crete Public Schools, Crete, NE.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S. and Newman, S. E. 1989. "Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing, and mathematics." In L. B. Resnick (Ed.). Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453-494) Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Duckworth, E. 1996. The Having of Wonderful Ideas and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Herman, J. L. 1994. "Evaluating the effects of technology in school reform." In B. Means (Ed.). Technology and Educational Reform (pp. 133-167). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Resnick, L. B. 1987. "Education and learning to think." Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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