Technology and Student Collaboration

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A Research Project in One Botswana Secondary School

Technology use in botswana schools is relatively new compared to many other parts of the world. And because of its financial implications, the decision to implement technology had to be weighed against many other pressing needs, such as access to basic education, food and shelter. However, improving the quality of education is one of the country's top priorities, mainly because education has been heavily criticized for failing to better prepare students to work and participate in their society.

In 1994, the Revised National Policy on Education (RNPE) was released. It stated that computers should be introduced in Botswana schools to help enhance learning, as well as to help the country in its transition from an agriculturally based economy to an industrial one. The Ministry of Education introduced a computer studies course, which was taken by only a few students because of the limited number of computers. The course was aimed at equipping students with computer skills that would be useful for them outside of school. Computers are also used in different subjects to assist learning.

The literature is overwhelmingly positive about the potential of technology to be a powerful tool in strengthening the quality of education and making it more interesting, engaging and, most important, student centered. Research on the effects of technology on student learning is also positive, with studies reporting how technology helps students learn better.

The "Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection" report (1995) found many examples of how technology helps learning nationwide. Teachers in the study reported that technology helps motivate students to learn and address other students with different learning styles. The teachers also reported that students on the verge of quitting often find a new interest in school when they work with technology. Students were able to communicate with others outside of their school and bond with students across the globe, as well. The study concludes that these activities cannot easily take place in a normal school day, but are possible with technology and careful guidance from teachers.

Computers have also been accepted in schools, since they promise a new dimension to education. Dede (1995) proposes that computers enhance education by providing them more active learning, more varied sensory and conceptual modes, less mental drudgery, learning better tailored to individuals, and better aid to abstraction. Educators and psychologists believe that higher levels of comprehension and reasoning are not acquired through transmitting facts, but through the learner's interaction with content. These beliefs adhere to the theory of constructivism - that knowledge is constructed, not transmitted. According to constructivism, knowledge is constructed in multiple ways, as well as through a variety of tools, resources, experiences and contexts. The constructivist learning theory tells us that the more opportunities we have, and the more actively engaged we are, the richer our understanding.

According to the National Council for the Social Studies, an effective way to involve students actively in authentic problem solving or decision making is to incorporate technology into the classroom. In this way, students learn to access and utilize technology, which will assist students as they enter a world where their jobs and personal lives require the acquisition, evaluation and maintenance of information.

Exploration Beyond the Classroom

Technology can help learners explore the world beyond the classroom by providing access to vast resources and information, scientific inquiry and discovery, as well as allowing students to communicate with experts. According to Forman and Pufall (1988), through technology, students have access to resources that are not available within their physical grasp. These promises encouraged the Botswana government to introduce computer use in schools so that learning improves and some of the problems in education, such as teacher-centered learning, are redressed. If computers were introduced in schools as a method of improving learning, then one way to determine if this is happening is by examining how students and teachers interact with these computers. Such knowledge is very useful for educators in determining whether technology is playing a beneficial role in education.

Similar projects of implementing technology use in schools have been started in other developing countries, such as South Africa and Trinidad. The Internet Learning Trust, a U.K.-based nonprofit organization that is committed to promoting technology use in schools in developing countries, is working with Trinidad's Ministry of Education to develop an information and communication technology (ICT) strategy for the Trinidad and Tobago government. The ICT strategy they're developing includes special references to the Internet and its potential to enrich the existing curriculum. An important part of this work will be to provide ICT induction training for Trinidad and Tobago teachers, providing a valuable model and resource material for the further expansion of the project to all Trinidad and Tobago schools in the future (Trinidad ICT School Project 2000).

In 1998, a project called the Birmingham-Soweto School Link Project was developed in South Africa. This project linked 22 U.K. schools with schools in South Africa, five of which were selected to take part in the first phase of the project. This project installs computers in schools and links them to the Internet, which the schools use for e-mail, videoconferencing and browsing the Web.

The school involved with this study is a senior secondary school where students complete Forms Four and Five, which are equivalent to the last two grades of high school in the United States. Students in this school come from diverse educational backgrounds in terms of computer use. Some come from junior high schools where they used computers. Others used computers during their primary or preschool education. And some have had no computer experience.

This study engaged qualitative methodology of in-depth interviewing and participant observation to collect data. Interviews were conducted among 25 participants - 15 students, six teachers, the headmaster and three officials from the Ministry of Education. Observations were also made in computer-assisted classrooms, while in session, to get a better feel of what was happening in the classes.

Contextual Learning

Participants in this study reported a changed environment in the classroom when technology was part of learning. Teachers said students were more excited and enthusiastic about learning. Collaboration was mentioned as the most reported effect of computers in the classroom. The teachers mentioned that even though each student had his or her own computer, the students still spent much of their time working with and learning from each other. Students also enjoyed reviewing each other's work for insight into how their peers' work differed. Most of the time students preferred to ask their classmates rather than the teacher if they did not understand something; the teacher simply acted as a facilitator.

One teacher said: "I think it is good when students work together like this and learn from each other, but I also have to make sure that things do not get out of hand. I have to make sure that they stay on the job and do not just play around, and I also have to make sure that they do not mislead each other. I encourage them to check with me if they are unsure of what their classmates are telling them." The students enjoyed working with computers because they were kept busy, and the teacher allowed them to talk freely with each other and do things together, which was not something they were always able to do in other classes.

Collaboration was also enhanced outside the classroom and school premises. The teachers reported they had installed an e-mail system that enabled students to communicate with students in other senior secondary schools in the country to discuss their work. Students also communicated with other students in the United Kingdom, giving them an opportunity to bond with students around the world, as well as learn from them.

Another significant way in which collaboration was fostered was through the final project completed by Form Five students. At the end of their senior secondary education, students write final examinations, which mainly determine their acceptance into higher education institutions or work places. As part of these examinations, students working on computer studies must complete a project in which they consult with local companies or government agencies. The project asks students to identify a problem and work out a solution using computer simulations. Students usually work on these projects throughout the year. At the project's conclusion, students must present their solution to the companies and discuss their findings.

The projects gave students a great opportunity to interact and collaborate with other people outside their school environment. They also narrowed the gap between school knowledge and the outside world. In this way, students could make a connection between what they learned at school and what was happening outside of the classroom. Furthermore, the companies even hire some of these students. According to the theory of constructivism, learning should be contextual; school knowledge should not be isolated facts and abstract theories, separate from the rest of the students' lives (Stice 1990). What students learn in school should have a relationship with what else is happening around them.

Conclusion

Collaboration is enhanced when students are encouraged to work with each other. They learn to respect each other's opinions and take criticism - qualities they will need in the working world. Taking learning outside the classroom or even school premises is very important in helping students see the connection between what they are doing and real life. The teacher plays a crucial role in directing this kind of learning, while students accept more responsibility for their learning.


References

Dede, C. 1995. Testimony to the U.S. Congress, House of Represent-atives Joint Hearing on Educational Technology in the 21st Century. Oct 12. Online: www.newhorizons.org/article_dede5.html.

Forman, G. and Pufall P. 1988. Constructivism in the Computer Age. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Internet Learning Trust. 2000. Trinidad ICT School Project. Online: www.internetlearningtrust.net.

"Republic of Botswana: National Development Plan 8 1997/98-2002/03." Gaborone, Botswana: Government Printer.

"Republic of Botswana, Revised National Policy on Education, Gov-ernment Paper No.2." 1994.

Stice, J. 1990. Developing Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Abilities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

U.S. Congress. 1995. Office of Technology Assessment. "Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection." Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Online Resources

National Council for the Social Studies
www.ncss.org

Southern Africa Global Distance EducationNew:
Botswana Ministry of Education
www.saide.org.za

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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