Partners in Learning: Twelve Ways Technology Changes The Teacher-Student Relationship


It's no surprise toteachers who've experimented with technology in the classroom thatit's a long and arduous process. Introducing a computer,telecommunications tools or other technological resources intostudents' learning experiences d'esn't automatically result inimproved learning. Savvy teachers and administrators know thateffective integration of computers and other technology requires thatteachers:

  • become comfortable with the technology itself;
  • explore software, CD-ROM, Internet-based and other curriculum resources to identify those that might enhance and enrich their current curriculum;
  • review their curriculum to determine how best to integrate these technology resources into their lesson plans;
  • revise the lesson plans to incorporate the technology resources;
  • experiment with the lessons in the classroom;
  • assess how well things worked; and
  • refine the lesson.

At Stevens Institute ofTechnology's Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education(CIESE), we have been working with teachers, administrators, schoolsand districts for 10 years on the integration of technology into K-12science and mathematics education. These collaborations haveencompassed not only professional development activities, but liaisonand support for school and district administrators to assist them inplanning and fostering meaningful and effective applications oftechnology.

Over the last decade, wehave observed astounding effects of technology integration onteachers and students: veteran teachers who undergo a dramatictransformation and find a sense of enthusiasm for their craft whichthey felt they'd lost; tech-savvy teachers who create wondrousclassroom experiences and lessons that engage their students inreal-world problem-solving; disaffected students suddenly curiousabout new areas of inquiry with the help of technology tools; andreticent students who've blossomed into eager, motivated members of agroup investigating a common problem.

But what about theinteraction between teachers and students with the introduction oftechnology? What changes in the dynamics between them when computersand other technologies are a purposeful part of the learningexperience? How do computers and telecommunications technologiesaffect the relationship between teachers and learners? To answerthese questions, we talked with a group of teachers who have been atthe forefront of using computers and the Internet in innovative andcompelling ways in science and mathematics. These teachers and theirschools have all invested countless hours to learn about thestrengths of the technology tools, mainly software and Internet-basedresources, and to plan meaningful activities to use these tools inways that meet their own lesson objectives and that will enrich theirstudents' learning experiences.

Key ThemesEmerge

Despite differences intheir grade levels, subject matter, pedagogical styles andsoci'economic conditions of their students, teachers expressed asurprising degree of solidarity in their assessment of how technologyaffects their interactions with students. And although there are asmany ways to use technology in classrooms as there are creativeteachers, we found in talking with these teachers that 12 key themesemerged:

1. Technology increasesstudent motivation, and motivated students are more receptive, moreengaged, and more likely to learn.

"My students are highlymotivated when they know we'll be using the computer as part of theday's lesson," reports Cornelia Rogers, 8th grade science teacher atP.S. 22, a disadvantaged, urban school in Jersey City, N.J. "Theycome in eager to get started, they stay on task, there are fewerbehavior problems, and their persistence is much greater than in moretraditional lessons." Rogers described one lesson on probabilitywhere she combined a hands-on activity to predict the percentage oftimes a spinner would land on a certain color with a spreadsheet torecord and analyze the data and make predictions. "The students wereinto it. They loved the activity and you could see that the conceptsI wanted them to learn were getting through, partly because they werehaving so much fun."

Fran Kenny, 8th gradescience teacher at North Arlington (N.J.) Middle School observes,"Using computers, especially the Internet, definitely affects studentmotivation, and once students are motivated, they learn more. UsingInternet-based tools and lesson activities, I can reach students atthe lower achievement levels that don't respond to more traditionalapproaches."

"Student motivation isheightened because of the technology," notes Al Stein, scienceteacher at Nathan Hale Middle School, Northvale, N.J. "Using theInternet, students search to find answers and the answers bring upother questions they've never even considered. If a student asks aquestion, I say, ‘Go find the answer and report back to us.' Itchanges our roles as teacher and student."

Rosalie Moran, who has beena classroom teacher and now is a district staff developer in the useof technology in the curriculum in Bayonne, N.J., reveals that themotivation factor applies not only to students, but to teachers aswell. "Technology inspires a teacher's passion for the discipline,which causes him or her to dig deeper into the subject matter,explore further, and investigate new areas of inquiry. Thisenthusiasm can't help but spill over to the students."

2. Technology promotescooperation and collaboration among students and good teachers cancapitalize on these opportunities. Cooperative learning approacheswith technology give students with different talents a chance toexcel.

"Collaboration comesnaturally with technology," notes Cynthia Addison, curriculumdeveloper at Co-NECT Schools-GTE. "Group work and problem-solvingactivities are an obvious application for technology classrooms.Teachers have to modify their approaches, though, to their specifictechnology infrastructure. It's easier to plan group work with fivecomputers in a classroom than it is with one, but a savvy teacher canalso think of ways around their hardware limitations by cyclingstudents through various preparatory and hands-on activities inaddition to the computer-based ones."

"The trick is to balancethe team," says Willa Everson, science teacher at Tenakill MiddleSchool in Closter, N.J. "You can't have two computer whizzes in thesame group or they'll fight for control. I like to assemble a groupwhere students' abilities and learning styles complement each otherand fit in with each other's strengths and weaknesses. It helps ifthe teacher orchestrates the group so all children contribute theirown particular talents."

Rosalie Moran agrees:"Technology creates an environment where all students can besuccessful and teachers can incorporate the theories of multipleintelligences into their cooperative group planning." "To many of mystudents, the tests are just not relevant," says Cornelia Rogers."But when I incorporate computers and the Internet into the lesson,they do care about contributing to the group and therefore their workis recognized and appreciated."

3. In classrooms withcomputers, conversations between teachers and students and amongstudents themselves become deeper and more probing.

"With computer-supportedcooperative learning, there is more informal interaction betweenteachers and students, and among the students themselves," explainsDoris Buxbaum, 7th and 8th grade mathematics teacher at the Norwood(N.J.) Middle School. "There are higher level conversations. Usingtools like The Geometer's Sketchpad, I'm working with 7th gradestudents on concepts that might not traditionally be covered until9th grade. Students discover things inductively and they seeksupporting evidence and confirmation from other students and from me.When they are surprised by their findings, they probe deeper and askbetter questions."

4. Technology useencourages teacher-as-facilitator approaches.

Teachers expressed ageneral consensus that the more didactic, "sage on the stage"approaches are no longer so appropriate when technology is anintegral part of the classroom experience, but that technology mustbe selectively used. "The teacher still has to guide and facilitatethe class's learning, or the big ideas may never come," says RosalieMoran. "I use a ‘flexible, teacher-directed'approach."

"The hardest thing aboutusing technology is finding the time to figure out how the computerresources best fit into your lesson," explains Doris Buxbaum. "Thecomputer d'esn't replace other kinds of hands-on experiences, nord'es it replace guidance from the teacher."

Willa Everson believes thattechnology frees the teacher from playing the role of the expert."Internet access in the classroom makes it easier for the teacher tosay, ‘I don't know, so let's see if we can find some answers.'Both the teacher and the student can create questions and hypothesesand then search for resources to answer those questions or supportthose hypotheses."

CIESE's Mathematics andTechnology Specialist Ihor Charischak observes that computers in theclassroom change the direct teaching model. "Barriers are brokendown, and the teacher becomes more of a coach as students pursuelearning more independently. Technology brings teachers and studentscloser together and allows teachers to know students' learningmodalities and allows them to be more responsive to those students'individual learning styles."

5. Technology promotes a"balance of power" between the teacher and his or herstudents.

"There's more equity in myclassroom with the use of the computer," says Doris Buxbaum. "Thestudents know things I don't know, particularly about the hardware,and vice versa. I'm not embarrassed to ask for their help in gettingout of a problem. That gives them a feeling ofempowerment."

"The students seethemselves more in control of their own learning when we usecomputers, especially the Internet," notes Fran Kenny. "They jumpinto the task at hand and they feel like this assignment is theirbaby."

"It's so important thatteachers are willing to give up control over what they know and takean ‘I-don't-know-all-the-answers-either' approach," explainsCynthia Addison. "That requires a lot of confidence by the teacher,but it's a rewarding approach because you see students taking greaterresponsibility."

6. With technologicaltools, students show more persistence in solvingproblems.

"I'm usually the lastperson the children ask when they need help. I see their tenacity intrying to understand the problem, find the solution, then rethinktheir hypothesis if the data warrants it," says Cornelia Rogers.Rogers' 8th grade science class has conducted an Internet-basedglobal investigation of pond water, using microscopes, Web sites ande-mail exchanges with other students in South Africa, Japan andEngland. Her question to students: Will you find the samemicroorganisms in pond water in Japan that you do in Jersey City?After looking at the tiny organisms under a microscope, studentshypothesized that it would be impossible for these creatures to swimhalfway across the world. When their Japanese partners postedpictures of the same organisms they found under their microscope, theNew Jersey children had to consider the data and revise theirhypothesis. "Students were never as motivated to stick with it andreconcile the results with their hypotheses until they knew thatother students in Japan and elsewhere were relying on them for theirfindings. I found this really satisfying, particularly consideringthat many of these students are performing far below gradelevel."

"Students choose to learnbeyond the boundaries of the classroom and the assigned work," notesWilla Everson. "I put up Web sites on the board that go along withthe topic I'm teaching and that gives students the message that theteacher and the text aren't the only sources of information. Studentscome back to class and tell me what they've learned. That's a goodway to challenge the more interested students and gives them a chanceto teach the teacher and the class."

7. Technology encouragesvaried methods of assessment.

Teachers agreed that usingvarious forms of assessment was more appropriate, more meaningful andmore likely to bring out individual students' strengths andweaknesses, but they also concurred that it required much moredesign, planning, effort and analysis. "It's no longer about rightand wrong answers, or finding a specific answer, but about theprocess of getting to the answer," explains Doris Buxbaum."Therefore, more children are ‘right' because the process ispromoted rather than the final result. I also look for increased oralcommunication and writing, and the ability to write and defend ahypothesis. It's fascinating to read students' defenses of‘wrong' answers. It creates a problem for me in grading becausetheir defenses are very solid." Buxbaum uses a rubric that changeswith each situation, where credit is given to quality of thinking,writing style, defense of argument and other things that don't speakspecifically to the "right" answer. "I try to assess theirmathematical logic, as opposed to their conclusion. It's more work,but it's exciting work."

Fran Kenny adds: "I'vefound that the Internet-based projects, such as the global geneticsproject I've developed for my students, lend themselves toalternative assessment tools. In this project, we tracked dominantand recessive traits from people all over the world. Students usedgraphs and charts to record and analyze the data, and I was able toevaluate their thinking, their logic and the products theydeveloped."

8. Despite all the challenges of a one-computer/oneInternet-connection classroom, even this classroom environmentenables good teachers to work effectively with diversestudents.

Just about every teacherinterviewed would opt for more computers in his or her classroom thanthey currently have; however, nearly all spoke of their enhancedability to deal with diverse needs even in a one-computer classroom."I can design group work that addresses the needs of lower to higherlevel students, all in the same class," explains Fran Kenny."Students work on different aspects of the same problem, and I groupthem according to their strengths. Taking a turn at the computer isnot only a motivator, but enables students to move through variousactivities and build their skills and increase their understanding ofdifferent parts of the problem. It's great because the computerprovides challenging explorations for the higher-level kids, butgives the lower-level students a chance to shine and increases theirself-esteem and confidence level." "We often teach to the middle ofthe class, but using a computer, even the slowest learner becomeshighly motivated, makes fewer mistakes, and is more self-motivated tocorrect them," reports Connie Rogers.

9. Technology fostersincreased and improved oral and written communication.

With the use oftechnological tools such as word processors and graphics packages, itis no longer the exclusive responsibility of the teacher to impressupon students the importance of polishing their work. "Technologyallows students to complete work that is more polished and moreprofessional," says Cynthia Addison. "We strive to have studentsparticipate in authentic tasks. After a module on earthquakes, we hadstudents develop a brochure on earthquake safety. Because they hadinformation resources at their fingertips, as well as the wordprocessing and graphics tools, they did an amazing job! Also, becausethey knew the brochure would be seen by people other than theteacher, they were more motivated and had the tools to really do aprofessional product."

Other teachers note thatthe new area of publishing student work on a Web page also motivatesthem to work harder to complete assignments in a professional way."When students understand that their project will be posted withtheir name for the whole world to see on the Internet, they take theassignment much more seriously," explains Joshua Baron, a formerscience teacher and CIESE's Senior Internet CurriculumCoordinator.

"When my students knew thatthey'd be sending e-mail to students in South Africa, Japan andEngland as part of the Global Water Sample Project at P.S. 22," saysCornelia Rogers, "I had a problem I've never encountered before&emdash; they were writing too much! They felt that people from othercountries would be reading their words and they wanted to communicateextensively with them. They were also much more careful about grammarand spelling, since many of our partners were not native Englishspeakers."

10. Technology enablesopportunities for more depth of understanding, but the breadth of thecurriculum is still problematic.

"Technological resources,such as The Geometer's Sketchpad, have freed students from the tediumof calculations and their problem-solving skills become moreadvanced," observes Doris Buxbaum. In her 7th grade mathematicsclass, she used Sketchpad to explore the sum of angles of differentpolygons, without even suggesting to the students that the sum isconsistent for a particular number of sides. "The students came to itin seconds! That wasn't even the point of this particular lesson, butin the process of learning one tool on the program, they learned alot about polygons. So, when I get to that lesson, they'll zoomahead."

Marcia Singer, who teachesart in grades 5 and 6 in Bayonne Public Schools, says that byintegrating Web-based resources such as photographic images into herlessons, students interact more with the subject matter and absorbthe information more concretely. Although teachers interviewedunanimously agreed that well-designed, effective technology-supportedprojects provided students with a more in-depth learning experiencethan do traditional approaches, they also expressed concern over thetime involved in these projects and amount they are responsible forteaching in their curricula: "Teachers are forced to cover acurriculum that's fast and intense," says Rosalie Moran. "But thequestion is, ‘Do students really learn these concepts that youfly through?'"

Teachers also advocatedschool and district-wide testing that better reflects the types oflearning experiences that these technology-supported projectsprovide. "If the final test is a rote memorization of facts, thenthis enhanced learning experience is not rewarded," states CynthiaAddison. "The test must be coherent with the methods of teaching andlearning."

11. Technology providesincreased opportunities for thematic, interdisciplinary explorations;teachers can use these interdisciplinary connections to furtherengage and excite students.

In our program at StevensInstitute of Technology, we have focused on Internet-based scienceinvestigations that make use of: dynamic, "real time" data, such asweather and meteorological conditions and earthquake and volcano datathat change hourly; and collaborative projects that collect data fromdiverse locations around the globe, such as the boiling point ofwater at various elevations. These applications not only involvestudents in the process of science, but in data analysis, modelingand predicting. The mathematical connections for these types ofprojects are obvious and extremely useful for teachers to demonstratewhat scientists really do and how mathematics can be a valuabletool.

But linkages to othersubjects are also easily developed. In Cornelia Rogers' Global WaterSample Project, students not only explored the composition of pondwater in various locations around the world, but they enhanced theirwriting skills and learned much about the cultures of their partners.In introductory e-mail messages, P.S. 22 students heard from studentsin a primarily Afrikaner school about the recent changes in SouthAfrica and from students in a Zulu school who gave their own uniqueperspective about the recent events. Also, one budding artist fromP.S. 22 drew a picture of the macroscopic organism found in theirlocal pond, a May fly nymph, and it was posted on the project Website. These connections to social studies and art grew out of ascience project!

12. Technology makesclassroom activities "feel" more real-world and relevant, andstudents often take these activities more seriously.

Fran Kenny's Internet-basedgenetics project "had much greater meaning for the students becausewe surveyed 4,500 people and it was more scientifically valid. Thelearning inspired by the Internet tools spilled over into studentinquiry in the textbook and hands-on activities."

"Making use of real-timedata and collaborative projects, my students are not just sciencestudents &emdash; they're scientists," explains Barbara DeBenedictis,7th and 8th grade science teacher at P.S. 14, Bayonne, N.J. "Myscientists can access data &emdash; the same data that scientists allover the world are using. They then have the job of making sense ofthe data &emdash; calculating, comparing, analyzing inferring&emdash; really honing their critical thinking skills. One student,calculator in hand, was compiling data from a recent Internet-basedcollaborative project. He told me he never knew math could be so muchfun. That's the bottom line &emdash; the Internet makes learning realand gives our classroom activities meaning."

ReapingThe Rewards

Overwhelmingly, thesetech-savvy teachers were pleased with the effects that their use oftechnology had on their students' interest, motivation, engagementand persistence in learning. However, they also cautioned thatreaping these rewards requires a great deal of energy, patience,self-motivation and support from school administrators. As oneteacher noted, "You don't just insert a computer into the classroomand expect great things to happen. Teachers need time, guidance,support and the flexibility to experiment. In time, as I think we'veseen, the rewards will be obvious."


Beth McGrath is DeputyDirector of the Center for Improved Engineering and Science Educationat the Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, N.J. The authorextends special thanks to the teachers who contributed to thisarticle, particularly to Rosalie Moran, Bayonne Public Schools.E-mail: [email protected]

URL for Site:

The Geometer's Sketchpad; Key Curriculum Press, Berkeley, CA, (800)995-MATH,

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.