Special Report

Margaret Riel is the Associate Director of the Center for Collaborative Research in Education, at the University of Calif., Irvine. She has developed and researched models of online learning, particularly cross-classroom collaboration in Learning Circles. She has contributed to the design and evaluation of multi-media programs that involve students in the collaborative process of scientific discovery. Currently she is helping educators reflect on and document their professional development as they integrate technology with their teaching.

T.H.E.: What do you think educators need to learn about the use of computers in the classroom?

Riel: Teachers need to know how to use basic productivity and communication software. At the minimum this includes the following: productivity tools, communication tools and community tools.

These three areas - personal productivity, communication with others and community participation - are the basics of our new technology. A teacher with this foundation is likely to be able to learn other tools, as there is a great deal of overlap with these essential tools.

T.H.E.: Is there any evidence that technology has had a positive impact on education? Will education truly move in a new direction as a result?

Riel: Given my premise that technology is shared minds made visible, then it is the collaboration that is changing and will continue to change education. Education is a human activity. It is about the way we interact with the shared products of our minds. Since so-called "high-technology" can be substituted with any single form of technology lets look at this question in a different form.

D'es recent digital technology offer more educational value than other technologies that we are currently using? Many of the changes in educational technology from chalk to pens, from primers to encyclopedic textbooks, from pictures to videos are accepted because the cost grows incrementally and the learning curve for use is relatively flat. Computer and communication technology is both complex and expensive. This is what causes the intense cost/benefit discussion.

What research evidence shows conclusively is that students can learn to use technology, often engaging in more meaningful educational experiences, and still perform as well, or better on standardized tests than they have in the past. The lower the initial scores, the more effective technology is in raising test scores. Rarely d'es the introduction of information and communication technology into the classroom have the effect of decreasing test scores.

The other, and more important, issue is that testing new educational outcomes with old measures will not help us understand what students are or can learn with technology. The old measures should serve as benchmarks. Superior performances on these tests will not necessarily measure the learning that we are trying to effect.

Roger Schank

Roger Schank is President of the Learning Sciences Corporation and Director of Northwestern University's Institute for the Learning Sciences. He is an artificial intelligence expert and a significant leader in both multimedia interactivity and information technology applications. Schank stresses the value of applying today's technology to business and learning applications in ways that help you work more productively and efficiently.

T.H.E.: Do you envision any ways that teachers will instill learning differently as a result of technology?

Schank: I don't think it has that much to do with teachers at all. I think that technology is about changing the role of the teachers, so that the teacher d'esn't become the "fountain of information," but rather becomes a facilitator and a pointer to information.

T.H.E.: So, putting more responsibility in the hands of the students?

Schank: No, more responsibility in the hands of the software. Basically the whole idea of educational software is that it's rich with content and can bring to bear much more information than any human being can possibly have.

T.H.E.: Do you see artificial intelligence having an impact on education?

Schank: The issue is can you make the software basically smart enough so that the software itself becomes the teacher. That's the kind of impact it would have. We're not talking about whiz-bang futuristic A.I. programs. Much more we're talking about having software that is very easy to interact with and reflects the nature of how people think, so that they can offer a learning environment that is very exciting to children. That requires a lot of use about what we've learned about the mind and what we've learned about A.I.

T.H.E.: With more emphasis on software and less on the teacher as the "fountain of information," how do you see students functioning in the educational environment of the future?

Schank: I would like to see the school day divided up into thirds. During one third students are using software to gain experiences they might not be able to have without software. Another third of the day would be spent discussing their experiences with the software with the teacher and with other students, to give each other interest in what the other kid has done. I'd like to see the other third of the day spent being out and doing real things. I think the role of the teacher as the person who stands up and tells people stuff is just over. Teachers have to understand that their role is going to be different. To a large extent, I feel that many of them will welcome the new role of being a discussant and a motivator and an encourager.

Elliot Soloway

Elliot Soloway is a professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the School of Education, University of Michigan. He is editor of the Interactive Learning Environments journal.

T.H.E.: It's commonly said that technology will change the way learning takes place. In your opinion, what will be the biggest changes?

Soloway: A colleague and I have been surveying teachers across the country and we've asked that exact question. We've asked them whether or not they felt technology would really change education in the next five years. Teachers' answer to that question is "no." If you ask administrators, however, they say "yes." They are a little more removed from the actual day to day operation of the classroom. If teachers truly believe it's not going to happen, then it's not going to happen and they will act on their beliefs. The potential of technology is to address age-old issues in learning like literacy, complexity and problem solving in new ways. I'll give you an example. Kids need to learn to read and write. We've found that when kids publish on the Internet, they write more and they write better. There is an audience for what the kids are doing, there's a real authenticity to the activity and that use of the technology provides a way to do those activities in ways that you couldn't do with pencil and paper. So, the challenge really is can you find more of those kinds of unique opportunities to address the age-old problems. Reading and writing aren't going to go away because of technology, what technology can do is address them in new ways.

T.H.E.: You mentioned the Internet. Can you think of any other technological innovations that will or can affect education across the board?

Soloway: I think of the computational tools, the computational science or mathematics tools for example, which allow kids to build dynamic models of complex systems. This is another unique opportunity to address an age-old problem. How do you get kids to really understand complex systems? Let's say a stream ecosystem or a predator/prey system or even an engine in a car. These are very complex systems and we haven't had the tools to really get our hands on and properly represent these kinds of dynamic systems. You can use the current technology for static representations, but those dynamic ones are critical for kids. They like to see things change over time.

T.H.E.: You mentioned that most teachers don't feel there will be much change in the next five years. Do you think that's because of apprehension with the technology or is it because the technology just isn't there?

Soloway: I do believe the technology really isn't there to make it 100% usable. I think that in the early adoptive stage it is brittle technology, it is not friendly technology, so teachers are well within their limits to say: "this is really hard to do." That said, you need to adopt and try to learn and understand it so when it is more available and it is more accessible, then we'll really be able to make use of it. It is a double-edged sword. I am not at all critical of teachers saying that the technology is really not yet ready for prime time.

T.H.E.: How do you envision the classroom ten years from now?

Soloway: I think again that the pervasiveness of the computational technologies will be there and that every kid will have a notebook that is, in fact, a laptop computer notebook. Every kid will have wireless communications at school and at home. That kind of technology will allow them to explore new areas of learning and of thinking that they couldn't explore with the pencil and paper.

Fred Hofstetter

Fred Hofstetter is professor and director of Instructional Technology at the University of Delaware. His career goal is to help make multimedia easy enough for everyone to become a creator, not just a consumer, of multimedia. He has developed multimedia tools and techniques since 1970. He also created Serf, a Web-based teaching and learning environment.

T.H.E.: How will the continued growth of distance education impact the University of the future? Will the impact be positive or negative?

Hofstetter: All students are distance learners, even students living on campus. When a student doing homework in a dorm room or campus library encounters a problem, for example, and the professor's not there to help, at that moment the student becomes a distant learner. Once you realize that, your perspective changes. When we begin applying the same technological outreach to students on campus as we do to students traditionally considered distant, universities will improve tremendously.

T.H.E.: Have you noticed any major changes in distance education over the last few years? If so, what kinds of changes?

Hofstetter: A most significant change has occurred. In the past, distance learning materials have been delivered primarily through television and videotape. Because these technologies are not interactive, their effectiveness has been limited. Enter the Web. Over the Internet, students can access instructional modules on demand, instead of having to wait for them to be broadcast or mailed. Computer-based learning materials can model the student's learning and proactively help the student achieve the learning objectives. Rich communication environments, both synchronous (e.g., chatrooms and videoconferencing) and asynchronous (e.g., e-mail, listserv, newsgroups, and discussion forums), make it possible for students to interact more effectively with classmates and instructors. Several of my distance learning students maintain that they've never had more personal attention from an instructor, even though I've never met them face-to-face.

T.H.E.: How will the process of learning itself change with the growth of technology?

Hofstetter: Technology will enable us to achieve the goals of the cognitive movement in education. Cognitive psychology portrays learners as active processors of information. Students learn better when they can invent knowledge through inquiry and experimentation instead of memorizing facts presented in a teacher-dominated classroom. Since there is only one teacher for many students, it is physically impossible for a teacher to support this kind of environment for each student in a traditional classroom. The Web helps by providing students with an interconnected world of knowledge to explore. Since the learner is portrayed as an active processor who explores, discovers, reflects and constructs knowledge, the trend to teach from this perspective is called constructivist. Technology will enable more teachers to adopt constructivism.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.