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December 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 4

Technology Use in Tomorrow's Schools

From word processing software to the Internet to portable, hand-held devices, computer technology use in schools is growing. How will it look in the future?

Students and teachers have increasing access to almost limitless amounts of information on the World Wide Web. In addition, the trend toward using such general-purpose application packages as word processing, spreadsheet, and database software for school assignments has grown considerably since the 1980s. Nearly 50 percent of teachers in a recent national survey, for example, had required word processing during the previous school year (Becker, 1999). Students also are increasingly involved in building Web pages and multimedia presentations to show their solutions to problems or to demonstrate what they have learned in their research. Educators are using network technology to support collaborations—locally and at great distances—among students, experts, and teachers. The percentage of classrooms participating in network-based collaborations is still relatively small, however.
Despite great strides in incorporating technology into U.S. schools, we still fall short of providing a seamless, convenient, robust, and reliable technology support structure for all students and teachers. Today's desktop computers and Internet usages are not the educational ideal (Roschelle, Hoadley, Pea, Gordin, & Means, in press). Many educators lament the relative paucity of up-to-date computers and network connections in classrooms, but a look into almost any classroom with a sizable number of computers reveals all kinds of problems related to the computers' size, weight, shape, and requirements for multiple cords and wires. Similarly, today's World Wide Web is disorganized, of uneven quality, and overrun with advertising. In too many cases, students and teachers are either not using the technology available to them or are using technology to accomplish tasks that could be done offline more quickly and with less effort extraneous to the learning content (Healy, 1998).
Nevertheless, our experience with the less-than-ideal technological infrastructure available in today's schools suggests important directions for the 21st century. The insights gained from these experiences, coupled with advances in research on human learning and the technological improvements that can be expected in the coming decade, give rise to cautious optimism concerning technology's role in the schools of tomorrow.

The Roots of Educational Technology

Mastery learning approaches dominated the early days of computer use to teach academic subjects, with skills and subject matter broken down into byte-sized bits for discrete skill practice or knowledge transmission. These efforts to teach content through computers were supplemented by courses in computer literacy and, at the high school level, computer programming.
In the late 1980s, these practices gave way to an emphasis on incorporating general-purpose technology tools, such as word processors and spreadsheets, into learning in the academic content areas. General office applications became more common in the classroom than software explicitly designed for instructional purposes. The emphasis on adopting general tools for educational purposes received a further boost from the rise of the World Wide Web and search engines for locating Web sites on almost any topic. Such slogans as connecting the classroom to the world and the world at your fingertips reflect today's emphasis on access to a much broader information base through the Web.
Although classrooms continue to lag behind the business and entertainment sectors in terms of capitalizing on network technologies, the rate of increase in Internet access within U.S. schools during the final decade of the 20th century was phenomenal. In 1990, few U.S. schools had Internet connections, and many of these were low-speed, dial-up modem connections from a single computer. By 1994, the percentage of schools with Internet access was significant—35 percent—and by 1999, the percentage had risen to 95 percent. As with computers, we stopped counting school connections and started looking at the availability of Internet access within individual classrooms.
In 1994, only 3 percent of U.S. classrooms had Internet access. In 1996, President Clinton announced a set of national educational technology goals, including providing Internet access to every classroom in the United States. By 1997, the proportion of connected classrooms had grown to 27 percent. Sixty-three percent of U.S. public school classrooms had Internet access by 1999, according to National Center for Education Statistics data (2000), resulting in part from the E-rate—the telecommunications discount to schools and libraries passed in 1996.

Technology for Meaningful Learning

As access to technology grows, educators must decide how best to use it. How People Learn, a recent report from the National Research Council (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999), applies principles from research on human learning to issues of education. The report explores the potential of technology to provide the conditions that research indicates are conducive to meaningful learning: real-world contexts for learning; connections to outside experts; visualization and analysis tools; scaffolds for problem solving; and opportunities for feedback, reflection, and revision.
A few examples illustrate how technology can provide these capabilities. The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program helps elementary and secondary school students learn science by involving them in real scientific investigations, such as measuring soil and water quality. Students follow detailed data collection protocols for measuring characteristics of their local atmosphere, soil, and vegetation. Using GLOBE Internet data-entry forms, thousands of students submit data to a central archive, where it is combined with data from other schools to develop visualizations—a data map showing measured values and their geographic locations—that are posted on the Web. The scientists who developed the data collection protocols and depend on the students' data for their research visit classrooms, exchange e-mail with students, and participate with students in scheduled Web chats (Means & Coleman, 2000).
Hands-On Universe, a program of the University of California at Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science, gives students the opportunity to use image processing software to investigate images from a network of automated telescopes. Automated telescopes now capture many more images from outer space than professional astronomers have time to analyze. Hands-On Universe enlists students to review images from space and to help search for supernovas and asteroids as they acquire astronomy concepts and research skills. Hands-On Universe lets students use the same kinds of software tools as scientists, albeit with more user-friendly interfaces, to examine and classify downloaded images. Hands-On Universe students have discovered a previously unknown supernova and published their work in a scientific journal.
Teachers have also found advantages in using technology supports for student collaboration within their own schools and classrooms. Knowledge Forum—formerly Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments (CSILE)—for example, provides a communal database, with text and graphics capabilities. Students create text and graphics "nodes" about the topic they are studying, labeling their contributions by the kind of thinking represented: "my theory for now" or "what we need to learn about next." Other students can search and comment on these nodes. With teacher support, students can use Knowledge Forum to share information and feedback, to accumulate knowledge over time, and to exercise collaboration skills. The communal hypermedia database provides a record of students' thoughts and electronic conversations over time (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996), allowing teachers to browse the database to review their students' emerging understanding of key concepts and their interaction skills (Means & Olson, 1999).
ThinkerTools software, another visualization and analysis tool, helps middle school students learn about velocity and acceleration. Students begin with what the program developers call "scaffolded inquiry activities"—problems, games, and experiments that help students understand motion, first in one direction and then in two directions. As students progress, they are exposed to more complex simulations, culminating in their learning of the principles underlying Newtonian mechanics. In a carefully controlled study, middle school students who had used ThinkerTools outperformed high school physics students in their ability to apply principles of Newtonian mechanics to real-world situations (White & Frederiksen, 1998).
Although such examples of technology-enhanced learning activities are prominent in the education literature, they do not represent mainstream educational practice in the United States. A national survey of 4,100 teachers found that in the 1997–98 school year, the most commonly assigned use of technology was still word processing—required by nearly 50 percent of the teachers (Becker, 1999). Thirty-five percent of the teachers asked students to use CD-ROMs for research. Internet research or information gathering was the third most common teacher-directed student use of computers. Nearly 30 percent of all the teachers—and more than 70 percent of the teachers with high-speed Internet connections in their classrooms—had their students conduct Internet research (Becker, 1999). Internet assignments had become slightly more common than games and software drills, which 29 percent of the teachers had assigned. Interactive uses of the Internet were relatively infrequent. Only 7 percent of the teachers reported having their students use e-mail three times or more during the school year and even fewer had their students work with students at a distance in cross-classroom projects.

What's Next?

Despite their relative scarcity, such uses of technology and learning principles in carefully designed instructional activities foretell future innovations that are likely to have the advantage of much more seamless, unobtrusive technology supports. Today's desktop computers and the networks they run on offer a huge array of potential uses—everything from keeping track of student grades to supporting the manipulation of digitized images—but they are bulky, expensive, and awkward to use in a classroom.
Many technology trend watchers believe that the 21st century will see a move away from such strong reliance on general-purpose computing devices toward lower-cost, portable, hand-held devices, often connected through global networks and tailored for specific applications (Norman, 1998). Major equipment manufacturers are investing in wireless technologies, wireless personal area networking has emerged, and the popularity of both hand-held computing devices and cell phones is growing rapidly. Nowhere is the potential impact of these trends greater than in our nation's schools.
Students could carry and use lightweight, low-cost learning appliances rugged enough to fit in their backpacks as they move from class to class, school to home, or between school-based and community-based learning settings. When used with wireless networks, high-powered servers, and teacher workstations, these low-cost devices are likely to provide more narrow but more effective functionality than today's desktop computers and to be much easier to use. Computing and networking will be taken for granted as part of the school environment. Teacher workstations will be able to exchange information with student devices and with school- or district-level servers. Complex, memory-hogging programs can reside on servers and be pulled down to local computers or appliances on an as-needed basis.

Tomorrow's Classroom

Given the possibilities of new technologies, what might tomorrow's classroom look like? A MathPad, for example, might be an educational appliance—smaller and lighter than today's handheld devices, with capability for stylus input, display, and mathematical calculations and graphing. Such devices might feature short-range radio communication capabilities linking the hand-held device to other hand-helds or to another computing device, such as a teacher workstation, a share-board display system, or sensors built into the environment.
Given this emerging technology infrastructure, we can envision such educational activities as the following. Middle school students in an environmental science class monitor local haze using a sun photometer to measure attenuation of sunlight caused by haze, smoke, and smog. Seven small groups of students take their photometer readings at their school's softball field each day at noon, and the readings are automatically sent to their MathPads. The students' MathPads contain a template for displaying the readings of all seven groups, so the students can send their readings to one another.
Upon returning to the classroom, one group transmits the completed template for today's readings to the class's share-board computer, and the teacher begins a class review and discussion of the data on the wall-sized display. The teacher and students call up software that incorporates prompts to help them judge the reasonableness of the measurements the student groups have taken. The teacher plots each group's reading on a graph showing measurements over the last six months as a point of departure for discussing the distinction between accuracy and precision.
The teacher then introduces the next assignment: work in small groups to investigate haze data from their own and other schools. Controlling the display from her workstation, the teacher connects through the Internet to the online Haze Project database and reminds the students of the contents of the database and strategies for navigating the database Web site. To make sure they know how to read the data tables, the teacher asks several comprehension questions, having students submit answers with their MathPads and checking the students' responses on her workstation to make sure no one is lost. She directs students to return to their small groups to explore the data archive before deciding on a research question for a project that will take them several weeks and culminate in presentations for their class and submission of their work to the Haze Project's online student journal. Students may choose to collaborate with students at other schools through e-mail and real-time online discussions using software that allows them to share and manipulate data graphs.
As in today's GLOBE and Hands-on Universe projects, the Haze Project students of tomorrow participate in the real-world context of ongoing scientific investigation. Connections to a larger world become second nature. The students' data and analyses are part of much larger projects with real stakeholders. Students contribute to and learn from a community of investigators. Visualization and analysis tools on the students' MathPads and the teacher's workstation help the students see patterns in their data. Prompts built into the data-recording software scaffold students' efforts to check the reasonableness of the data they have collected. The technology also supports access to similar data sets and conferencing with others involved in the Haze Project, two activities that provide opportunities for reflection, analysis, and revision. The teacher's ability to exchange information with individual student MathPads lets students receive quick feedback on their lines of reasoning and allows the teacher to adjust instruction to meet students' needs.
In terms of the technology itself, a combination of small quantities of expensive equipment (one or a few central workstations for each classroom and a top-notch display facility) and large numbers of inexpensive devices (such as the MathPads themselves) is likely to be more cost-effective than current technology expenditures. The most challenging technical requirement is that of compatibility so that different pieces of equipment can communicate.

Challenges Ahead

Is this scenario realistic? One could easily predict a very different impact of technology on education. The increasing availability of Web-based alternative learning resources coincides with a decline in public confidence in the efficacy of schools and increasing interest in alternatives, such as voucher programs, charter schools, and homeschooling. Over the next two decades, public schools will likely have to compete for resources and for students—not only with private schools and homeschooling options—but with Internet-based alternatives as well. I doubt that brick-and-mortar schools will become obsolete, if only for their utility as places for students to spend their time, but they will become one among many kinds of organizations offering formally organized, distributed learning.
The increased pressure of competition should stimulate schools to improve. Schools that incorporate the technology of the future can offer the best combination of traditional face-to-face instruction—role modeling, socialization, and morale building—and projected benefits of learning with new technologies: increased participation in systems of distributed learning that engage broader communities, learning-enhancing representations of concepts and data, a restructuring of teaching and learning roles, and more meaningful assessment practices.
My vision for educational technology use is at least as dependent on improvements in teacher preparation and professional development around pedagogy, content, and assessment practices as it is on technological advances. My vision is technologically feasible—the question is whether our education system, and society in general, will support and promote the policies, resources, and practices needed to make it a reality.

Becker, H. J. (1999). Internet use by teachers: Conditions of professional use and teacher-directed student use. Irvine, CA: Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Healy, J. (1998). Failure to connect: How computers affect our children's minds—for better and worse. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Means, B., & Coleman, E. (2000). Technology supports for student participation in science investigations. In M. J. Jacobson & R. B. Kozma (Eds.), Innovations in science and mathematics education (pp. 287–319). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Means, B., & Olson, K. (1999). Technology's role in student-centered classrooms. In H. Walberg & H. Waxman (Eds.), New directions for teaching practice and research (pp. 297–319). Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). Internet access in U.S. public schools and classrooms: 1994–1999. (NCES No. 2000086). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Norman, D. A. (1998). The invisible computer: Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Roschelle, J., Hoadley, C., Pea, R., Gordin, D., & Means, B. (in press). Changing how and what children learn in school with computer-based technologies. The Future of Children.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1996, November). Engaging students in a knowledge society. Educational Leadership, 54 (3), 6–10.

White, B. Y., & Frederiksen, J. R. (1998). Inquiry, modeling, and metacognition: Making science accessible to all students. Cognition and Science, 16, 90–91.

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