Important Ed Tech Book Reviews

 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 9|June|2002
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The Internet and the Upper Elementary Classroom:
Making a Difference?

by Douglas W. Green Ed. D. and Thomas O’Brien Ph. D.
Binghamton University – Binghamton, NY
(about the authors)

The cry to bring the resources of the Internet to the classroom has echoed broadly across the land for the last several years. With it have come expectations that learning would somehow change.

The most common expectations voiced in state and federal plans are associated with an increase in activities promoted by the constructivist school of educational theory. This generally includes active students, teachers who spend the bulk of their time facilitating student work, activities that engage student interest and experience, and assignments that go beyond finding and representing knowledge to a focus on processing knowledge. Terms like higher order thinking are often used.

To see if there was a connection between classroom Internet use and an increase in constructivist practice and to see what other impacts there would be, we looked for a school district where Internet access was abundant and well supported by technical staff and staff developers. We selected the district in our region that best fit the criteria and conducted case studies of five 5th grade classrooms in two schools. (See sidebar on the use of studies involving small samples.)

We conducted interviews of all staff including teachers, support staff, and administration, made classroom observations over the course of a full semester, and conducted student focus groups. We focused on projects that used the Internet as part of student research projects, but we also looked at activities that did not use the Internet or any computer technology. The goal was to obtain as many different types of data as possible and, by so doing, develop a rich understanding of our sample.

The classrooms each had four to six Internet workstations with shared T1 bandwidth or better. Each school also had a computer lab with 28 workstations that classes used for about an hour a week. The teachers all had more than twenty years of experience and had used computers for at least ten years. It was also notable that four of the five teachers had used the Internet previously as sources of information for student projects.

The projects that we looked at in detail included reports on individual states, studies of companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange, studies of diseases, and studies of individuals who played important roles in the American Revolution. The latter project was innovative in that an equal number of men and women were featured. Information on the women was only available to these students via the Internet.

What did we see?
At first blush the Internet projects seemed constructivist in nature. They featured teachers who spent most of the time facilitating the work of active students.

Students were quick to help each other and had many opportunities to share information with teachers. Assignments offered some choice, which connected with student interest and experience. Students demonstrated a high level of motivation as they worked to satisfy the requirements of their assignment. The assignments, however, expected students to spend most of their time finding facts. The questions that did require thinking asked for opinions and were placed at the end of the assignment.

Assignments we viewed that did not involve the Internet also featured more finding and reporting facts than processing knowledge. All teachers indicated during their interviews that getting the students to think was the hardest thing they did. It was clear to us that the addition of the Internet to these classrooms did not increase expectations that students do more in the way of higher order thinking. As such they provide counter examples to anyone who claims that the Internet will promote such thinking.

Peer and Superior Teaching

In our study, we found that use of the Internet promotes peer interaction and that it often allowed students to go one step further to “teach” the teachers. As they share facts there may be opportunities for deeper thinking. Since microcomputers first entered the classroom, teachers have often used accomplished students to help them learn operating systems, programming languages, and applications. Thanks to the Internet, we found that any student can locate and share information unknown to their teacher. We saw students who were energized as they reported information that teachers did not know. It is to their credit that the teachers in our study had adjusted their thinking to accept of this type of role reversal.

Still a Boy Toy?

We noticed that the girls were at least as comfortable as the boys as they searched for information. We found this to contradict research that supports the notion that computers favor the males in the school population. Many studies show that boys are more likely to take computer courses and are generally more comfortable using computers. If our observations are any indication, the Internet appears to shift this advantage towards females. It does so by turning the computer into a communications device that no longer requires programming skills or an interest in arcade-style games.

In addition to being comfortable searching the Internet, we found the girls took more time to read what they found. Boys, on the other hand, were more likely to quickly click to move on to the next link. It was common to see one or two girls reading multiple screens of text while boys in general only lingered when they found something entertaining. This was most notable during the stock market assignment where boys were quick to engage in games featured at some of the sites and to share them with their friends.

Student focus groups revealed that girls spent at least as much time . if not more, communicating via the Internet at home. Instant messaging (IM) was popular with most of the students.

At first we could not understand why students would type messages to each other when it would be easier to call each other on the telephone. Several students indicated that their parents would rather see them working on the computer than talking on the telephone. We also soon realized that IM allowed groups of students to communicate and that a student could join in more than one conversation at a time. With its option to review the text of all current conversations, IM allows for more meaningful involvement in multiple dynamic conversations than girls typically engage in during free time.

On such occasions we found that the boys were more likely to play computer games they brought from home or browse sites related to their favorite toys. While our data regarding gender and Internet use is not conclusive, it does suggest that this topic needs a fresh look by researchers and teachers in the field.

The Digital Divide

If the Internet increases opportunities for students to teach the teachers and offers better access for young women to the world of computers, it indeed has positive effects. The fact that not all students have Internet access at home, however, has negative implications. The Internet projects in our study lasted three to four weeks. This gave students with Internet access at home the opportunity to work and get help with searching, writing, and page layout beyond the school day.

The teachers all realized that this favored some students. To compensate, the teachers gave students all the access to the Internet they wanted. During free choice time, students with Internet access at home were less likely to be online. The teachers had to consider how having access at home would otherwise provide an advantage. These students were more likely to produce assignments printed on home computers. Some also used page layout software to arrange pictures they saved from the Internet along with their own text. (Plagiarism was not a problem as teachers promoted “using your own words”. At the fifth grade level, teachers also have an easy time spotting copied text.)

The teachers did not grade projects higher simply because they were printed on home computer systems. Hand-written projects were just as likely to receive top grades, and marginal word-processed efforts were judged fairly. The teachers still felt that the students with Internet access at home had an advantage. The students agreed. When asked, the students all felt that everyone should have Internet access at home. “It should come with the house.” This raises an important concern for educators and policy makers at all levels.

Staff Development Promotes Incremental Change

To explore why teaching had not appeared to shift in a more constructivist direction, we looked at the staff development process.

We found that the district teacher center featured a list of short courses on the use of basic software tools. Introductory, intermediate and advanced versions of courses on Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Netscape, and e-mail were typical. Classes included teachers from all grade levels and disciplines.

Since the instructor could not be an expert in all teaching fields, it was not possible to deal with the specifics of how to use a tool in all classroom settings. This left each teacher to determine how to use the tools to improve their practice, which resulted in teachers who were more likely to use computers and the Internet to incrementally improve what they were doing rather than fundamentally change their practice.

Using the Internet as an additional source of information increased the information available. In some cases it allowed for assignments that were otherwise impossible. The stock market and American Revolution projects we observed were good examples. Internet use, however, did not fundamentally change the nature of the projects. While the Internet projects featured active students and teachers guiding student work, this was not remarkably different from student and teacher behavior during projects before the Internet arrived.

If you expect teachers to use the Internet in a manner that increases higher order thinking, you need to build this specifically into staff development plans. This should be part of the overall instructional plan that contains a role for technology. This makes more sense than creating a technology plan that tries to change fundamental teaching practice by itself.

The very nature of the information found on the Internet should also provide an opportunity to increase the frequency of higher order thinking efforts. Finding information is now easier and much more is available. There is a price to pay, however, for this additional information.

Unlike information from textbooks or library sources; teachers, librarians, or textbook publishers do not necessarily prescreen Internet information. The teachers and students in our study seemed to understand that information on the Internet could not always be trusted. One student disdainfully indicated that she found work on the Internet done by a third grader. The school’s library curriculum did contain one lesson that let students decide if information was reliable or biased. One lesson, however, did not appear to be enough.

As we observed students at work, we saw much more effort directed at finding answers to the questions rather than evaluating the quality of the information. This implies that teachers need to constantly encourage students to evaluate what they find. This should be a good thing as the process of evaluating information goes beyond the simple retrieval of facts.

Reasons for Support

When we asked the administrators if they had any evidence that Internet use had made a difference in student achievement, they cited the appearance of student projects as the one piece of visible evidence that students were doing better. In spite of the lack of objective data, they felt that learning their way around the Internet was a skill that the students would need as they furthered their education and entered the job market.

The superintendent told a story about how high school students used information they found on the Internet to present an argument to the Board of Education opposing a proposed change in the school schedule that would cause the school day to begin earlier. His comment that “we don’t own the information anymore” is one that should give all educators something to reflect on.

Teachers also felt that students would need to know how to use the Internet as they continued on through the grades. This was just one of the many pressures that they felt prompted them to incorporate the Internet into their classroom practice. Other sources were pressure from administration, newly adopted state standards, and what they felt were expectations of their community.

Students were of one voice when asked about future Internet use. They felt that they would be using it “a lot” more as they continued their education. Most also felt they would someday use it on the job although their answers to this question were largely based on whether their parents used it at work.

Recommendations for all School Districts and a Summary of our Findings

Once a district has the infrastructure in place, what can be done to increase teacher practice in constructivist directions? The key is to access the staff development program to make sure that it promotes active students facing cognitive challenges. This is at the heart of constructivist practice.

Assignments should be designed to give students higher order thinking tasks at the beginning so that fact finding is a way to solve problems and support conclusions. In the case of some of the projects we studied, students could have been told that forming and defending an opinion was the main task rather than the last question on the list. If possible, tasks should be open-ended so that students will stop asking if they have the correct answer and start evaluating their efforts.

The following points summarize our findings and offer some additional advice. The nature of our study does not allow for broad generalizations, but it does point to a number of key issues that teachers and administrators need to consider as they find a place for the Internet as an instructional tool.

• Staff development should show teachers how to increase situations where students engage in higher order thinking. Simply showing teachers how to use computer applications and search the Internet is not likely to do so.

• The Internet increases access for all students to information not known to their teachers and increases opportunities for teachers to learn from students. This is an opportunity for teachers who believe such activities promote effective learning.

• Boys do not appear to be more comfortable than girls in using computers for Internet access. Girls may even have an advantage when it comes to searching for information and/or interactive communicating. Teachers should take this into consideration as they configure cooperative student groups.

• Like the teachers in our study, we feel that students with Internet access at home have an advantage over students who do not. Teachers should provide additional time online to students who lack access at home and give no advantage in terms of grades to assignments printed on home computer systems.

In short, reliable Internet access can effect incremental improvement in traditional teaching. It is unrealistic, however, to expect it to automatically make teaching practice more constructivist without staff development designed to transform practice in such directions.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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