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Critical Issue: Using Technology to Enhance Engaged Learning for At-Risk Students

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ISSUE: An increasing number of educators are calling for high standards and challenging learning activities for at-risk students. New technologies can provide meaningful learning experiences for all children, especially those at risk of educational failure. Schools that capitalize on the relationship between technology and education reform will help students to develop higher order skills and to function effectively in the world beyond the classroom. Achieving such fundamental change, however, requires a transformation of not only the underlying pedagogy (basic assumptions about the teaching and learning process) but also the kinds of technology applications typically used in classrooms serving at-risk students.

OVERVIEW: The vision of classrooms structured around student involvement in challenging, long-term projects and focused on meaningful, engaged learning is important for all students. Yet such a change in practice would be especially dramatic for those students who have been characterized as "economically disadvantaged" or "at risk." Traditionally, schools have had lower expectations for such students. Teachers have emphasized the acquisition of basic skills for at-risk students, often in special pull-out programs or in lower level tracks. Hixson and Tinzmann (1990), however, note that school factors such as narrow curricula, rigid instructional strategies, tracking, and pull-out programs hinder the academic achievement of many at-risk students. Recent findings indicate that by not challenging at-risk students or encouraging them to use complex thinking skills, schools underestimate students' capabilities, postpone interesting and meaningful work they could be doing, and deprive them of a meaningful context for learning and using the skills that are taught (Means & Knapp, 1991).

In the new vision of challenging learning activities, the curriculum for all students would emphasize the integration of higher order thinking skills, authentic tasks, and mixed-ability groupings. Instead of students practicing discrete, isolated skills (such as spelling and punctuation done on worksheets), the curriculum would stress composition, comprehension, and applications of skills. Rather than treating basic skills as an obstacle that must be surmounted before exposing students to more complex and meaningful learning activities, schools would give at-risk students opportunities to learn and practice basic skills in the context of working on authentic tasks (Means, Chelemer, & Knapp, 1991). At-risk students would work more in heterogenous groupings as part of collaborative classrooms and less in ability groupings or pull-out classes for compensatory instruction. They would be judged on their ability to perform a complex task and to reflect on and describe the thinking that went into it rather than on their facility with multiple-choice tests.

An emerging body of research suggests that technology used in classrooms fulfilling such a vision can be especially advantageous to at-risk children. Means, Blando, Olson, Middleton, Morocco, Remz, and Zorfass (1993) note that technology can engage students in challenging, authentic learning:

"Teachers can draw on technology applications to simulate real-world environments and create actual environments for experimentation, so that students can carry out authentic tasks as real workers would, explore new terrains, meet people of different cultures, and use a variety of tools to gather information and solve problems." (p. 43)

Research on classrooms that have put constructivist teaching and learning models into practice also indicates that technology can enhance student engagement and productivity. More specifically, technology increases the complexity of the tasks that students can perform successfully, raises student motivation, and leads to changes in classroom roles and organization (Baker, Gearhart, & Herman, 1994; Dwyer, Ringstaff, & Sandholtz, 1990; Means & Olson, 1995). These role changes--with students moving toward more self-reliance and peer coaching, and teachers functioning more as facilitators than as lecturers--support educational reform goals for all students.

Picture of Judy Green Judy Green, a former sixth-grade teacher at Abbott Middle School in Waukegan, Illinois, and currently a K-8 technology/learning coordinator at the Lincoln Center in Waukegan, discusses improvements in student motivation when students use technology tools for learning. [258k audio file] Excerpted from an interview videotaped for the CD-ROM series Captured Wisdom (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1996). A text transcript is available.

Technology also can help students develop positive cooperative learning relationships, enabling them to work together while researching topics and creating presentations. In such relationships, students help each other learn. Students with special needs may require more coaching in computer-based activities, but they will benefit from the experience of learning with and from other students.

Traditionally, however, schools have not focused on technology as a means to support engaged learning. When computers are present in schools serving at-risk students, they usually are used for drill-and-practice programs on basic skills rather than as tools to support students in designing their own projects (DeVillar & Faltis, 1991). Schools typically promote learning with technology through the use of stand-alone devices or environments. The knowledge or practice opportunity is put in the computer box or on the videotape. Students work with didactic technology applications, which are designed to teach specific skills. They interact with the technology individually (in the case of computers) or as a whole class (in the case of videotapes and other audiovisual presentations). The technology developers have control of the content.

Today, educational researchers are calling for very different uses of technology. They promote classroom learning activities in which students work in small groups rather than in isolation or as a whole class. The technologies used in the classroom are not those designed explicitly to teach basic skills, but rather are real-world applications that support research, design, analysis, composition, and communication.

Picture of Elliot Soloway Elliot Soloway, professor and principal investigator of the Highly Interactive Computing research group at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, discusses how new expectations for learning will change the look of classrooms and the ways in which teachers teach and students learn. [358k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview for the video series Learning with Technology, program #2, Tools for Thinking (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1995) and Collaborations in Education: Highly Interactive Computing (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1995). A text transcript is available.

Technology has tremendous power to help students obtain, organize, manipulate, and display information. Students can use technology tools (such as word processing, database, design, and graphing software) in the same ways as do professionals in business, communications, and research. Such practical uses of technology contrast sharply with the more didactic technology applications designed explicitly for instruction. Using technology for meaningful activities also helps integrate a variety of disciplines, more closely resembling activities that people undertake in the world beyond the classroom. For example, word processing is a real-world technology that can help students develop writing and thinking skills. Using the computer, students write longer, more complex sentences and are more willing to revise and edit their work; they are able to concentrate on the thoughts they want to express rather than the mechanical skills of penmanship, spelling, and grammar (Hornbeck, 1990).

Many changes will be necessary if American schools are to provide such exciting, technology-supported activities for all students. Time, effort, and resources are needed to bring students to a level of computer literacy. At-risk children from low-income families are less likely to have access to computers in their homes and often attend schools with less computer equipment (Becker & Sterling, 1987). Furthermore, schools serving large numbers of at-risk children often lack the funds and resources to support technology. School facilities must be upgraded to support technology networking. After technologies are obtained, school districts need to ensure that all students have technological equity and equal access to the learning tools of the 21st century.

Obtaining the technology for schools serving at-risk students is just the tip of the iceberg. Larger issues concern staff development needs. Because students often receive computer-based instruction in a separate computer lab, regular classroom teachers may have little contact with the technology. Teachers need support not just for learning to use new technologies but also for acquiring skills in designing and implementing high-quality, student-centered projects (Kopp & Ferguson, 1996). Teachers also need a strong system of professional development and ongoing support if they are to achieve the dramatic changes in teaching approaches called for by the reform movement. Rules of thumb for professional development are useful for ensuring that teachers have adequate opportunities for professional development in technology.


ACTION OPTIONS: Teachers and the school community--including school district administrators, teachers, parents, and representatives of the business community--can take the following steps to promote engaged learning through technology for at-risk students:


The School Community:

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: At the school level, a major implementation pitfall is failure to provide teachers with adequate professional development in technology. Teachers need to be trained to use the technology and to apply it instructionally within their particular curriculum. Too often, technology training is discontinued after the teachers acquire rudimentary computer literacy or are taught the basics of using a specific piece of software (Office of Technology Assessment, 1995). But it is one thing to be able to open up a piece of spreadsheet software, for example, and quite another to have a repertoire of instructionally useful activities for students to learn mathematical concepts through constructing spreadsheets and graphing the data.

Besides professional development, teachers need adequate time to experiment with the technology and to design and implement good technology-based activities within their curricula. Technology-using teachers agree that such activities not only take longer to implement with students but also require more advance planning and preparation on the teacher's part (Sheingold & Hadley, 1990). Schools that give teachers adequate time to acquire technology skills, plan technology-based activities, and share their technology-related work with each other are more successful in bringing a large number of teachers to a level of technological proficiency (Means & Olson, 1995).

At the classroom level, a major challenge facing teachers is maintaining the focus on strong instructional content. Teachers and students may become mesmerized by the glamorous features of the new technology and may fail to grapple with serious curricular content. To avoid this situation, teachers must discipline themselves to design or select technology-based activities that have important learning goals rather than to spend large portions of class time pursuing activities that might be fun or interesting. In some cases, teachers may want to disable some of the options open to the technology user in order to help students focus on essential features. For example, students using word processors for their writing sometimes get so fascinated with the range of type fonts available that they focus more on how their page looks than on what it says. Teachers can restrict the number of fonts so that such behavior is less likely to occur.

Another pitfall common to any cooperative learning activity is the potential for one or two students to dominate the group. When technology is used in the classroom, teachers need to be particularly vigilant that those students with access to technology at home do not take over the tasks of the entire group. Teachers need to teach students how to share leadership. They must ensure that all students have an opportunity to participate in the technology activity and to gain the essential skills and knowledge that the activity is designed to teach. Gender bias also may be an issue, particularly if students are not aware of the wide range of technology uses or have not had female role models who are adept in technology. In these situations, boys may tend to dominate technology-based tasks unless the teacher institutes routines preventing such behavior (Schofield, 1995). Some teachers define particular roles for technology use (for example, the composer, the keyboard user, and the editor) and specify that students must rotate these roles at reasonable intervals.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some educators and parents are skeptical of constructivist, project-based approaches to teaching and learning. They may express concern that if class time is spent on such activities, there will not be adequate time for students to master basic skills. They also may fear that the students will fail to acquire the fundamental proficiencies needed for further education.

To ease such concerns, some schools using technology with economically disadvantaged students prefer to focus on technology applications that have been proven to increase basic skills. Drill-and-practice programs (as found in most traditional integrated learning systems) have proven to be effective in raising student test scores in reading and arithmetic (Bangert-Drowns, Kulik, & Kulik, 1985; Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1984; Niemec & Walberg, 1985; Samson, Niemec, Weinstein, & Walberg, 1986). In fact, the effects are particularly dramatic for low-achieving students (Bangert-Drowns, Kulik, & Kulik, 1985).

Some educators note that although drill-and-practice software does not prepare students for tasks in the real world, no use of learning technology can adequately accomplish that goal because of the rapid pace at which hardware and software changes.


Frank Paul Elementary School, Salinas, California

Hawthorne Elementary School, Oakland, California

Los Angeles Open Charter School, Los Angeles, California

Catalina High School, Tucson, Arizona

Aiken Elementary School, Aiken, South Carolina

Accelerated Learning Laboratory, Worcester, Massachusetts


Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR)
Johns Hopkins University/Howard University
Center for Social Organization of Schools
3505 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218
(410) 516-8800; fax (410) 516-8890
Contact: John Hollifield, Associate Director

Center for Technology in Learning
SRI International
333 Ravenswood Ave.
Menlo Park, CA 93025
(415) 859-5248
Contact: Lucy Omo

Computer-Using Educators (CUE)
1210 Marina Village Parkway, Suite 100
Alameda, CA 94501
(510) 814-6630; fax (510) 814-0195
Contact: Jennifer O'Sullivan, Operations Manager

Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)
155 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 200
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 462-9600; fax (202) 462-9043

Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education (ITTE)
National School Boards Association
1680 Duke St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 838-6722; fax (703) 683-7590
Contact: Cheryl S. Williams, Director of Technology Programs

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)
1787 Agate St.
Eugene, OR 97403-1923
(541) 346-4414; fax (541) 346-5890
Contact: Maia S. Howes, Executive Secretary

National Center on Education in the Inner Cities (CEIC)
Temple University
933 Ritter Hall Annex
13th and Cecil B. Moore Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19122
(215) 204-3001
Contact: Margaret Wang

National Center to Improve Practice in Special Education Through Technology, Media, and Materials (NCIP)
Education Development Center Inc.
55 Chapel St.
Newton, MA 02158-1060
(617) 969-7100, ext. 2387; fax (617) 969-3440
Contact: Bonnie Johnson

National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE)
Road Ahead Technology Program
1201 16th St., N.W.
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 822-7840; fax (202) 822-7779
Contact: Marilyn Schlief, Senior Program Officer


This Critical Issue was researched and written by Barbara Means, Vice President, Policy Division, SRI International, Menlo Park, California.

Date posted: 1997
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