A "Synthesis of Research" which appeared in the November 1996 issue of Educational Leadership, volume 54, Number 3, pages 46-50.
Do these uses of electronic networks lead to improved learning? What factors lead to effective and powerful uses of networks? What do we need to do to effectively use networks in learning and teaching? These are some of the issues we will address in this synthesis of research.
When any new medium is developed, people initially use it to do the same things they did before. So the first educational uses of networks transferred over the same activities done previously. Many of the best studies of educational uses of networks have focused on innovative uses that support learning and teaching in ways that cannot be done more conventionally.
Studies of innovative uses.
Many of the research studies of educational electronic networks have focused on
developing and then evaluating innovative uses. These studies combine
development, evaluation and research, usually in a repeating cycle of formative
evaluation and further development. The development and evaluation of the
InterCultural Learning Network was an early example of this
(Levin, Riel, Miyake, & Cohen, 1987). In this set of studies, students contributed to a network-based newswire,
collaboratively tackled problems of water shortages in their communities, and
engaged in network-based analyses of cultural differences in holiday
celebrations around the world. For example, one study found that student
writing for a network-based newswire was much more effective educationally than
electronic penpals, a common initial use of networks by novices (Levin,
Rogers, Waugh, & Smith, 1989).
What was the impact of these innovative educational network uses? In an in-depth study of student writing, Cohen and Riel (Cohen & Riel, 1989) reported that writing for remote peers over a network produced better quality writing than writing an assignment for the teacher to be graded. This "audience effect" of network-based interactions can provide a powerful context for learning in all areas of learning, not just writing. Other studies have found similar effects in science (Cervantes, 1993; Ruopp, Gal, Drayton, & Pfister, 1993), mathematics (Thalathoti, 1992), and social studies (Levin, Rogers, Waugh, & Smith, 1989).
Networks have also allowed new forms of collaborative learning, both locally and world-wide. Networks have been used to create writing communities (Bruce & Rubin, 1993; Scardamalia et al., 1992), science communities (Learning Through Collaborative Visualization Project, 1993; Newman & Goldman, 1986-87; Ruopp, Gal, Drayton, & Pfister, 1993), mathematics communities (Klotz, 1996), problem solving communities (Levin, Riel, Miyake, & Cohen, 1987), and teacher education communities (Levin, Waugh, Brown, & Clift, 1994; Thurston, Secaras, & Levin, 1996). These learning and teaching communities have involved other students and teachers, and they have also involved adults from outside the educational system. For example, students have been working in communities to analyze and predict weather, to exchange measurements of the sun's shadow to determine the circumference of the earth, to analyze water shortage problems and develop new solutions to local problems based on similar approaches used in distant places. Teacher education students have been working in communities to find, evaluate, and electronically publish curriculum resources, to develop, implement and publish curriculum units, and to serve as mediators for precollege learning and teaching in ways embedded in their teacher education classes.
The key to the most powerful uses of networks is that they go beyond simple information access. The powerful uses include electronic publishing, collaborative problem solving, and joint project-based learning activities with people from around the world. These uses are often cross-curricular. The majority of the student work is conducted off the network and in many cases off the computer. Network-based learning, unlike other uses like word processing or programming, can start with a small number of computers and a limited network connection, having a powerful impact on individual and group student learning by providing a motivating context for a wide range of activities. As the use of the network proves to be valuable, the computer and network infrastructure can be expanded to allow for ever more powerful uses.
The exploration of innovative uses will need to continue because electronic networks continue to change. As newer network technologies evolve and as higher bandwidth networks become more widely deployed, innovative uses that draw upon these developments need to be explored. Networks will continue to develop for the foreseeable future, and so we will need to continue to look for innovative, appropriate ways to use these new capabilities for learning and teaching.
The impact of networks on learning and teaching.
Initially networks are viewed as media for allowing schools to access the
riches of the world. Students in remote rural locations can access the Library
of Congress; classes in towns without museums can access the Louvre; students
and teachers can communicate with content area experts from around the world.
This is an important aspect of electronic networks.
However, electronic networks are highly interactive media. Information flows in many directions. In the longer term, the more substantial impact of networks on learning and teaching may well be the flow of information from educational institutions out to the rest of society.
Many of the recent curricular reform efforts have focused on problem-based and project-based learning. Networks allow these problems and projects to be drawn from the world outside of education. More importantly, networks allow the world outside of education to benefit immediately from any solutions that students and teachers develop. Thus student work, while primarily oriented toward optimizing student learning, can with networks more easily have a secondary benefit beyond the immediate learning context.
For example, students helped to design recreational activities for astronauts in orbit (Cervantes, 1993; Levin, 1992). While this task could have been done by professionals at NASA, it had not been tackled because the American space shuttle is too small for most recreational sports. However, the new space station will provide larger enclosed spaces. So student concepts for transforming everyday sports and for creating new sports were beneficial to aerospace scientists.
In a sense, the lack of knowledge by students, while serving as a barrier to complete solutions to difficult real-world problems, can serve as an advantage. Students can come up with innovative approaches that experts might miss. Educational activities using electronic networks can help to filter out the less useful innovative concepts, and to make the more useful ones available to people worldwide.
Students, teachers, classes, and schools can serve as mediators to help their local communities interact with distant others to solve local problems. In many schools, some students know more about networks than teachers do. Also, in many communities, some schools have better access to networks and more expertise in using them than many of the adults in the communities. Students can, as part of their learning activities, contact adults in their communities to identify problems and challenges, use networks to access remote information and remote other people, and make those remote resources available to the local community members. Thus students, teachers, and schools can become even more valued members of the local community because of this side-effect of powerful motivating learning activities conducted using networks.
For example, students in California, Illinois, Japan, Mexico and Israel tackled the problems of local water shortages using networks(Levin & Cohen, 1985; Waugh, Miyake, Cohen, & Levin, 1988). Initially students drew upon local resources to describe the specifics of their problem and local actions taken to cope with this problem. These descriptions were exchanged over the network, and then students analyzed the descriptions from other places to find if any described actions taken elsewhere that were not used locally. Students in California found that drip irrigation was used in Israel but not in their own location. This served as the basis for a recommendation to use this technique in their California location.
The diversity among collaborating sites can serve as potential innovative solutions, especially if analyzed and modified by students to better fit local conditions. Questions raised by local adults were sent by local students to the distant students, who asked their own experts. In this sense, students served as a means for technology transfer, helping their own communities while learning.
In these ways and others, networks may substantially change the relationship between education and the rest of society. Networks break down many of the walls that have isolated schools from the rest of society. Some of these walls have served as useful protection for students, and those protections will need to be reinvented for the new network medium. But many of the walls have isolated learning from doing in ways that have not been useful for either. The reintegration of learning into the rest of society will require a redistribution of roles, a reinvention of social structures, and a rethinking of the entire learning enterprise.
Barriers to using educational electronic networks and recommendations for
Much of the research on educational uses of networks has focused on the
difficulties of using networks successfully in education and suggestions for
overcoming these deterrents to use. The barriers include lack of access and
appropriate infrastructure, separation of telecommunications from the
curriculum, lack of support for teachers attempting to work with innovative
approaches, and lack of teacher expertise in telecommunications.
Infrastructure, which includes wiring and modems or high speed connections, as well as computer hardware and software, is a critical component of effective uses of networks. Currently, only 9% of the nation's classrooms are estimated to be hooked up to the Internet (West, 1996). Research has shown that training is most effective if it is done on-site, with the actual equipment teachers will be using themselves (Foa, Schwab, & Johnson, 1996). In our experience with the Teaching Teleapprenticeships model, student teachers' evaluations speak to the importance not only of having hands-on training, but also to being "hooked up" or "wired" (Thurston, Secaras, & Levin, 1996). They complain that a demonstration on a computer hooked to the Internet and then projected to the group is not sufficient for them to use their PowerBooks at a later time, when they will actually be using dial-up connections to telephone lines. They have expressed a need that the training, in all aspects, simulate as closely as possible the real world situations into which they will enter.
Administrative support is as important as technical support. Support from the school and from the district is critical (Harris, 1994; Levin, 1995; Ringstaff & Yocum, 1994), and, in fact, the ACOT studies show that the building principal plays a key role in the relative success of technology staff development. When the principal is not supportive, it becomes much more difficult for teachers to effect change. "The principal's commitment to a changing vision of learning and instruction is critically important to the success of a staff development program" (Ringstaff & Yocum, 1994). The principal can control release time, provide access to hardware and software, promote team teaching or interdisciplinary study, and acknowledge efforts and provide recognition.
Many feel that it is a mistake to mandate training on telecommunications for all teachers. Schools should support and recognize those teachers who are ready to move forward and learn (Foa, Schwab, & Johnson, 1996; Harris, 1994). Training should incorporate modeling or coaching of effective uses of the technology (Benton Foundation, 1995; Harris, 1994; Ringstaff & Yocum, 1994). The training should begin with hands on, face to face activities, and ideally it should be spread out over a period of time, with face to face sessions followed by practice, then a return to follow up coaching (Harris, 1994). Teachers can learn best in pairs or small groups (Harris, 1994; Ringstaff & Yocum, 1994) which provides them with peer support when they are back in their classrooms. Harris advises that trainers introduce new users to such applications as email first. Teachers may feel more comfortable using tools which most closely resemble communications forms with which they are familiar, such as a letter.
Overcoming these barriers of infrastructure, support, integration into the curriculum, and training can be costly. Kathleen Fulton, Director of the study on Teachers and Technology for the Office of Technology Assessment, indicates "It seems to be a lot easier to buy `stuff' than to support teachers ... that's true across the board for education. But the point is, with technology, the whole concept of teacher professional development is a different one" (US Office of Technology Assessment, 1995). A number of studies indicate that funds for teacher training should comprise anywhere from 30-40% of a district's technology budget (Benton Foundation, 1995; Foa, Schwab, & Johnson, 1996; Marshall, 1995; U.S. Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure, 1996; US Office of Technology Assessment, 1995). Typically, however, school districts, allocate less than 15% of their technology budgets for training (Benton Foundation, 1995), and many have no budget for this. In its recent document, "Kickstart Initiative," the US Advisory Council on the NII finds that teacher training, which initially could account for as much as 30-40% of a technology budget, could be the largest ongoing cost of technology implementation in the schools (U.S. Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure, 1996).
Studies have shown that the use of telecommunications in the classroom, as well
as other technologies, has the potential to change the nature of teaching and
Schwab, & Johnson, 1996; Means, 1994; Wilson, Hamilton, Teslow, & Cyr,
Integration of technology into the classroom often requires changes in
classroom management and curriculum goals (Foa,
Schwab, & Johnson, 1996).
It can shift the focus from whole group to small group interaction; it marks a
shift from lecture to coaching; it enables teachers to work more with
individual students; it can cause a change in assessment from test performance
assessment to assessment based on products and progress (Wilson,
Hamilton, Teslow, & Cyr, 1995).
It can encourage team work, collaborative inquiry, and individualized
1994; US Office of Technology Assessment, 1995).
Research on the uses of educational electronic networks has often started with
the exploration of innovative educational uses, and then has developed
conceptual frameworks for successful uses and studies of barriers that lead to
difficulties and failure. Educators can use these studies to base their
decisions to use networks in their own settings, and to guide their own efforts
to design successful innovative uses appropriate to these settings.
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation
under Grant No. RED-9253423.
The Government has certain rights in this material. Any opinions, findings,
and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the
authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science
Foundation. Hardware and software support was provided by Apple Computer and Microsoft Corporation. Our thanks to Sandy Levin for her comments on earlier drafts.