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Using Technology to Enhance Learning: Classroom Technology and Constructivism

Connecting Student Learning and Technology

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Not every lesson needs technology. While there may be opportunities to attach technology to many activities, teachers must consider lesson goals before deciding to use technology. If computers enrich, extend or facilitate learning, they should be used. If not, they shouldn't.

The following examples employ several types of software most often found on a classroom computer: word processing, database, spreadsheet, presentation, and simulation software, in addition to the Internet, e-mail, and multimedia CD-ROMs. You'll notice that most use a variety of these applications. In the first example, we extend the language arts lesson presented in Chapter 2.

Story Writing Group


Because it is a communication tool, e-mail yields a number of opportunities for social interaction.

1) Parallel problem solving (posing the same problem to one or more classes, which can then communicate with one another through the Internet)

2) Sequential creations (producing papers, poems, and reports collaboratively in several classrooms)

3) Electronic process writing and peer tutoring (publishing work and receiving feedback from other students) (Harris, 1998.)

This exercise6 was a collaborative effort between fifth grade social studies and language arts classes from a number of schools. The students met together biweekly in groups, searching the Internet for fairy tales or folktales from around the world. Whenever students located a tale, they marked its country of origin on the world map with a colored pin. Based on their findings, students began writing and illustrating their own tales, using Claris WorksTM (now AppleWorksTM). Hand-drawn illustrations were also encouraged. Students e-mailed their compositions to their partners in another school, who then provided feedback and added to the tale.

Upon completion of their stories, students and teachers listed the names of all participating countries on the chalkboard. Students divided into groups and adopted a country to research. Using the Claris WorksTM graphics library, they included maps and flags of the country, or hand-drawn versions of both in their reports. Students e-mailed their preliminary drafts to their partners for feedback and additions. Final stories and reports were published on the Internet.

Assessment for this exercise examined a variety of skills: students' writing and editing abilities, working together in face-to-face and electronic groups; conducting research, meeting deadlines, and manipulating such word-processing mechanics as spell check, graphics, and page layouts; incorporating feedback from their electronic partners; and preparing a final report.

This lesson is a good example of a learning activity enhanced by technology. Students were able to choose their favorite story and create a similar tale based on their own interests. Cooperative groupings allowed for collaboration as students brainstormed, dialogued, and critiqued their products. The interdisciplinary nature of the exercise provided a window on the culture of a chosen country. The word-processing program made for easy revision and reflection on the writing process. Finally, through e-mail and the Internet, students were able to connect with their counterparts in other schools and to publish their work to a broader audience.

A Fauna Database





Databases allow users to store, organize, and query information by keywords. Database construction requires classification and organization skills, and encourages students to think relationally and with careful attention to details.


This exercise7 was carried out in a geography class in an urban school but could also be employed as a science project. The teacher began the unit by asking his ninth grade geography class to list the various birds and animals they noticed in the vicinity of the school. After students listed what they knew, the teacher mentioned several other species that were found in the neighborhood, none of which the students had ever seen. Students were then given the task of creating a database, complete with text and photographs, of all fauna within a five-mile radius of the school.

Through newspapers, phone interviews, and the Internet, students contacted such organizations as The Audubon Society, the Nebraska Parks and Wildlife Department, and local conservancy groups. Once they had assembled their list of fauna, the students again used library and Internet resources to come up with characteristics and photographs of these birds and animals. After gathering all of their information, groups were reassigned according to the parts of the database (birds, mammals, reptiles) they wanted to construct. The database was developed and put on-line. The class as a whole discussed their new birds and animal findings and the importance of cataloguing such information.

This technology-rich project cast the students as explorers. The lesson focused on an area that held meaning for them--their school's neighborhood--and built upon the students' prior knowledge about the urban ecosystem. Once the exercise was completed, students could see where they had begun and how much they had learned in their construction of knowledge about the urban animal ecosystem. The use of such technology as the telephone and Internet allowed greater access to real-world resources and experts, such as local nature groups, while the database software and the Internet allowed student information to be disseminated to a much broader audience than their immediate classmates.

Charleston Housing Market

Word Processing

Basic word-processing programs allow students to become independent publishers of ideas and opinions. When supplemented by other applications, word processing becomes a particularly powerful learning tool. Using graphics allows authors to illustrate their stories. E-mail provides opportunities for "peer review" and group editing, and the Internet allows students to publish their stories and to share results of their research or problem-solving. (Harris, 1995, pp. 157, 165, 168).

Ninth and tenth grade students in a Charleston Algebra I class8 learned about linear equations by examining housing prices in Charleston, South Carolina. Students accessed on-line census data and real estate information, such as sales prices of existing homes, square footage, and the median price of housing. Using spreadsheets, they plotted these data on a coordinate plane, found a line of best fit, and decided how these graphs would help them with home-buying information. With this mathematical information, students answered teacher-posed questions about housing prices.

Next, in groups, students chose a city in which they wanted to live and conducted the same research for a report comparing the Charleston housing market to that of their city. They began to observe trends in median-price housing sales and created charts comparing the trends in the two cities. This quantitative information, coupled with real estate information about economic and housing conditions in the two cities and their knowledge of their own city, resulted in the creation of a housing market report.

Assessment was based on the successful completion of the process (the ability to answer a set of algebraic questions and work with partners) and on a number of products (the creation of a linear graph, their success in gathering information, their broad conclusions about housing markets, and on the quality of their finished report). With the information they gathered, students constructed and authored their own knowledge about causes and effects of rising and declining housing prices.

This activity illustrated to students the real-world applicability of linear equations. Because of the technological component, students could "travel" to San Francisco, for example, and access timely housing and economic data that would have been harder to retrieve in its printed form. The use of electronic spreadsheets made for easy data manipulation and analysis and the creation of charts that could be imported into their reports.

Tropical Rainforest Research


Spreadsheets are software packages that enable users to organize numbers in rows and columns, which allow for automatic calculations and creations of charts and graphs.


Following a textbook study of biomes, this eleventh grade environmental science class9 began an Internet research project on two of the biomes discussed--the rain forest and another of their choice. Pairs of students accessed Microsoft's on-line travel site, Mungo Park , "traveled" to a rain forest and another biome and maintained a journal on each contact. The teacher photocopied all daily journals and distributed them to the entire class. Working in pairs, the students used daily journals, as well as other research sites and non-Internet sources, to develop a word-processed research paper on two biomes.

This exercise again illustrates ways technology is a natural fit in learner-centered classrooms. By structuring the lesson around a big theme-biomes--and permitting pairs of students to research a biome of their choosing, the teacher encouraged student autonomy and initiative. Through the journal-writing component, students reflected on and recorded their impressions about both the information gathered and the information-gathering process. The classification, analysis, and synthesis of raw data into a refined report modeled the progression of higher-order thinking skills. Finally, the timely, real-world data from primary sources needed for such an exercise would have been impossible to gather without the Internet.

Water Quality Project


Because of its versatility and the timeliness of its information, no other computer application holds as much educational promise as the Internet. Because they can easily access and manipulate massive amounts of open-ended data found on the Internet, students can make decisions about how to process and display data, just as they will have to do in future work environments (Ellsworth 1994, p. 392).

This parallel problem-solving activity involved the creation of learning communities in which students from three different countries, along with university professors, teachers, and scientists, shared information about water-quality issues in their towns. Students accessed information via the Internet, used e-mail to gather information from experts, and wrote reports on methods to improve water quality and water management. Students then e-mailed their reports to professors, scientists, and urban planners for immediate feedback.10

Since many individuals, quite interestingly, tend to be more responsive to e-mail solicitations than to surface mail or telephone inquiries, many teachers encourage students to contact professionals (lawyers, engineers, university professors) in order to increase the authenticity of a certain exercise. Many Internet sites, such as The Electronic Emissary and Ask Dr. Math , have been established for the purpose of establishing on-line mentorships and fielding student inquiries.

This exercise focused on an issue that was relevant to students--their community--and encouraged them to create their own solutions to community environmental issues. Because of the ease and immediacy of e-mail, students could communicate instantly and frequently with content experts and student colleagues from around the globe. Additionally, by permitting student consultation and sharing with professionals involved in water quality issues, e-mail added to the authenticity of the activity. Such interactions provided students with additional information and new perspectives that enriched their understanding of local environmental issues.

An Urban Excercise


Simulations are excellent constructivist learning tools, since users can negotiate environmental constraints, solve simulated real-world problems, and witness the effects of changes in variables. These interactive multimedia packages can simulate complex work experiences through games and serve as critical tools to evaluate the kinds of skills that are so often difficult to measure in tests (Maddux, Johnson, and Willis, pp. 29, 223-225).


SimTownTM, a scaled-down version of its more powerful software counterpart, SimCityTM, allows users to create a town. In so doing, they deal with such urban-related issues as protecting natural resources, designing a city layout, providing infrastructure and services, and maintaining the balance among residential, public, and commercial establishments. Based on user input, the program provides feedback on the town's progress in the form of the front page of the town newspaper.

This exercise was carried out by a group of ten- to thirteen-year olds in a colonia along the Texas-Mexico border. (Colonias are rural subdivisions characterized by inadequate housing and a dearth of jobs, services, and infrastructure.11)

Students were introduced to SimTownTM through a combination of exploration time and directed lessons. Both they and their teacher discussed such urban planning issues as the physical layout of this particular community and the problems it faced, examples of "good" and "bad" cities, and such terms as "urban planning," "town planning principles," and "amenities."

Armed with pencils and notebooks, students conducted a physical survey of the community's two main streets, recording the number of residences and businesses and noting areas of trash dumping, poor road quality, and vegetation. They then used SimTownTM to construct a model of the two most densely populated streets in the community from which they documented some of the community's problems. These student urban planners discovered that their town was at great risk for fire and they presented this information, along with fire mitigation suggestions, to the town council. The result was a very animated discussion between councilors and students about the need for a community fire-safety awareness program. Many of the students volunteered to help in this campaign.

The above lesson provides another illustration of how the blending of technology with learner-centered approaches supports increased student engagement, learning, and achievement. Students examined and surveyed a geographic area that held real meaning for them--their community--and ascertained its very real physical problems. The simulation package allowed for a real-world, hands-on learning experience that would not have been possible with textbooks alone. Students actively recreated their physical landscape by inputting real-world data and made observations from which they could draw their own conclusions. The presentation of such information transformed learning from a cloistered academic exercise to one that held community-wide importance.

My Favorite Works of Literature

Presentation Programs

Presentation programs allow users to present information in outlined or bulleted form and to save it as slides or transparencies. Users can also add charts, graphics, pictures, sound and video to supplement written information. Information in this format is often used in professional presentations at meetings and conferences. It can be an excellent tool for display of student projects.

This exercise12 was used at the end of the school year by an eighth grade reading class. The teacher asked the students to discuss their favorite stories of the year and what they liked about them. Both she and the class decided that they would give the seventh graders a preview of upcoming eighth grade reading attractions by presenting synopses of some of the eighth graders' favorite stories.

Students divided into groups according to their favorite stories. Group members could present a synopsis of the entire story or their favorite chapter in the story. The teacher explained that most professional presentations were brief and that student presentations had to be under ten minutes. As a result, students had to focus on distilling the story to its most essential parts. Once condensed, students used a presentation program, PowerPointTM, to display synopses of their favorite story or chapter, in flow chart, outline, or bulleted format.

Assessment of this exercise took a number of forms. Students were evaluated on their ability to work together, their ability to distill the story to its main elements, their success in creating PowerPointTM slides, the quality of the slides, their oral presentation, and on their coordination of the correct slide with the scene being recounted. The presence of a visual medium combined with the oral presentation addressed more than one learning style, while the presentation to another audience replicated a "working world" scenario.

Students were in charge of this activity. They chose a story that was meaningful to them, reconstructed the story according to their own interpretations, and shared these interpretations with students and teachers. The presentation software served as a powerful visual organizer allowing eighth grade students to distill and convey their understandings and interpretations to their seventh grade colleagues.

Timeline: My Life, My Community, My Country

Multimedia & Hypermedia

Both hypermedia and multimedia are useful tools because they:

1) Are highly interactive. Materials are organized and presented so that students can draw their own conclusions rather than have conclusions imposed upon them.

2) Structure learning as an active exploratory exercise in which the user sequences and controls his/her level and pace of learning.

3) Allow for greater learner autonomy, since students can use different modes of inquiry and extend their activities based on their interests.

The purpose of this unit was to familiarize students with major national and community events of the past fifteen years by examining these events within the context of the students' lives. All of the information compiled would be organized into a timeline supplemented with text, photos, and video.

The unit was divided in three parts. In My Life, students recorded ten of the major highlights of their lives (e.g., the birth of a sibling, a fun trip somewhere) and the years in which each occurred. They collected and scanned photos of themselves at various ages as well as other scannable prized mementos (e.g. an award, a CD cover of their favorite musical group) for their timeline and touched up these objects using PhotoDeluxeTM, a photo editing software tool.

In the second part of the unit, My Community, students gathered information about their community since 1982. The class decided that videotaped oral interviews of their parents and other community members would provide the best vehicle for recording information about their community. Students developed a list of ten questions, learned how to use the video camera, divided themselves into groups with assigned roles (camera operator, interviewer, scribe) and conducted their interviews. The teacher digitized the videotaped interviews into the computer.

In part three of the unit, My Country, students used Time/Warner's 20th CenturyTM multimedia CD-ROM to examine some of the major national events of the past fifteen years. This multimedia application contains video and audio clips, as well as photos and text of all national and international events of the twentieth century, arranged by categories and organized along a timeline. Students chose one major development from each year of their life in either politics, medicine, sports, entertainment, science, or business and recorded the major event and the year it occurred.

Students compiled all information into their own multimedia timelines using the Claris WorksTM paint program. Timelines included major national, community, and personal events, organized chronologically and supplemented by photos, mementos, and audio and video clips (the latter tasks undertaken by the teacher). This information was eventually organized onto a Web site.

The unit began with an issue that was meaningful to students--themselves--and folded their lives within a local and national context. Thus, students were able to see themselves as part of a larger community. The use of the multimedia CD-ROM, with the sounds and sights of Selena's music, cheering 1986 World Series fans, and tanks rolling across Kuwait, made history more interactive and engaging than is possible with a textbook or video alone. In turn, by constructing their own timelines using a variety of text-based, visual, aural, and hyperlinked tools, students shared their own understandings of local and national history in creative and interactive format.

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Introduction Intro to Constructivism Classroom Activities Computers and Constructivism Classroom Technology





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