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Building on Technology's Promise: Computers and Constructivism

Connecting Student Learning and Technology

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Learner-centered environments support independent work as well as collaboration among learners. These classrooms provide students opportunities to connect prior learning with current experience. Learners have access to a variety of tools and resources with which to work. Teachers can design such classrooms, and computers can help. In this chapter and the next, we will illustrate the link between the use of technology and the constructivist principles presented in Chapter 1.

Technology in Support of Learning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Computers can support the variety of ways learners construct their own understanding. Students who gather information from the Internet can be self-directed and independent. They can choose what sources to examine and what connections to pursue. Depending on the parameters set by teachers, the students may be in complete control of their topics and their explorations.

Students can work through a computer-based activity at their own pace. Rather than 25 individuals working together on one activity, technology allows independent completion of work. Those who begin to fall behind can receive an instructor's individualized attention while others can begin to tackle more complex tasks.

Computer software can mix text, pictures, sound, and motion to provide a variety of options for learners. Multimedia software will not be the only classroom resource, but it can contribute richness and variety to student work.

Students can build on their own understanding by using computers as resource tools, as work stations for individual learning, or as communication channels to share their ideas with other learners. Individual understanding and experiences must be shared and compared to curriculum content. By uncovering students' individual understandings, teachers can determine the influence of students' prior knowledge and further their education through new experience.

Computers can be used to assist active experiences--gathering data and resources, conversing with colleagues, struggling through a challenging puzzle or application--or they can assist in reflection. For example, while an on-line conversation through e-mail is an active event, such discussions usually prompt reflection. They help us think about ideas and check our understanding. In another reflective application, teachers can enlist computers as authoring tools for students' journals which are excellent vehicles for thoughtful examination of experience.

Introducing technology into the learning environment can encourage cooperative learning and student collaboration. If they are allowed to converse, most students like to talk about their computer work and share their strategies. Classroom activities that are structured so that computers encourage collaboration build on learners' desire to communicate and share their understanding. It takes planning and intervention to build successful cooperative groups with or without computers, but groups that use computers as teamwork tools have a better start toward collaborative work.

Beyond the classroom, computer networking allows students to communicate and collaborate with content experts and with fellow students around the globe. Communication tools like e-mail, listservs, bulletin boards, and chat groups allow teachers to exchange lesson plans and teaching strategies and create a professional community.

The use of real world tools, relevant experiences, and meaningful data inject a sense of purpose to classroom activity. Part of the mission of educational institutions is to produce workforce-ready graduates who can, among other things, manipulate and analyze raw data, critically evaluate information, and operate hardware and software. This technological literacy imparts a very important set of vocational skills that will serve students well in the working world.

Technology has allowed schools to provide greater assistance to traditionally underserved populations. Assistive technology such as voice recognition systems, dynamic Braille displays, speech synthesizers, and talking books provide learning and communication alternatives for those who have developmental or physical disabilities. Research5 has also shown that computer-mediated communication can ease the social isolation that may be experienced by those with disabilities. Computers have proved successful in increasing academic motivation and lessening anxiety among low ability students and learning disabled students, many of whom simply learn in a manner different from that practiced in a traditional, non-technological classroom.

The Role of the Student
Students in technology-supported classrooms are armed with powerful tools to help them gather information, consult with colleagues, and present their findings. Their autonomy and confidence increase as they rely less on their teacher and more on their own initiative for knowledge-creation. Technology enables students to manipulate information in a manner that accelerates both understanding and the progression of higher-order thinking skills. As students gather more real-world data, share their findings with learners beyond their school, and publish their findings to the world, their role broadens from investigators of other products to designers, authors, purveyors, and publishers of their own work.
The Role of the Teacher

Technology amplifies the resources teachers can offer their students. Rather than relying on the textbook for content, computers can provide on-line access to content experts and up-to-date information from original sources. Reference materials on CD-ROMs and curriculum assistance from high quality software offer many more resource opportunities than most classrooms or school libraries could provide.

The depth and breadth of such information poses its own challenge. Internet content is less structured and manageable than material outlined by a textbook. Students will need to question and evaluate the information they find. There are many Internet sites that offer raw data--pictures from space, numbers from the census, text from court testimony. These kinds of resources need context to provide meaning, and lessons should include components that help students use the information wisely and productively.

Information from the Internet is more dynamic than the printed word. Teachers who understand the medium will use its currency and authenticity to their advantage. Along the way they will find an added bonus from such an environment--they become learners as well.

Where do I Start?

It may seem daunting to begin incorporating computers into your classroom. Yet many teachers have done so with great success. Although there is no blueprint for getting started, the following suggestions may serve as useful initial steps for introducing technology into the classroom.

Maintain modest goals. Although a powerful learning tool, technology is not a panacea for all that ails a classroom. When introducing computers in your classroom, start with a small task such as supplementing research with some Internet resources or having students word process (rather than handwrite) a report. As you begin to feel comfortable you can increase your repertoire of computer-supported classroom activities.

Have a backup plan. Backup plans, always a necessity, are even more crucial when using technology. What can you do if the Internet site is down or the CD-ROM drive gets stuck? How can such glitches be used as learning experiences?

Ask for help. For many teachers who started their careers before the dawn of the Information Age, understanding computers seems difficult. Learning technology, however, is easier than it appears. It just takes time. Don't let difficulties with software get you down or deter you from tapping technology's true potential. There are lots of experienced educators around. Ask for their help!

Learn from and with your students. Many students have grown up around technology and feel comfortable with it. Don't be embarrassed that they may know more about technology than you do. Welcome opportunities to learn from them.

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Contents
Introduction Intro to Constructivism Classroom Activities Computers and Constructivism Classroom Technology
Considerations

Conclusion

Resources

Endnotes

References

 
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