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Digest of Literature on the Impact of the Computer in Instruction
Stanley Peerless, Esther Feldman, Chana German      Email This Article

Since its introduction in schools in 1982, the personal computer has been touted as an instrument that would revolutionize education. Large investment of resources in hardware, software, and personnel have made the computer a common and prominent feature in most schools today. The Software Information Industry Association reports that during the last decade of the 20th century, U.S. schools tripled their spending for instructional technology, from 2.1 billion dollars in 1991-92 to 6.2 billion in 1999-2000. A 1999 survey of teachers conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) indicated that 99% of public schools in the United States have computer availability, and that 84% of teachers reported having computers in their classrooms. Yet, after 20 years, curricular approaches and the impact of the computer on student learning are still unclear.

The computer is not the first technological innovation of the 20th century that promised to change the educational system. For example, in 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Predictions about the impact of the radio on education in the 1930’s and 1940’s included that it could “bring the world to the classroom, to make universally available the services of the finest teachers …” and that “a radio receiver will be as common in the classroom as the blackboard.” In the 1950’s, similar predictions were made about educational television. (Cuban, 1986) Yet, film, radio, and television have had very little impact on education.

Will the role of the computer in education fall prey to the same fate as the other technological innovations mentioned above? In order to address this complex question and its implications for Jewish day schools, we will analyze the uses of the computer in education, its impact to date, the yet unrealized potential of the computer in instruction, potential uses of the computer in Jewish Studies instruction, and factors that can promote the effective use of the computer in schools.

Uses of the Computer in Instruction

The computer education curriculum should be driven by school goals in the area of technology. There has been some difference of opinion among educators as to the purpose of using computers in instruction. Andrew Trotter identifies four primary goals that have been espoused by educators in recent years (Trotter, 1998):

  1. To prepare students for the workplace

  2. To improve student achievement

  3. To increase motivation and improve school climate

  4. To promote school reform by fostering learner-centered instruction

Correspondingly, throughout the past two decades, the computer has been utilized in a variety of ways in the educational setting. The following is a somewhat comprehensive list of functions drawn from “Teaching, Learning, and Computing” (TLC), a national survey of more than 4000 K-12 teachers in 1998:

Skill Games – Computer activities designed to provide drill for students in specific skills. In most cases, the games give the student immediate feedback on their achievement. (ex. Quia - http://www.quia.com/custom/6main.html), Hebrew for Me - http://www.zigzagworld.com/hebrewforme/)

CD-ROM – CD-Rom gives students access to extensive reference material, some with enhanced audio-visual capabilities. (ex. Bar Ilan Responsa CD-Rom, Encyclopedia Brittanica CD-Rom)

Word Processing – Word processing is often taught as a software application skill, and is utilized, as well, by students to prepare work for submission. (ex. Davka Writer, Microsoft Word)

Simulation / Exploratory – Software which simulates a problem to be solved, or simulates 3 dimensional shapes, often using multimedia presentation. (ex. Human Anatomy Online (http://www.innerbody.com/default.htm ), Online Educational Resources for Physics Teachers ( http://www.ba.infn.it/www/didattica.html )

Presentation Software – Software which facilitates the creation of computer-based presentations, often enabling multimedia presentation. This software can be used by teachers to create their own instructional presentations, or introduced to students to enable them to create their own presentations. (ex. Microsoft Power Point)

Graphics Oriented – Software that enables students to create their own graphics. (ex. Paint 7.0, Corel Draw - http://www.designer.com/home/default.asp )

Spreadsheet / Database – Software that facilitates classification, analysis of data, and financial budgeting. (ex. Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, Lotus 1-2-3)

Multimedia Authoring – The development of multimedia presentation utilizing words and images including animation. (ex. Corel Draw - http://www.designer.com/home/default.asp , Hyperstudio - http://www.hyperstudio.com/downloads/index.html#preview)

Internet Browser – Searching the world wide web to access information. (ex. Internet Explorer, Netscape Communicator)

E-Mail – Electronic mail that can enable students to communicate with students in other geographical locations. (ex. Microsoft Outlook)

These activities can be divided into five categories: 1) drill, 2) software application, 3) accessing information, 4) computer-aided instruction, and 5) communication. A number of the activities can be utilized in a variety of ways and, therefore, fall into more than one category.

The Impact of the Computer in Education

An important question is how these uses of the computer actually impact on student learning. Unfortunately, relatively little research has been done to measure the effectiveness of most computer use in education. There are essentially three different views of the impact of the computer in education to date:

1) Advocates of technology in education claim that research demonstrates the effectiveness of computers in enhancing student learning. For example, Baker, Hale and Griffith claim that a steady stream of studies since 1990 confirm that well-crafted computer-mediated instruction achieves increased learner effectiveness (increased test scores), increased learner efficiency (lessons learned in less time), greater learner engagement (greater student satisfaction with their classes), and greater learner interest (more positive student attitudes toward the discipline) (Baker, Hale, and Gifford 1997). Similarly, in the first nationally-based study of the effects of computer on math achievement, based on the results of the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Harold Wenglinsky of the Educational Testing Service found evidence that appropriate use of computers in instruction increases student math achievement. Weglinsky’s findings stress that technology must be utilized in an age appropriate manner. For example, while the use of math learning games increased achievement among fourth graders, it actually resulted in decreased achievement among eighth grade students. On the other hand, the use of simulations and applications increased achievement among eighth grade students. (Archer, 1998)

The use of the computer to provide multimedia instructional presentation has also been shown to be effective in enhancing student learning. Richard Mayer has demonstrated in his research that computer-based multimedia instruction can have a positive impact on both student retention and transfer performance. Mayer’s empirical research has revealed seven multimedia design principles that have been proven to improve learning outcomes. (Mayer, 2001)

Many of the advocates of technology in education claim that improvement in achievement test results reflects only a small part of the benefits of the use of the computer in instruction. They argue that the use of technology has a positive impact as well on motivation and school climate. A study conducted by the Rockman firm produced the following findings related to the integration of computers in the classroom:

  • More than 79% of teachers in the study believed that students are more motivated when using technology.

  • 87% of the teachers noted that access to laptop technology has increased the quality of the students’ work.

  • Students apply more problem solving and critical thinking skills through technology-based problem solving simulations.

  • Technology in the classroom allows teachers to spend more one-on-one time with students.

Wenglinsky concurs that in situations where teachers utilize the computer for more sophisticated applications than drill and practice, schools reported higher teacher and student attendance, less tardiness, and better morale. (Archer, 1998)

Diane Dusick claims that the impact of technology on achievement in other subjects is not the relevant issue, as there are benefits to the use of computers that are not directly measured by specific learning outcomes. In her view, “the development of technological skills and self-efficacy with computers is as fundamental to education as English, math or science.” Her view is shaped by the fact that current employers have a high expectation of computer literacy, including facility with word processing, spreadsheets and databases, programming, and Internet publication. As such, the success of the use of technology in our schools can be measured by the degree to which our students are prepared in these applications. (Dusick, 1998)

2) Larry Cuban has long been skeptical about the value of the large investment in computers in education. He concedes that there is a research history that demonstrates that tutorial and drill software can improve test scores. Cuban adds, however, that the impact of more sophisticated computer enhanced instruction, such as simulations, have not yet been adequately researched, and are, in fact, harder to measure (Cuban, 2000). He believes that once such research is conducted, it may well demonstrate a positive impact on outcomes. Nevertheless, Cuban contends that even if research indicates that the use of computers in instruction has a positive impact on student learning, its actual impact is limited by virtue of the fact that teachers tend not to incorporate computers in their instruction. This point is examined in greater detail below.

Cuban also questions the value of teaching computer applications because of the rapid change in computer technology and the high level of computer literacy in the society:

We worry about teaching keyboarding today, but it won’t be needed when voice activation becomes common in a few years. The dogma will only be replaced when people realize how quickly it is all changing. Kids don’t need years of computer exposure to succeed. People with no computer background generally catch on in a few weeks – a few months tops. (Cuban, 2000, p.1)

Cuban concludes that “the obligation is for educators, practitioners, and educational policymakers to think about what it is they are after. Only with clear goals can educators be intelligent about how much they want to spend for what purpose, and under what conditions.” (quoted in Trotter, 1998, p.3)

3) Gavriel Salomon takes a more pessimistic view. He reports that a survey of 374 studies in which the achievement of learners using computer mediated communication was compared to the achievement of learners using conventional methods reveals that only 5% demonstrated any significant difference. Of these, 1/3 favored conventional methods while 2/3 favored computer-mediated instruction. Salomon concludes that “very little, if anything, has happened so far as a result of computing in education.” He cites the comment of a leading American journalist, Todd Oppenheimer, that the large investment in computers in education “may well be considered educational malpractice” (Salomon, 2000).

Salomon, however, also indicates that research on the impact of computers in education has been misguided. Salomon believes that the problem lies in the tendency of the educational system to assimilate new technologies into existing instructional practices. He notes:

A most powerful and innovative technology is taken and is domesticated such that it does more or less what its predecessors have done, only it does it a bit faster and a bit nicer. Consequently, nothing really happens, which comes to prove what skeptics have argued all along and what misguided research tends to show: Technology makes no difference in learning (Salomon, 2000, p. 2).

Salomon claims that research which evaluates the impact of computers in education by measuring traditional outcomes belies the true potential of the computer as an educational tool.

Teacher Utilization of Computers in Instruction

Even if computers have the potential to enhance student learning, how much are computers actually utilized by teachers in their classes? For the past 15 years, Cuban has argued that the computer as a medium for instruction and as a tool for student learning is largely incompatible with the requirements of teaching (Cuban, 1986). The following is a summary of his argument (Becker, 2000):

Cuban points out that teachers have so many students to teach (or, in the elementary grades, so many different subjects to cover) that, along with the increasing accountability demanded of them, it is simply too hard for most teachers to incorporate student computer use as a regular part of their instructional practice. Moreover, computers are hard to master, hard to use, and often break down; therefore, investing effort into having students use them frequently is hardly worthwhile, and we should not expect many teachers to make this effort. Finally, all too often, district or school administrators have placed computers in teachers’ rooms with the expectation that computers will become part of the teachers’ instructional repertoire, even though the teachers did not ask for them and did not have specific plans for using them (Cuban, 1986; Cuban, 2000).

As a result, Cuban argued that computers have been under-utilized in the classroom. Henry J. Becker contends that the results of the 1998 TLC survey confirm that, in spite of significantly increased efficiency and capabilities of computers, Cuban’s argument is still relevant today (Becker, 2001). Frequent use of computers (more than 20 times during the school year) was reported by over 50% of the teachers in only two settings – computer classes and business classes. 43% of teachers in self-contained elementary school classes indicated that their classes used computers frequently. On the high school level, frequent computer use was significantly lower and varied by subject matter, as follows: English - 24%, Science – 17%, Social Studies – 12%, and Math – 11%.

The TLC report also revealed which types of software are most widely used in instruction. Word processing was the most frequently utilized software throughout. Presumably this reflects both the choice of word processing as an instructional goal, and word processing as a means for students to produce assigned work. In the elementary school classes, skill practice games and CD-Rom reference followed word processing as the most frequently used software. In high school classes, other than computer classes, no other software met Becker’s criteria for frequent use. In computer classes (elementary and high school), spread sheets / database, World Wide Web, and presentation software followed word processing as the most frequently used functions of the computer. We can conclude that on the secondary level, other than word processing in English class, most computer use relates to the instruction of software applications in separate computer classes. On the elementary level, the computer is generally used in class for word processing, drill, and reference, with computer classes dedicated to instruction in software applications.

All of this evidence leads to the conclusion reflected in the title of Larry Cuban’s recent book – Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom.

The Educational Potential of Computer Technology

What are the implications of the disappointing impact of the computer in education in relation to the resources invested in its development? Does the computer have a potentially important role in education? According to Gavriel Salomon, the answer to this question depends largely on whether we view the use of the computer as an end in itself, or we see it as part of a larger educational vision (Salomon 2000). In his opinion, the first step in the process of realizing the full potential of the computer in education is establishing goals that reflect the potential contribution of the computer to new outcomes.

Because different means, if they are powerful, serve different rather than the same ends. The greater the difference between the means, the greater the diversity of the outcomes that can be attained. The technology we are now concerned with, powerful and different as it is supposed to be, is not just another means to attain the same old goals traditional education has tried to serve. (Salomon 2000, pg.5)

Salomon identifies three trends in educational research for which the computer might serve as an important tool (Salomon 1998):

  1. Learning as a Constructivist Process: There is growing agreement among psychologists and educators that learning is a process whereby learners apply their existing knowledge to new incoming information in order to construct their own meaning. Constructivism claims that information is only useful when imbedded in a rich network of relations. As such, true learning is that which has been actively constructed, not passively acquired. If so, instruction should not be conceived as the presentation of information, but rather as the creation of an activity which fosters the construction of meaning. Learning activities should force learners to sense “disequilibria” (in Piaget’s terminology) which causes them intellectual uncertainty, annoyance, or curiosity. Constructivist instruction is often based on problem solving activities.

  2. Learning as an Interpersonal Process – Although students have traditionally been perceived as isolated entities, current trends suggest that social interaction among individuals with different profiles leads to a higher level of cognitive development. This thesis, based on the theories of Vygotzky (“self-regulation”), Piaget (“socio-cognitive conflict”), and Bandura (“social learning”), has been supported by research on cooperative learning. Learning as a social process serves a variety of functions including provision of feedback, mutual intellectual stimulation, peer instruction, scaffolding of comprehension, and socially shared construction of meaning.

  3. Learning as Context Bound – Many educational researchers have come to question the ability of learners to transfer knowledge and skills acquired in a decontextualized setting. Salomon claims that “in the competition between a well mastered abstract skill and rich knowledge of a particular field, the latter comes out the winner.” (Salomon 1998, p. 228). Lave contends that “knowledge-in-practice, constituted in the settings of practice, is the locus of the most powerful knowledgeability of people in the lived-in world.” (Lave 1988, p. 14) The implication is that learning should take place within rich and complex real world contexts.

Salomon concludes that “good learning is a process of socially based , active co-construction of contextualized knowledge and webs of relations among its nodes.” (Salomon 1998, p. 229) He suggests that the computer can play a significant role in creating learning environments that integrate these perspectives. This environment should reflect a shift from teacher led instruction to an interactive community of active learners, from a structured curriculum to a more fluid one, and from transmission of knowledge to seeking and processing information. On the contrary, it is hard to conceive of a classroom that could create such an environment without the use of technology. The computer can enable the gathering and processing of information, communication among learners, the simulation of contextual situations, and the construction of knowledge. Salomon presents this model as an example of an educational vision mandating the use of technology in instruction.

Factors that Promote the Effective Use of Computers in Schools

What factors are most significant in promoting the use of computers? The TLC survey isolated a number of important indicators for the frequent use of computers in instruction:

  1. Teacher use of computers is directly related to access to the computer within the classroom. Classes taught in classrooms having a ratio of at least one computer to every four students utilized computers significantly more than classes taught in classrooms having less computers and access to a computer lab. We might have assumed that teachers would prefer to work with students in a lab setting in which each student, or each pair of students, has access to a computer. Becker points out, however, that “the scheduling of whole classes of students to use computers at wide intervals determined well in advance of need (i.e. weekly or every-other-week use scheduled weeks in advance) makes it almost impossible for computers to be integrated as research, analytic, and communicative tools in the context of the central academic work of an academic class.” (Becker, 2001, p. 3) Thus, a critical aspect of accessibility is flexibility.

  2. Flexibility in class scheduling and in curriculum also play an important role in computer usage. Teachers who met their classes for longer blocks of time were somewhat more likely to use computers in instruction than those with shorter class periods, even if they have fewer meetings per week. Within the standard 45-50 minute period in high school, teachers apparently feel that the use of the computer is not efficient use of time. Thus, block scheduling might help to promote computer use. Similarly, on the curricular level, teachers who feel pressured to cover a specific amount of content and skills are less apt to utilize computers in their instruction. Both of these statistics indicate that many teachers do not see the use of the computer as an efficient method of achieving their instructional goals.

  3. Understandably, teacher expertise with using computers is a significant factor in frequent use. Most teachers report at least modest competency in using computers in different ways. In the 1999 NCES survey, approximately one-third of teachers reported feeling well prepared to use computers for instruction. Age plays a factor in facility with the computer, with less experienced teachers indicating a higher level of preparedness than more experienced teachers. Most teachers indicated that professional development activities in a variety of topics relating to computer technology were made available to them, and 83% reported participating in such activities. However, 77% participated in 4 days or less of professional development over a three year period. Technical and educational support is, therefore, an important factor in the use of computers in instruction. Lack of such support was viewed as an obstacle to computer use by 41% of respondents.

The factors that most significantly promote use of the computer in instruction reported in the TLC survey are confirmed by the NCES survey. In the latter survey, the barriers to teacher use of computers most frequently mentioned were lack of release time for teachers to learn how to use computers, not enough computers, and lack of time in schedules for students to use computers.

The Use of the Computer in Jewish Studies Instruction

Recent research conducted by Shalom Berger on the use of computers in Jewish day schools reveals that technology is utilized in instruction even less in the day school than in the public school. Of over three hundred teachers responding to the survey, only 35% indicated that they use computers in their teaching, as compared to almost 50% in the NCES survey. The data further points to the fact that teachers of Jewish studies use computers far less than the general studies teachers in the day school. The largest gap in computer utilization was in the area of drills, perhaps a reflection of the relative lack of software available for Jewish studies. Another area of discrepancy between Jewish day schools and public schools was in the use of technology for problem solving and analysis. This might be related to a deficiency in in-service training for Jewish day school teachers in comparison to their colleagues in the public schools. Berger’s research revealed that Jewish day schools offer their teachers much less opportunity than the public school for professional development relating to the use of technology in instruction.

The problem of insufficient availability of computer software for Jewish studies will probably not change in the future as the commercial production of Jewish Studies instructional material, in general, is constrained by a limited market. As such, technology in the Jewish Studies classroom will of necessity focus largely on reference materials and teacher generated materials:

  1. Reference Materials: A number of good reference CD Roms exist in the area of Jewish Studies including encyclopedias and collections of classical Jewish texts. The collections of classical texts, such as the Bar-Ilan Responsa Project and the Davka Torah Scholar, are of particular help in Torah study in that they enable students to perform more sophisticated searches than can be conducted with a concordance.

  2. Teacher Generated Applications: There are a number of teacher generated computer applications that have particular relevance for Jewish Studies:

    • Word Processing Functions: Relatively simple word processing functions can provide a number of tools that can help students in the analysis of texts. These functions primarily aid in the organization of information for analysis. For example, diagramming sentence and paragraph structure can be effected with the use of indentation and spacing functions, as well as with color and font settings. The use of tables with cutting and pasting from the text can facilitate textual comparison. Also, word frequency indications can help students identify key words.

    • The Internet: The Internet contains a treasure of valuable resources for inquiry-based learning in both Jewish and General Studies. Yet, the effectiveness of the Internet as a learning tool is often limited by the overwhelming number of sources accessible. Teachers must, therefore, be able to direct students to appropriate sites, and to help them to develop more sophisticated search skills in order to access information effectively. Another potential use of the Internet for Jewish Studies instruction is the Webquest. Webquests are internet-based activities with specific links provided that enable students to research topics individually or in small groups. Webquests can be developed by teachers or students. Once completed, the webquest remains on the Internet for others to use. A variety of Jewish Studies related Webquests are available on the Internet, focusing primarily on Jewish History.

    • Multimedia: Power point enables teachers to create multimedia presentations that can enhance their instruction. Multimedia is particularly valuable in text study. The combination of illustration and narration can enhance student learning of texts and information that can be difficult when presented only verbally.

The value of teacher-generated computer applications for Jewish Studies necessitates a focus on professional development for teachers that will give them requisite skills, a sense of comfort with the computer, and the opportunity for directed coaching geared toward implementation.

Conclusion

The evidence suggests that, in general, the use of the computer in instruction has to date failed to realize its full potential in enhancing student learning. Our analysis identifies a number of issues that should be considered by schools that wish to ensure that their investment in technology yields results:

  1. Setting Curricular Goals: The effective use of computers in instruction requires, first and foremost, the setting of curricular goals. Goals should include both the acquisition of computer skills and the integration of technology in instruction in order to enhance student learning. The research suggests that goals should be differentiated by grade level. For example, the use of technology in instruction in lower grades might focus on games for drill and on accessing reference material, while in higher grades, computers might be used to foster constructivist learning and for simulation. Based on these goals, a spiral curriculum can be developed in which computer skills are introduced in stages and reinforced through their use in classroom instruction.

  2. Computer Accessibility: If technology is to be integrated meaningfully in instruction, computers with internet access must be accessible in the classroom at a rate of at least one computer to four students. On the other hand, the teaching of computer skills may be more effectively accomplished in a computer lab in which each student has access to a computer. The computer lab is certainly more cost effective than the introduction of computers in each classroom, but seems to preclude meaningful use of technology in instruction. In order to ensure the most effective investment of available funding, schools should match computer accessibility with curricular goals. The differentiation of goals might suggest a two-track approach in which a computer lab is maintained while computers are introduced into particular classrooms on a gradual basis. Computers should only be introduced into classrooms where they will likely be utilized, as indicated by the nature of the teacher and the nature of the subject matter. Many schools have introduced computers into all classrooms at great expense, only to find that they are seldom or ineffectively used.

  3. Personnel / Professional Development: Personnel issues related to the introduction of technology in instruction include three components:

    • Identification of Personnel to Spearhead the Use of Technology in Instruction – As indicated in the previous section, the integration of computers in instruction might be best accomplished in a gradual approach focusing on teachers who have the greatest affinity toward the subject. The two most significant factors in this regard are the facility of the teacher with computers and his/her teaching style.

    • Administrative Personnel– Technical and educational support for teachers has a positive impact on the use of technology in instruction. Thus, the inclusion of a technology coordinator on the school staff is worthwhile, if possible. In any case, it is important for the principal and others in educational leadership positions to be current on the ever-changing application of technology in education.

    • Professional Development– A critical element in the successful integration of computers in instruction is professional development. Professional development offerings must be differentiated to meet the needs of teachers with varying levels of facility with computers. For example, programs for teachers with little background in technology should focus on fostering a personal comfort level with the computer before dealing with applications in the classroom. Teachers with a greater level of computer skill should be exposed to higher level applications in conjunction with instruction on relevant instructional methodologies such as cooperative learning and constructivist learning. Teachers should be given incentives, such as release time, in order to participate in appropriate professional development programs and to work on implementation. Furthermore, the educational leaders of the school should participate in ongoing professional development to remain current on applications of technology in education. Many schools have received donations for purchasing state of the art hardware, but do not have sufficient funds for professional development. School leaders should emphasize to their benefactors the need to train teachers to use the technology effectively as an integral part of maximizing their investment.

  4. Selection and/or Creation of Educational Materials: Selection and/ or creation of educational materials, including websites, must be made based on their educational value. A distinction must be made between materials that simply engage students and those that engage them cognitively. Materials should be utilized based on their ability to enhance learning and their appropriateness to the instructional methodology and goals of the teacher.

  5. Scheduling: Longer instructional periods help to foster the use of technology in the classroom. Schools that are interested in enhancing the use of computers in instruction should examine models of block scheduling for relevant classes.

    Computer technology challenges educators to think differently about teaching and learning. With well thought out planning and implementation, technology can play an important role in enhancing the effectiveness of our schools.


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