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It is by now a standard line of thinking when it comes to technology and the k-12 classroom. First you train the teachers to use the technology. Then you provide them powerful computers and Internet access, and somehow wondrous and amazing learning will take place.
To that, Raven McCrory has an answer: "It's just not that easy."
In fact, teaching with technology can be extremely difficult, said McCrory, an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education and a former technology teacher and civil engineer.
Her research focuses on understanding the role of the teacher in teaching with technology and what educators need to know and be able to do to teach with technology.
"For me, where the rubber hits the road is when the teacher is in the classroom with the students and the technology," McCrory said. "What happens then? That's what has been driving my research."
What emerges from McCrory's research is a complex learning process for both teachers and students when it comes to using technology in the classroom. McCrory has been particularly interested in the role of the Internet. For her, the Web is a powerful tool that in a remarkably short period has been made available to just about every school in the country.
And yet the ability to harness the Internet's potential has been a struggle for teachers and students. In one study, McCrory and her colleagues developed an Internet-based inquiry project for middle school students that focused on ecology.
Although the topic was confined to ecological issues, the individual projects were intentionally left open-ended so that the students themselves would be motivated by a research topic of their own choosing. "We were excited about the Internet and its ability to get students excited about learning and investigating. So we didn't tell a student to write a paper about water pollution in Michigan, for example. We wanted them to delve into the Web and develop a topic themselves."
Given the immense amount of information on the World Wide Web, particularly on ecological issues at sites like those hosted by nasa and the National Science Foundation, McCrory and her colleagues believed that the ability of the students to conduct their searches and develop their own topics would be a key to engaging them in the kind of inquiry that would lead to authentic learning and understanding.
"And, of course, it didn't work--for a lot of reasons," McCrory said.
It is apparent to McCrory that the students enjoyed working on the Internet, and the teacher was engaged with the students, helping them get passed technical problems and assisting in other ways.
But the core of the project was subject matter learning. Did the students engage in higher order thinking and analysis?
Ultimately, the answer was no.
"It turned out to be much more complicated than we thought it would be," she said. "Nothing we found out should have been a surprise, but we thought that the computer would make such a big difference. The kids ended up doing very superficial searches. Everybody makes the assumption that everyone knows how to search. You put in a keyword and up comes all this stuff and we look at it and decide what is good.
"But it is actually a very complex process. The kids had trouble searching, and the teacher spent time helping them with the technical aspects. It was easy to lose track of the subject matter, and that defeats the process."
For McCrory, the findings pointed out a truism she tries never to forget: The Internet is not a magic bullet.
There is, she said, a good amount of research into students' inclination to turn assignments into perfunctory schoolwork. The goal becomes finishing the task, or getting a grade, or turning in a paper--not gaining a deeper understanding of the content. "The Web won't necessarily change that attitude."
Her research and experience as a computer teacher has led McCrory to craft a list of essentials for teachers in making the Internet easier for students.
One key, she said, is establishing boundaries. The Web is such a boundless frontier of information, it is easy for students to get overwhelmed. Thus, to be effective, the teacher must narrow that universe of information to a manageable size. In one case of effective teaching with the Internet, for example, McCrory observed a teacher limit students to the American Meteorological Society's Web site. It was there that students could explore information about weather, and get up-to-date information.
Effective interaction between teacher and student is also central. Because the Web is virtual, McCrory said, it requires a different kind of interaction than other forms of media such as a book or a worksheet. In those cases, the teacher has some clues about what the student is doing by the pages he or she has read or the problems he or she has solved. On the computer, the teacher only sees what is on the screen at that moment.
"There isn't necessarily any evidence of what's happened before or what needs to happen next. There can be, but that's up to the teacher to make it happen." For McCrory, the teacher has to make that happen. The teacher has to figure out a way to situate problems students encounter online in the wider context of subject matter learning.
A final issue is student accountability. A teacher has to have a way to monitor student progress and evaluate that work. In the case of the teacher who assigned her students to the American Meteorological Society Web site, she held them accountable by requiring on the final test to perform certain functions that could only have been learned through the Internet.
"There has to be some way to hold students accountable otherwise it just becomes something on the fringes of the curriculum you do for fun or entertainment. Fun and entertainment arefine, but they aren't central to the subject matter," she said.
For McCrory, the work continues in her effort to understand teaching and technology. She is in the planning stages on a couple of studies, one involving high school science and focusing on teachers who have been identified as experts in teaching with technology. She intends to look at how they plan and implement technology in their classrooms and how they interact with students.
"For me, it's always about subject matter," she said. "I always focus on what is happening with the subject, and that's the challenge for teachers. They have a lot of work to do to be able to pull that off. There are great resources on the Internet, but you can feel overwhelmed having to find something that suits your particular circumstances.
kids may be learning to use technology, which is important especially for
kids who don't have it at home, and they may well be enjoying class.
That's all great, but it would be better if they were enjoying class and
getting really good subject matter learning. That's the key."