Are Technology-Using Students Better Learners?

Deborah Healey, Oregon State University

This is the article form of my presentation at the Teacher to Teacher Conference: The Process of Language Learning, held in Abu Dhabi November 6-7, 2001.

Hello! I'm sorry I'm not there with you in person - it's much more fun to see you face-to-face. I hope we will be able to chat together at this conference. In any event, please feel free to email me - with questions or comments.

Today I'm going to talk about the role of technology in our classrooms. I'm going to focus on computer and Internet technology, though many of us use video, as well, in our classes. I'll start by talking about technology's promise, then look at the reality of how teachers and students actually use computers in the classroom. My webpage for this presentation has the references for the studies I cite, as well as the text of my speech, written as an article. I hope that you will have plenty of questions for me after the formal talk.

I'll start with a little bit about why I'm interested in this topic. I've been working with computers for many years, since before the PC existed, in fact. Even so, I'm still surprised at and impressed with the many ways teachers and students make use of computer and Internet tools. A great resource for ideas about how to use the Internet in the classroom, by the way, is a book called Virtual Connections. It's a collection of about 200 lesson plans from many different teachers, edited by Mark Warschauer and available from University of Hawaii Press. If you want some ideas about using software in the classroom, I wrote a book called Something to Do on Tuesday from Athelstan Press to offer some lesson plan suggestions. You can find more about selecting software for English language teaching in an article on my website called "A Place to Start in Selecting Software." Norm Johnson and I edit the TESOL CALL Interest Section Software List, and this article was in response to many questions we get from teachers about "What should I buy?" You can also find a copy of the Software List online from a link at my website.

Technology's Promise

I often hear teachers say, "I don't need to learn how to use computers and the Internet. My students don't have access to computers." Well, I've been amazed at how fast technology has been adopted around the world. I was in Brazil a few years ago. The first year I was there, teachers in a school in Santos had only limited access to computers, and you could only get online before 7:30 in the morning - when it only took about 5 minutes to load one page. By the third year, that school had become an Internet service provider, offering email and web access to students all over the city. I couldn't believe the speed of change. I've seen the same thing in Tunisia, where it went from little Internet access anywhere to cybercafes -- and people chatting -- everywhere. I would argue that teachers without technology access now really do need to learn about it, so that when people in your school say, "Do you think there's any need for your students to have access to computers?" you can make an informed decision - and say "Yes!" If you're using computers and Internet technology now, please do talk to the teachers around you during the discussion breaks and share. I'm always curious about what people do with computers and why - there's always more to learn from other teachers! I hope I give you some food for thought in this talk, too.

Here are some of the claims made for computer and Internet technology. I'll give six on the student side first:

  1. It offers immediate feedback. Students don't have to hunt for an answer key or wait for the teacher to return an exercise to know if they understood the material.
  2. Student learning can be individualized. Management systems in software automate the process of letting students proceed at their own pace through material. Hypertext or hypermedia documents let learners stay at the surface level or go more deeply into material, depending on their own interests.
  3. Multiple learning styles are supported and more easily. Often, similar material is available in text, graphical, audio, and video format. All of these can be accessed in one place, on the computer, rather than having to bring in books, tapes, and VCRs.
  4. It's 21st century learning, preparing students for 21st century jobs. As more jobs require knowledge of computers and the Internet, it makes sense for schools to be using technology in teaching and learning so students are very familiar with the technology when they enter the job market.
  5. Learning can be anytime, anywhere. The Internet doesn't close; people who have software and computers at home can work at their convenience. You can read and send email at your convenience, unlike a telephone conversation - or chat, as we have here.
  6. Students are more motivated. This feels different; it appeals to the MTV generation; all of the positive aspects of technology create more motivation for students.

For teachers, here are two major promises:

  1. More authentic material is easily available. Foreign language teachers don't need to wait for two weeks or more for the latest foreign language newspaper or magazine - today's issue is online now. What learners are looking at online is the same as what native speakers (and more and more researchers) are reading online.
  2. Constructivist learning is easier to design and set up electronically than using other media.
    Let me make a little aside about constructivism. If you've been teaching for a while, you've seen that in pedagogy, as in anything else, there are fashions that come and go. You may be saying, so what is this constructivism, and why should I care? To begin with, constructivism isn't new. Jean Piaget in the early 1900s called upon teachers in his many works to treat children as active participants in learning, not just empty vessels to be filled with the teacher's knowledge. Piaget's contemporary, Lev Vygotsky, also believed that students were not just passive recipients of knowledge. They learned best in their "zone of proximal development" - where they can, with guidance, learn more than they would on their own. This is very similar to what we've seen with Krashen's i+1 in language teaching - you find where the learner is, then teach just a step beyond that.

    In the early 1930s, John Dewey came to prominence as an educational theorist. Like Piaget and Vygotsky, he emphasized that learning was an active process, not a passive one. He called on teachers to create opportunities for experiential learning. Students should be gathering and analyzing data and demonstrating their knowledge in a tangible way, since Dewey felt learning comes through experience. Dewey continued to write and refine his theories until his death in 1952.

    Lately there has been a resurgence in interest in these ideas about active, experiential learning. Research in cognitive psychology has supported the concept that people use past knowledge and experience to help provide a structure for new ideas, and that people interpret new information based on their previous knowledge and experience. In other words, we create meaning for ourselves, we don't incorporate it wholesale from others. Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget, and cognitive psychology bring us constructivism: the idea that teachers should offer data and hands-on experience for students so they can create meaning for themselves.

    Given these ideas about constructivism, experiential learning can be easier with electronic media because large amounts of data are available and students can easily build and revise electronically.

Discussion: which of these have you heard before? Any others? What do you believe, and why? These are all positive. Do you see any drawbacks in technology use?

What is the Reality?

Here I'll mention some information from research and practice. (The citations are on my website.) Let me start by saying that there is no single study or group of studies that has asked whether or not using books in the classroom is effective. Notice that I said "books" rather than "computers." The issues with research on book use and computer use are similar: the question is just too broad to be meaningful. We need to bring the focus in onto a reasonable target, such as whether a particular style of teaching a particular subject to a particular group of students is enhanced by a particular use of technology. For example, we could well ask whether it helps college-age students to retain abstract concepts they have learned if they learn with sound and graphics, as well as with text (Lai, 2000).

Another approach to addressing the broad question of effectiveness is to use qualitative, rather than quantitative measures. Here we're looking at a specific group of learners and asking the question, "What is going on here?" This approach helps identify the factors that could be used in later quantitative research, as well. The 10-year study of Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) schools provided a wealth of information about how students and teachers in technology-rich schools behaved, and gave extensive information about technology's benefits over the long run. For the shorter term, there is evidence that computer and Internet technology can be very helpful - if it is used appropriately. Research from cognitive psychology gives us some ideas about what appropriate use might be. I'll mention a few studies, looking at how learner behavior was affected, then some studies about teacher behavior.

Before I go into specifics about learners and teachers, there are some basic rules from research about use of information technology in schools. The Milliken Exchange on Educational Technology (1998) points out that 1) "teachers and students must have adequate and equitable access to hardware and network connections," 2) that school governing bodies (states and districts, in the US) need to have a technology plan and provide both adequate teacher training and technical support, and 3) that " teachers and students must use technology in effective ways." It should be no surprise that where only a few students have access, where teachers aren't well trained, and where pedagogy is not central to technology use, the educational results are not necessarily good. Again, it's not the tool by itself that makes a difference, but using the appropriate tool with effective tasks.

Learner Behavior

I'll give you a sampling of information from research on five areas: writing, keypals, reading, vocabulary development, and discussion.

One of the most-researched areas is the use of computers to enhance writing skills. From Daiute's Writing with Computers in 1985, word-processors have been seen as tools that promote writing skills in various ways. Process writing in particular has been helped by the use of information technology (Boone, 1991). For example, brainstorming is more visible with different types of concept mapping (Mikulecky, et al., 1989); revising on the word-processor is more likely to occur than rewriting on paper (Oates & Oates, 1987) , and peer critiquing occurs more readily in many cases when the discussion is online rather than face-to-face (Herrmann, 1989; Marx, 1990). Just using a word-processor or online discussion is not enough to create permanent beneficial effects on writing, however. An exploratory study by Krause (1995) with native speakers using online discussion suggests that online discussion may be valuable as a teaching tool, but just using online discussion does not necessarily spill over to affect offline writing. Clearly, the tasks set by the teacher and instructions given on use of computer tools are essential to long-term benefits in writing skills.

Another area of research has been in use of keypals - online penpals. Many teachers have shared their experiences of using keypals. A lot of good information is to be found at the Kitaos' "Keypal Opportunities for Students" website. Some factors influencing a successful interaction include having a project for which email interaction is necessary; having technical help available for students using email, if needed; and having similar commitment and similar access on both sides. Students involved in an email-based project have a real reason to communicate, and they realize it. This is of particular benefit in foreign language settings, when the target language is needed for the interaction to occur.

Reading is best enhanced by reading, and the more, the better. Students who use the web to find information often use scanning skills, as well as extended reading. In addition, cloze and whole-text deletion exercises can encourage repeated reading of a text. Students who use paragraph-level cloze or whole-text deletion exercises will often view the text to get help will filling in the blank. While looking for help can be overused, students do end up reading and re-reading the text (Healey, 1993).

Some very interesting research on vocabulary development is also available. As most reading teachers know, having an adequate vocabulary is critical to reading success. While students can do some guessing from context, they still need to be able to understand the bulk of what they're reading in order to make sense of the rest. Various studies in cognitive science have pointed to the usefulness of multiple modes of input, such as aural and graphical as well as textual data, for enhancing recognition and recall. This is cited as one of the strengths of multimedia (Liaw, 2001). The main factor influencing vocabulary learning, however, as well as reading skill development in general, is exposure. Vocabulary is learned best through repeated exposure to words in context, as part of reading. Concordancing is one approach to giving students more exposure to a word in a variety of contexts. A concordance scans a very large textbase (usually made up of hundreds of documents or more) and pulls out all the occurrences of a target word, along with some of the context. Most concordance displays have the search term in the middle, then five to ten words of the context on either side. With a large textbase, almost any word will have several occurrences, and the learner can see them all together. Cobb (1997) explains the benefits of vocabulary learning with a computer tutor based on a concordancer:

"It is indeed a tough paradox that you need words to learn words, but it can be softened by three factors. First, ... with several contexts accessible, a learner is likely to find one where he knows enough ambient words to make a useful inference. Second, a finer-grained picture of exactly how many words are needed to make inferences is becoming available through corpus analysis.... Third, a corpus tutor can be designed to contain elements of both direct instruction and dictionary work in the initial bootstrapping phase."

One more question that has been the subject of a number of studies is how much students using simulations and other computer programs collaborate. The studies have shown that while students will talk to each other when working together at a computer, the quality of the discussion varies greatly. The teacher plays a very large role in setting up the tasks at the computer so that students will talk to each other in meaningful ways. For example, students playing fast-action games rarely say much more than commands to each other, such as "Turn left!" and "No, go up!" etc. Students engaged in a large task such as building a city, where each person has a role, or those involved in a project that requires collaboration, such as writing a joint research paper, do talk more (Meskill, 1992). Here we see again that it's the task as well as the tool that counts.

Teacher Behavior

With teachers, a large question is how use of technology in schools can change the role of the teacher. Much has been said about the way that computer tools make it easier to have a constructivist classroom. Teachers have more access to information, so they can select data for students to work with and help them construct their own knowledge. Students can be more active participants in their learning with resources at their own fingertips, too. Where students have access to Internet resources, the teacher no longer needs to be the sole source of information, whether it's about English language, plant genetics, or any other topic. The teacher can still provide content, but the larger role for the teacher will be to set up tasks and sequence learning - providing the structure and curriculum, as much as content.

For those teachers who are accustomed to being the sole source of information and authority, this can be a very large change. It's hard to avoid, though. As more students have access to computers and the Internet at home, they can get information and ask questions independently. It's no effort for a student to pose a grammar or vocabulary question at Dave's ESL Cafe or other similar sites to get an answer from another teacher. If you're wrong, the students can find out. As a result, it's better to start thinking about being a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.

Discussion: Have any of you used word-processing in your classes? Keypals? How do you think students best learn vocabulary? This is a brief look at some of the research. Do your students use computers in other ways, either at home or a school, that you'd like to explore further?
What do you feel the role of the teacher is? What should it be?

Summing Up

Now, let's revisit our earlier list of technology's promises in the light of research and reality. For students:

For teachers:

To come back to the original question, "Are technology-using students better learners?" the answer is, "It depends." Like books and videos, software and the Internet can be used badly in the classroom. The difference between computer and Internet technology and books and videos is that computers and the Internet can provide books and videos, along with many other tools for teaching. The impact on student learning will depend on how well or how poorly we as teachers understand this new tool at our disposal.

We need to keep firmly in mind that technology does not teach by itself. It is an issue of task, not just tool. This tool can make many new learner tasks possible, but having a computer in the classroom will not by itself change how teachers teach and how students learn. The teacher-learner relationship is more than input and feedback; it is a constantly changing assessment, re-evaluation, and redirection as both the teacher and the learner grow in their understanding. For good teachers, this new technology is an incredible resource, an extraordinary "bag of tricks." It's a new challenge - and, it's a whole lot of fun.

Discussion: In what ways do you see being able to use technology for your classes? If you don't have access now, do you want to? How long do you think it will be before you have access to technology at your school?

References

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Cobb, T., Greaves, C., Horst, M. (2001). Can the rate of lexical acquisition from reading be increased? An experiment in reading French with a suite of on-line resources. [Online] Available: http://www.er.uqam.ca/nobel/r21270/cv/BouleE.htm (10-28-01).

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Last updated 7 November 2001 by Deborah Healey. Email Deborah.