Technology Redefines Learning in the Classroom and at Home
The following article was published in the April 2009 issue of OCD's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here.

Advanced technologies are today an integral part of most children’s lives, providing highly sophisticated options for entertainment and communication that include games with incredibly realistic simulations and phones that allow them to instantly connect with one another and the Internet no matter where they are.

But in terms of learning, the implications of growing up in this highly hi-tech world are far from being fully understood. Computer-based technologies are simply developing at a pace that scientists and educators cannot keep up with. And that is not likely to change anytime soon.

"With more computer power, we are able to do things that weren’t possible 10 years ago or even 5 years ago," said Alan Lesgold, Ph.D., dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. “What the technological changes in the future will largely mean is that things that we understand how to do but always seemed too big for us will no longer seem too big.

“Today, you can author videos illustrating culturally complex situations where the videos are entirely animations. We knew how to do it at the $50 million or $100 million level for DreamWorks some time ago, but it is now becoming doable at an affordable level. And that is one of the big changes.”

To be sure, there is no turning back. Historical trends suggest the cell phones, computers, software, and video games of today will be rendered crude predecessors of more advanced technologies in a few short years. In recent years, the computer industry has been able to roughly double the amount of computer power available to consumers about every 18 months.

A special report on education and technology published in Science earlier this year provides a glimpse of what is being learned about how education is changing in the face of technology, including implications for science and math education, and the impact widespread exposure to technologies outside the classroom, such as video games, has on the skills children develop.

What is clear is that every medium has its strengths and weaknesses and new technologies are no exception. The challenge for researchers and educators is to find ways to capture the potential for learning what technology offers, while taking into account the weaknesses and limitations of these media.

Computers As Tutors

An example of such potential is Cognitive Tutor, a software program developed by Carnegie Mellon University scientists that is used to help teach algebra to students in some 2,600 middle schools and high schools across the United States.

Among its reported strengths is the fact that, unlike many instructional software products, Cognitive Tutor is based on academic research, including the principles of sound, cognitively based instruction. Another strength is the program’s ability to measure a student’s skills and offer instruction tailored to that assessment at different stages in the problem-solving process.

Students are given a series of problems that become more difficult as they progress. Cognitive Tutor’s developers say its fundamental instructional tool is providing students with relevant hints for solving the problem that are tailored to the degree of difficulty each is facing. Students who repeatedly ask for a hint are offered several examples of a similar problem to build mastery of the skill.

The algebra tutor was effective in helping students learn algebra and in raising their scores on standardized tests in a small, randomized study. But, like many new technologies, definitive evidence of its effectiveness awaits further investigation. Two other studies reported no significant increase in test scores. A large-scale study of the program is only now underway.

Outside The Classroom

Research suggests that new technologies influence learning beyond the classroom. One important implication is how exposure to television, computer-based games, the Internet, and other technologies at home and in other out-of-school environments is producing learners with a new profile of cognitive skills, including more sophisticated visual-spatial skills.

Studies suggest these media enhance an understanding of pictures and icons, as well as build spatial orientation, spatial visualization, and other visual literacy skills that are important in the world of computers and used in many of today’s professions.

However, as with all media, such benefits appear to come at a cost. For example, while video games are effective at developing visual literacy skills, they do a poor job promoting abstract vocabulary, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, imagination, reflection, and other important skills. And game content is not benign. A significant body of research has found that exposure to violence depicted in video games, television and other visual media, tends to encourage aggressive behavior and desensitization to violence in real life, and decrease prosocial behavior.

A specific example of the benefit-cost trade off associated with technology and learning is seen in studies involving the ability of students to perform multiple tasks at the same time, or multitasking. Adolescents and young adults have been found to be particularly adept at multitasking.

Research suggests that video games, for example, promote skill in multitasking. However, studies that look at how well information is processed through multitasking suggest developing such skills come at a cost. In one study, a group of students watched CNN news broadcasts that included anchors reporting the news with “news crawls” – written weather, sports and other news – streamed across the bottom of the screen. A second group watched a broadcast that showed anchors reporting the news, but had the news crawls edited out. The study reported that students who viewed the more visually complex format with the news crawls remembered significantly fewer facts from main news stories than students who watched the visually simple version of the broadcast.

Such findings have implications for schools and educators. “As kids get more experience in everyday life doing 10 things at once, we need to learn both how much attention they need to be paying for a given instruction approach to work and what might shape their ability to attend to that level,” Dr. Lesgold said.

It is one of the many challenges and opportunities that technology poses for education. Others include simply understanding the strengths and weakness of rapidly developing technologies, and finding a mix of new media and older media, such as print, that adapts to a more technology literate generation of learners while promoting development of a balanced set of skills.?And, for Dr. Lesgold, the relentless march of technology raises an even larger question. “When I think about the nature of human existence, I keep thinking about what can we teach people that will give them a happy, productive and survivable role in a world where machines can do more and more of the stuff that used to be valued human capability.”

REFERENCES – This article was largely based on the following publication: Education & Technology: special section, Science, 323, 53-93, 2 January 2009.