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Summary of technology foundations in education and current tech usage in schools.

Technology, Society and Schools:
How computers can be used to change the way we learn
Anita A. Van Hassel
ETC 567
Northern Arizona University

Computers have led to changes seen in all aspects of life. The only place computers appear to have had little effect is education. Billions of dollars have been spent to bring computers and the Internet to classrooms in America, yet has done little to change the way teachers teach. This is due to the limited training teachers receive in how to incorporate computers into their curriculum. Gaming is a computer activity that has potential in education to promote learning problem-solving skills, communication methods, and subject knowledge while allowing the formation a classroom community and meeting the social needs of students.

Technology, Society and Schools: How computers can be used to change the way we learn

Computers are an integral part of life in the 21st century. Almost every business, home, and government has computers (Cole, 2000) using them for a multitude of purposes, writing, storage, relaxation, entertain, escape; almost anything than can be imagined. The area they seem to have had the least effect is education. Over the past 20 years, significant expenditures have been made at the national, state and local levels (Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004) to incorporate computers in K-12 institutions. Even with the huge build up of technology it has had minimal effect on teaching practices (Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004; Albion & Ertmer, 2002; Wilson & Notar, 2003).

Historical, Social, and Educational Foundations of Technology

Technology has been used in multiple forms in education. Copiers, mimeograph machines, film strips, movie projectors, more recently VCRs and DVD players, have been used to provide enrichment and allow students to passively visit places they would not otherwise be able to see. In most cases, educational technology has been used primarily for administrative purposes (Wilson & Notar, 2003) such as maintaining grades, communication, keeping attendance records and lesson planning. Occasionally it is used to reinforce or enhance current teaching methods. With the introduction of computers into education 20 years ago much effort has been made to bring this new technology into the classroom. Over the past 10 years more that $19 billion has been spent by the U.S. government to connect all schools to the Internet and provide classroom computers and networks (Wilson & Notar, 2003). As of 1999, over 90% of all schools have Internet connections and the ratio of students to computers is 5:1 (Wilson & Notar, 2003). Ninety-nine percent of all public school teachers have access to the Internet through their school and over three-quarters have at least one computer in their classroom (Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004).

Computers have had a significant impact on society. Technology has caused an evolution of the term literacy. In the early days of American society a literate person was defined as someone who could sign their name. In the 1960's literacy included listening and speaking as well as the ability to read and write. Today, literacy must include a competency in using technology (Baker, 2000). While this is a fairly innocuous effect, a some people believe computers present a far greater threat to fabric of American society believing “the computerization of society corresponds to the authoritarian policing of large populations through centralization, surveillance, suspicion, and uniformity” (Yeaman, 2000, p. 102). Many view the computer as passive entertainment that stagnates the cognitive development of our society. Others simply fear what they do not understand. Much is opined on the negative effects of computers, children spending too much time playing games, computer addictions, predators, and other antisocial behaviors. This negative perception often inhibits teachers and parents from utilizing the full potential of computer technology. As one teacher stated, “I can’t believe what is happening to my department. Nobody looks up anymore when you enter the room. They are looking at their computers because they are checking email, working on papers or doing research. The whole camaraderie is gone. The computer has taken away the social aspects of our interaction” (McNierney, 2004, p. 66). The computer is blamed for many of society’s ailments such as increased aggression, violence, and isolation.

Debate is ongoing over the merit of computers, yet most agree that computers offer significant learning opportunities. There are indications that computers may have a small positive effect on student outcomes over traditional modes of instruction (Wighting, 2006; Gaytan, 2006) and their use leads to greater student engagement, increased understanding of subject matter, interest, motivation and enjoyment (Wighting, 2006). Although there is not much empirical evidence, computers are highly supportive of constructivist pedagogy (Albion & Ertmer, 2002; Coupal, 2004; Wighting, 2006), especially when paired with cooperative learning. Many of examples are available to demonstrate the constructivist ways teachers have utilized computers in their classrooms allowing students to construct their own learning. Some research indicates class community is negatively impacted when too much time in front of the computer leading to a loss of social relationships (Wighting, 2006). However, Wighting (2006) reported that students believed computers were important to their learning, were fun to use, and gave them a sense of belonging and a feeling of connectedness. Students’ sense of classroom community was greater when teachers used computers more frequently. “Students…believed…they had more control over their learning with a computer than they did through the use of books…students considered that they were learning together in a community” (p. 378).

Current Use of Technology in Schools

Even understanding the potential computers offer, not much has changed in the way teachers teach. There are several reasons for this disparity. Through a comparative research project, Coupal (2004) demonstrated how politics can play a major role in technology incorporation and use in education. In Canada, between 1991 and 2001, the democratic socialist political party deemed its educational goal was to foster computer literacy in educators increasing usage of computers in the classroom. Through a three-stage process, and the creation of an advisory panel made up of educators, they attempted to focus on “more effective and appropriate ways of integrating its use into student learning” (Coupal, 2004, p. 589). They worked on shifting the technology focus from building infrastructures and teaching basic technical skills toward a more constructivist ideology meeting the needs of teachers and students. In May 2001 the BC liberal party took control replacing this panel with a committee of advisers from the business sector to help educators focus on meeting industry needs. With this change came a pedagogical shift to a behaviorist ideology focusing on human capital and outcomes rather than process and thus a change in computer usage in the classroom.

Another problem with computer integration is a lack of training. Having technology available does not mean teachers know how to use it effectively(Gaytan, 2006; Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004). According to Gaytan (2006), the simple use of technology in the classroom does not produce significant positive changes in the teacher’s effectiveness. Teachers must have an understanding of the positive influence technology can have on learning and this must come with appropriate technology and method training (Gaytan, 2006; Wilson & Notar, 2003; Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004; Wambach, 2006; Cole, 2000; Rother, 2003). In order for integration to be successful, teachers must be willing to let go and accept a constructionist pedagogy. They must be tolerant of students’ working at different levels or paces and flexible when technical problems arise. Most importantly, they must be willing to accept the fact that on occasion their students know more than they do (Herring, 2001). Teachers have not been shown how computers and technology can be used in their specific curriculum. Most professional development focuses on basic technical knowledge and how to use specific types of software (Wilson & Notar, 2003; Cole, 2000; Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004). The more training a teacher has, the more likely they are to use technology in the classroom (Wilson & Notar, 2003; Rother, 2003), however, to be most effective in changing a teacher’s methodology, training must focus less on how technology works and more on how to integrate in to the curriculum (Wilson & Notar, 2003; Gaytan, 2006; Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004). Sandholtz & Reilly (2004) emphasizes using the teachers’ strengths, their knowledge of curriculum and instruction, in training them to use computers rather than putting them is the unfamiliar role of technician. Based on this idea, they recommend spending as little time as possible on the technology itself and more time helping teachers see how they can use technology. Jane Healy (Herring, 2001) stated that the biggest mistake made by schools, districts, and states is forcing teachers to use computers even though they are not skilled or understand how they relate to the content they teach. This can lead to incorrect computer usage in the classroom and possible harm to a child’s development.

It is not recommended for children between the ages of 8 and 14 to spend a lot of time on the computer as it may cause them to miss some of the developmental milestones associated prefrontal brain development (Herring, 2001). As students enter their middle school years their brains move from concrete thought to the ability to process the abstract. Cognition can be enhanced during this time through the use of computers, however, excessive computer time can cause behavioral problems (Herring, 2001). While computer inclusion is meant to aid in the growth of students' cognitive skills, it offers many other affective advantages. Computers are motivating, empowering, can act as mediators between children and adults (Jones & Selby, 1997), help promote collaboration through peer mentoring (Sandholtz & Reilly, 2004), improve academic performance, student attention in class, and can sometimes be more effective that teachers in presenting material (Rother, 2003). Many educators believe that computers become more important as a teaching tool as students get older (Rother, 2003). Even outside classroom instruction computers provide significant advantages. Many schools have web sites for communicating with parents and the community at large; many teachers maintain classroom web sites to help keep students and parents informed of activities (Rother, 2003), parent-teacher communication is more immediate via email, and many schools are providing parents direct access to student's grades through secure web sites.

Technology and Society

Of all the potential uses and abuses of computer technology, gaming is one that appears to be most controversial. Introduced in the 1970's, video games quickly became the preferred recreational activity of children leading many parents to fret about the possible negative effects gaming has on their children socially, physically and educationally (Cesarone, 2007). This topic was chosen because of personal experience with people who have been drawn into the gaming circle to the point of displaying the typical antisocial behaviors bemoaned by gaming opponents. After watching a close family member lose a well paying job, because he could not arrive to work on time after gaming all night; spend his way through $60,000 of savings; remain unemployed; and reach the verge of losing his home and shelter for his son and girlfriend, I was curious about the allure gaming holds that causes so many to stride down the path of destruction often followed by others with uncontrollable habits.

One of the greatest concerns of gaming is the aggressive and violent nature most games portray. Many parents believe this message leads to more aggressive behaviors in their children (Prensky, 2007; "Computer/Internet Addiction - Teenagers", 2007; Cesarone, 2007), especially in younger children. Although most argue that television has greater negative influence, many think that violence in video games is more likely to increase the possibility of violence in children believing that "performing violent actions in video games may be more conducive to children's aggression than passively watching violent acts on television….the more children practice violence [sic] acts, the more likely they are to perform violent acts" (Cesarone, 2007, "Effects of Other Characteristics of Video Games", para 1). Another concern expressed is how games influence attitudes toward gender roles. While lacking research, it is has been noted that women in most video games are depicted as persons of inaction, most commonly being kidnapped, harmed, or saved. They are seldom the dominant character (Cesarone, 2007).
Research out of Australia suggests that teens who frequently use computers in the classroom and at home have significantly lower reading and math scores than students without computer access (Milburn, 2005). The availability of computers at home had a negative impact on student learning with the more computers present leading to a greater negative impact. The reason suggested for this was computers being used for gaming rather than more useful endeavors. Others agree, observing decreases in grade point averages (GPA) as time spent gaming increases (New Media & Society Blog-g9, 2006).

Many researchers suggest that gaming has far more advantages socially and educationally than disadvantages offering a high potential for learning because it is highly motivating; interactive; engaging; less stressful; allows players some control and allows for trial and error in a way that is impossible in schools today (Ocean County Department of Education [OCDE], 2005; Hill, 2006; Bryant, 2007; Rubin, 2004). Gaming promotes risk-taking and improved visual abilities; increases hand-eye coordination and motor skills; teaches morality and ethics, problem-solving, lateral thinking and logic, resource management, strategy, collaboration, decision making, how to work in complex systems, and patience to work through complicated puzzles (OCDE, 2005; Hill, 2006; Bryant, 2007; Rubin, 2004; Squire, 2006). Perhaps more importantly, gaming causes children to read and write more than they ever have before (Rubin, 2004; Squire, 2006). In their October 2005 edition of Technology in Education, the Orange County Department of Education presented a number of key points supporting the use of gaming in the classroom stating that the point of gaming in the classroom was not "fun" but engagement, much the same way working a challenging puzzle or reading a good book is engaging. It also puts students in worlds they may otherwise not be able to visit. It gives experience to the "deskbound" that they may never get otherwise (Rubin, 2004).

Since "educational software" often has the negative connotation of being boring, a number of researchers are looking at the benefits provided by the more popular games being played. One of the most commonly studied games is World of Warcraft which appears to be highly versatile in terms of education. A number of businesspeople are using it to improve their leadership and communication skills (Stewart, 2006). According to players, success in the game is determined by strong leaders with effective communication skills who can manage and use their resources wisely. World of Warcraft was also suggested as a method of language immersion for language acquisition (Bryant, 2007). Being the most popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPGs), is an internationally played game with servers located in the U.S., Europe and Asia and game play occurring in many different countries using many different languages. Since communication is one of the key aspects of the game, as it is with most MMORPGs, this provides a significant advantage for students learning a foreign language as it allows them to practice the language in real-world situations with native speakers. Again, because of high engagement and increased student motivation, it is likely students will continue with the game outside of class time, further increasing their language skills.

Another online game used in business for training is Second Life (Stewart, 2006). Many businesses have set up virtual conference rooms and retreats where their employees from around the world can meet and network, ideally increasing productivity, communication, and cooperation among team members. This game can also be used in education. By design, instructors have the ability to create mini-worlds within the framework of Second Life. By doing this, teachers can set up crime scenes for their criminal justice course; students can create stage sets for theatre design classes; artists can prototype sculptures (Watts, 2007). A number of other games can be used to promote different curricula, including Toontown, Civilization III, and Sim City.

While each game brings different focuses, almost all games, especially MMORPGs have a number of other characteristics they promote. One key lesson promoted is cooperation and the value of people helping one another (Prensky, 2007; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign [UIUC], 2006; Carvin, 2006). In his research, Carvin (2006) found that 65% of online community members are involved in civic causes they did not know about prior to their online life. Likewise, social activism has also increased. These online communities, which include everything from MySpace to MMORPG groups, promote sociability and new world views (UIUC, 2006; New Media & Society Blog-g9, 2006; Carvin, 2006). According to Carvin (2006), "the Internet has increased the amount of contact…with friends and family. For many…these interactions are taking place in online communities" (para. 4).

The draw of these communities is due to their functioning as "third places" (UIUC, 2006; Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006). Sociologist Ray Oldenburg defined "third places" as locations much like bars, coffee shops, soda shops and similar hang-outs of the past (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006). According to Oldenburg, these places provided space for social interactions outside of home and work that are neutral and friendly, inhabited by regulars, where the general mood is playful and frivolous with conversation that is full of wit and verbal word play. Steinkuehler & Williams (2006) demonstrated that MMORGPs, meeting Oldenburg's requirements, can be viewed as "third places". However, the social interactions promoted by these sites are very different from face-to-face relationships. These communities are better for building bridging social capital, relationships that are broad but superficial, but not the best at creating bonding social capital, relationships that are narrow but deep (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006). While some may turn into deep and lasting relationships, these communities are not built to foster this type of growth. Regardless, there is a strong social element involved in online communities providing teens and young adults with more social support today than before (New Media & Society Blog-g9, 2006) which may explain the "addiction" many have for these places.


Computer technology has had a significant impact on the 21st century world changing the way in which we live our lives; communicate with family and friends; and view the world around us. Educationally, computers have the potential to broaden students' understanding of the world around them, increase thinking and problem solving skills, and better prepare them for the leadership and communication roles they will be taking on as adults. Even so, computers are not being used to their fullest potential in today's classrooms. The reasons are numerous, however, the greatest cause is a lack of training. Teachers need to be trained, not in how computers work, but in how to incorporate computers into their specific curriculum.

One of the more motivational, methods of integrating computers into the curriculum is the use of computer gaming. While there are drawbacks to their usage in the classroom, there are many positive outcomes associated with gaming in the classroom. Gaming promotes joint collaborative problem-solving; using subject terminology as tools of communication; an increase in reading and writing; and an increase in self efficacy (Squire, 2006). According to Squire (2006), they develop and extend interest in academic areas, engage learners in cognitively challenging play and design, develop specific technological and academic skills, and create knowledge that bridges home and school.

The key to computer usage is control. Just like any other media, computers have the potential to help or harm social, cognitive, and physical development. It is how they are being used that will determine whether their effect on students is positive or negative. The point to remember is that computers should be used as tools for engagement, not escape (Watts, 2007). Parents and teachers just need to use a little common sense, provide guidance, and be good examples.


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