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It is with both anticipation and trepidation that I begin my assignment as the editor of this column. Anticipation because I am by no means a technology expert, and trepidation because in spite of my conviction that new technological advances can bring exciting learning opportunities for children, I share with many teachers a number of concerns about how the uses of such technology may influence classroom practice. Thus, I plan to discuss in this column not only how you can enhance children's learning opportunities through technologically based approaches, but also how you can preserve the developmentally sound instructional approaches you value and practice.

Each column will have two sections. The first part will have an example of how technology is being used and a discussion of the potential impact those uses might have. The second part will inform teachers about resources and products that may help them find their way in the technological environment. Although the use of computer-based technology will be the focus of the column, I also may mention other technological innovations that have relevance to teaching. Because of the rapidly changing nature of technology, some aspects always will be "terra incognita" (the ancient mapmakers' term for "unknown land"), requiring us to embrace a bold, risk-taking, and playful perspective if we are to use it meaningfully.

I welcome your ideas and suggestions for technology uses that you have found successful, for resources that other teachers might find helpful, and for issues that need to be bravely explored. In our initial exploration, I thought it would be useful to look at technology in teaching from the perspective of an "expert," the kind of expert whom teachers encounter daily in their classrooms: their students.

Interview With a Computer Expert (Age 13)

Kristen began using the computer at home at about age 4 because both her parents and her older sister were computer users. She was proficient in using a number of game-like programs for preschoolers (e.g., "Reader Rabbit") before she went to kindergarten, although her preschool classroom did not have a computer station. She remembers the "old computers with poor graphics and sound quality" from her primary years. The computer was mainly used as a free-time activity with simple, educational games and not really tied to any curriculum goals (at least that is how Kristen saw it!).

By the time Kristen reached the 4th grade, the school had built a brand-new computer lab, and two new computers were placed in each classroom. According to Kristen, the computers had "CD ROM, good graphics, and the sound was better." In short, they were "cool to have." Programs included things like "Math Blaster" and a typing program. Everyone went to the computer lab twice a week, where the assignments were "mainly word processing stories and using the typing program." In the classroom, computers still were primarily an activity done after "real" work was completed. Games such as solitaire, hearts, and other card games were available, and there were "not as many games that taught skills" as in the primary grades.

At home during this same period, Kristen's family got an on-line computer service, and their computer had memory upgrades, so her use of the computer at home also increased. She used it for typing homework, playing various sports, and mastering adventure games. She also began playing on-line games and joining "kids-only clubs on-line" that had E-mail capabilities.

Kristen is now beginning 8th grade at middle school. Starting in the 6th grade, the middle school students started to use the "really big computer lab," and time for this is built into the class schedule for certain periods. Although there is a computer in each classroom, that computer "is just for the teacher, for grading and things." In the lab, the computers are hooked to the Internet and teachers provided a short Internet orientation, which Kristen did not need because she knew how to use it.

In middle school, Internet resources are used mainly to get information for projects. For example, students might be asked to pick a fruit and do a report. Kristen will find information on the Internet, "copy and paste" a picture, and print the report. Usually, a project might last for one or two weeks. So far Kristen has not learned any computer programming and has not been taught how to do Web pages at school, although making a Web page is sometimes a project option. Usually, the students work individually, although there are some cooperative projects, which Kristen says are "okay only if you get to pick your partner. If you don't know them and don't trust them to do their part, cooperative work isn't fun." Teachers at Kristen's school are not encouraging E-mail use at school. Kristen does not think she would be too interested in using E-mail to communicate with students in other countries, because "I don't feel comfortable with people I don't know." On the whole, Kristen thinks that the amount and type of computer use at school is just right. The school is "not forgetting about books."

Kristen's computer use at home is extensive (in fact, her parents have recently made a rule about the amount of time per day she can spend on the computer). She does not use purchased software programs very much, but she does spend much time on-line, downloading games such as pinball, hockey, and fortune telling, and downloading music files. "I love games, even though they are time wasters," she says. Kristen is self-taught in making her own Web pages, and has been doing so since about the 5th grade. She does less of that now, however, because they are hard to keep up. She does not do much research on the Internet either, unless asked to do so by someone in her family, in which case she is very adept at finding the desired information. Her main love at this time is using the "instant messages" capability. She communicates after school with friends, and this activity has somewhat replaced the telephone calling she used to do.

When asked what she has learned from her computer use, Kristen says she "can find things on Web pages that I can't find in the library" and that she knows "more ways to find information." She does note, however, that one has to know how to search and where to start with a site: "You just keep looking because you know it has to be there." She also states that she "can do anything on Windows," including fixing things like the modem and the speakers.

Kristen's advice for teachers is "don't restrict searches to one site; that kills the whole interest and then we can't look for ourselves." She finds learning games, on the whole, to be "not much good" because "most are too simple" and the "tutorials are boring," but she thinks they "probably do work." While Kristen thinks the Internet is especially interesting, she still engages in more active pursuits partly because of her family's interests and because she is a member of the school's basketball team.

Implications for Teachers

Kristen's elementary and middle school experiences with computer technology have much in common with those of students in most parts of the United States. Many school districts now either have, or are in the process of getting, Internet connections, which usually now include elementary classroom linkages. At the kindergarten-primary level, computer use is still often focused on skill-based game programs that are available as free-time activities, although a number of schools use computers to teach basic skills to all children. Using a word processing program to write stories is also standard practice in the primary and later elementary grades.

Teachers in the later grades usually extend the range of activities to carefully controlled Internet projects, although some encourage E-mail communication with students from other parts of the country or world, or to ask questions of professional "experts" about certain topics. For example, because I am listed as a resource on the Web page of the International Humor Society, I often answer questions from upper elementary and middle school students about this topic. As another example, the Web site for the "Dragonfly" science program encourages students to ask questions directly of renowned scientists. As more and more classrooms install additional computers (perhaps one for every four children), teachers may have to rethink their standard group-oriented approach in order to implement a more individualized approach to learning.

Another reason that technology may be increasing teacher attention to individualization is the different levels of expertise the students themselves bring to school. Kristen is from a computer-literate family, and so she brings many skills to school gained in her home experiences. Many children, however, need more basic computer experience and specific training on various techniques. Kristen, on the other hand, may need encouragement to expand her skills further, to seek more in-depth information, and to mentor other students. One thing that computer-experienced children bring to school is their willingness to try the latest technological innovations, such as using instant messaging and downloading music. While some of these activities certainly can remain home-based, the possibilities for enriching learning experiences at school are endless.

Teachers may need to consider whether they have a balance of computer activities that appeal both to girls and boys. Teachers also may need to have strategies to "equalize" computer time to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to use the computer. According to U.S. News and World Report (1999), 16 million children have Internet access, and sending E-mail is their major activity. E-mail has great appeal, particularly for girls. There appears to be wide variation in how much E-mail access teachers are allowing. Perhaps they are concerned that E-mailing could get out of hand at school, as seems to be happening at home.

Teachers also will have to decide on the best balance among individual computer-related learning activities, social/interactive experiences, and whole-group, direct teaching experiences. If some types of learning can be done more efficiently, and customized better on the computer for individual students, should that affect traditional classroom practices? For example, if computer-based reading programs are shown to teach basic reading more efficiently (the evidence is still unclear), should traditional reading groups have different goals, or should they be abandoned altogether? Finally, for teachers to use technology wisely in their classrooms, they may need to spend more time exploring, taking risks, and playing with this technology. In particular, it might help for them to experience some of the activities our "computer expert" has mentioned. If they spend some time playing the learning games they expect children to use, they can evaluate whether they really are fun, effective, and appropriate for the range of ability levels of children in their class. If they surf the Internet just "looking up interesting stuff" as Kristen does, downloading games, music, or information materials, and use various communication techniques (instant messages, chat rooms, Web page development), teachers will have a greater understanding of the world now common to many of the children they teach. Their increased comfort with the Internet will help them to be careful but not overly restrictive.

Resources for Teaching With Technology

Internet Resources

Many sources on the Internet can provide ideas for software that might be useful in fostering learning goals. Many of these sources also suggest ways to integrate computer technology into the curriculum. The sites listed here are suggested only as starting points--playful surfers can find many others that might be useful. offers both CD and paper resources for teaching. has a wide variety of software available under a number of well-known brand names. Teachers can go directly to the educational software Web pages by using www.learningcompany is the site of a company that bills itself as an "entertainment" producer, but its problem solving mysteries help build children's thinking skills. It includes both primary and preschool mysteries. has a wide range of software from many prominent companies and a special Web page for educators. It includes product reviews and demonstration programs to download. also has a variety of products from prominent companies that can be explored. has many different kinds of educational software that can be downloaded for a minimal fee. is the commercial site for all the "blaster" programs, which have been very popular with children. A sample program is available to download, as are reviews of various products. is a different type of site, because it is primarily set up to provide E-mail access to children, and to give advice to parents. It also has a section on teaching tools. is a site designed for upper elementary children in conjunction with a science education magazine used by teachers. It is an example of the interactive approach to science and provides access to scientists as well.

Paper Resources

Many adults like to read about using technology before taking the plunge.

Internet for Teachers, Managing Technology in the Classroom K-6, and Managing Technology in the Middle School Classroom are all published by Teacher Creative Materials, Inc., P.O. Box 1040, Huntington Beach, CA, 92647. The books are available in many bookstores and in school supply stores.

The New Media Literacy Handbook: An Educator's Guide to Bringing New Media into the Classroom (C. Brunner & W. Talley) is a recently published book by Anchorbooks, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.

NET Curriculum: An Educator's Guide To Using the Internet (L. C. Joseph) is another recently published book by Information Today, Inc., 143 Old Marlton Pike, Medford, NJ 08055.

Converge is a new magazine designed for educators who are using technology. The August 1999 issue has profiles of educators who are "Shapers of Our Future." The magazine also has a Web site at

Software Resources

If you are looking for an innovative technology approach for use in your classroom, consider Stagecast Creator 1.0. This new type of educational software enables users to create a variety of "worlds" through interactive stories, puzzles, games, and simulation models. It is primarily for upper elementary and middle school students, although some of its features can be used by kindergarten and primary students as well. It does not require very much training to use and teachers can embed curriculum goals within the activities, such as science, math, or problem-solving simulations. You can take a further look at this product on Stagecast's Web page at www.stage
COPYRIGHT 1999 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Next Article:The Many Sides of Education.

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