Basic Tools for Educators


A short article on the value of technology in education

Spreadsheets

Databases

Wordprocessors

Presentation Tools

The Internet

If you find this material useful, you may also want to check out several of our print publications -- Click on Success: A Practical Guide to Technology Planning and Lesson Plan Design and Planning into Practice: Resources for planning, implementing, and integrating instructional technology. Both contain considerably more detailed information on the topics covered in this article.


The Value of Technology In Education

At this late date in the 20th Century, educators are well-used to hearing about the promise that technology brings for "revolutionizing" the way teachers teach and students learn. To even the casual observer, this promise would seem to flow from an ever-growing awareness on the part of the general public to the integration of technology into daily life. The popular media deluges us with images of telecommunications-related change in the way that we live and communicate - from ordering groceries on-line to sending faxes from the beach - while ever-so-subtly integrating the now-ubiquitous WorldWideWeb address into advertisements everywhere. On an even more basic level, few of us would expect handwritten, or even typed, correspondence from a "professional" business or company. We simply expect that communications will be produced electronically. In short, technology tools, and the resources available through the use of these tools are indeed seamlessly integrated into our daily life.

65 percent of all U.S. schools are connected in some fashion to the Internet (QED, 1997). Virtually every school has at least one computer, and on the average in 1996, there is one in-school computer for every 10 students in the country (QED, 1997). Outside of schools, one-third of all U.S. households have a personal computer, with that many more planning to buy one within the next year. (Microsoft, 1996) Of course, these statistics mean nothing if teachers are not using computers and other available technology in ways that support improved teaching and learning. Research, as well as practical experience tells us that indeed, many teachers do not have the basic skills, training, or time to effectively use technology to positively impact their students. How does technology impact education?

While it is possible to use technology to support traditionally passive, didactic, instructional methods, most researchers see technology's greatest promise in the way in which it serves to engage students in an active learning environment. When placed in the hands of a student who is charged with solving meaningful, real-world problems, the computer becomes a powerful tool for gathering, manipulating, synthesizing, presenting information. Simply put, technology supports a constructivist view of education. (Collins, 1991 and NCREL, 1995) Viewing the concepts of constructivst education and engaged learning in the context of school structure, it can be seen that technology has a powerful role in facilitating, and in some cases inspiring, the restructuring of education. (Shiengold, 1991)

Still, we have heard all of this before. District and state educational technology plans continuously point out the value of technology as a tool for reform. State curriculum frameworks refer to technology tools as they indicate the content objectives these tools are supposed to support. Technology manufacturers tout the value their products have in the classroom. But when it comes right down to it, how does a teacher take a simple tool - such as a word processor - and make this technology educational ? We can rather easily understand how a content-rich piece of technology - such as a laserdisc or a multimedia CD-ROM encyclopedia - can be used for instruction, but how does a tool with no inherent content get used in a way that positively impacts student learning? Given the prevalence of these relatively simple technology tools - the word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation manager - teachers need to have some guidance in making these tools educational.

Applications such as word processors, database management systems, and spreadsheets can be used by students in exactly the same way that they are used in the "real" world of work. Students can choose to use these tools to organize, analyze, and present information. The information the students process comes from their grappling with particular tasks and problems. By encouraging students to use real world tools in their problem solving, the tasks themselves become more authentic and thus more engaging. Proponents of engaged learning argues that engaged learners are more effective learners.

Another way in which technology tools create greater student engagement is that they strongly support a constructivist approach to education. By using a technology such as the Internet or a CD-ROM encyclopedia, a student can explore and navigate through a wide body of information and discover facts, principles, and concepts as they go. This type of exploration is largely self-directed, thereby allowing each student to assimilate information and construct meaning in a way that is personally relevant. Furthermore, when used to present information - such as through the use of a spreadsheet or presentation manager - the student must learn how to manipulate and organize information in such as way as to convey the meaning that s/he has constructed. Again, this is not only highly engaging, but also replicates the real world tasks that the student will face outside of school. Students easily make this connection between "authentic" tasks and the real world, and this often results in their taking greater pride and ownership in their work when that work involves the use of technology.(Means, 1994)

Finally, technology supports a multiplicity of cognitive styles and learning behaviors. Students who are not sufficiently engaged with text-based information may become fully engaged with audio or visual information. Technology can be used to translate virtually any content into another media, and therefore makes content accessible to all students.

The wonder of content-neutral, applications, technology is that it can be applied to so many different learning environments, virtually content areas, and the same program can be suitable for a wide range of grade levels. The following pages provide some highlights as to how individual applications can be beneficially integrated into the classroom.

References:

Internet Usage in Public Schools, Quality Education Data, 1997
The Connected Learning Community: A New Vision for Technology in Education, Microsoft Corporation, 1996,
The Role of Computer Technology in Restructuring Schools, Collins, Allan; Phi Delta Kappan; September, 1991
Plugging In: Choosing and using educational technology, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1995,
Restructuring for Learning With Technology: The Potential for Synergy, Sheingold, Karen; Phi Delta Kappan; September, 1991
The Link Between Technology and Authentic Learning, Means, Barbara, Olson, K; Educational Leadership, April, 1994

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Spreadsheets

e.g., Microsoft Excel, AppleWorks

A spreadsheet is a program which organizes "cells" of numerical data into tables of rows and columns much as one would find in an accounting ledger. Through the use of equations (written in a simple programming language unique to the particular spreadsheet program in use) the spreadsheet program is able to perform basic mathematical functions across the rows and columns. For example, it is possible to total a column of numbers, divide that total by cells within the column, and report the resulting average elsewhere on the spreadsheet. Most spreadsheet programs provide a capacity for graphing data. Graphs can range from simple X-Y line graphs to more complex three-dimensional representations.

Spreadsheets are excellent tools for students to collect and analyze data and thus work well in curriculum units that call for students to deal with both interdisciplinary content and process/information analysis tasks. Students can design spreadsheet layouts, collect the data to fill in the various rows an columns, and then write equations to analyze the data they have collected. In this way, a spreadsheet becomes a vehicle for learning about and representing both simple and more complex relationships between numbers and pieces of information.

While the use of spreadsheets is very common in mathematics and science curricula, they can be used any place where data collection and analysis is required. Many teachers use spreadsheets in social studies curricula where students might collect numerical information and organize it chronologically. Projects on genealogy and immigration make particular use of spreadsheets.

Key Benefits

 

 

 

 

Example Uses

 

Margaret L. Ness, Analyzing and Interpreting Graphs in the Middle Grades - Bottles and Beyond in The Computing Teacher; December/January, 1994-5; pgs. 27 - 29.

 

James R.M. Paul and Colette Kaiser, Do Women Live Longer Than Men? Investigating Graveyard Data With Computers in Learning and Leading with Technology; May, 1996; pgs. 13 - 15

In and Out of the Classroom with Microsoft Office, Microsoft Corporation,

 

 

 

This site also contains a number of software templates for use with the ClarisWorks program.

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Database Management Programs

e.g., Microsoft Access, FileMaker Pro

Databases work much like spreadsheets, although they are often used where textual information is more important than numerical data. A database management program is used to create, organize, and manipulate information in databases. Databases are primarily used for creating "records" of collected information. Most database management programs allow for some degree of numerical analysis of the collected information (e.g., counting, grouping, sorting by rank order, etc.).

Databases are often used in interdisciplinary curriculum units. They become a vehicle for information collection and organization. The manipulation of information within a database calls for mathematics and critical thinking skills. These skills are further enhanced when a student designs a database using a database management program.

Key Benefits

 

 

 

 

 

Example Uses

 

Jeannine St. Pierre Hirtle, Constructing a Collaborative Classroom (parts 1 and 2) in Learning and Leading with Technology; April, 1996 pgs. 19 - 21 and May, 1996 pgs. 27 - 30.

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Word Processing Programs

e.g., Microsoft Word, ClarisWorks

Most teachers are familiar with word processing programs in that the teacher likely uses such a program to create lesson plans, student/parent communications, and personal correspondence. Students make use of word processors in similar ways. Certainly, research papers, projects, and other written communications can be accomplished with the use of a word processor.

Aside from simply making student work appear "neater", word processors have pedagogical importance in that they have been found to encourage students to write more and to more easily edit and revise their work. In this way, they are powerful tools in developing writing, critical thinking, and research skills. Further, word processors as a technology-based tool, encourage and motivate certain students who have difficulty with the manual task of handwriting. Finally, many students take greater pride in work that has been produced with a word processor. This motivates these students to continue writing and performing the other learning tasks associated with their writing.

Word processors are not just used within Language Arts curricula. Students may word process work related to any subject area. Also, word processed work often becomes the basis for importing data into databases, spreadsheets, and presentation programs. In this way, the word processor is often the cornerstone application within integrated application suites such as Microsoft Office, Microsoft Works, or ClarisWorks.

Key Benefits

 

 

 

 

 

Example Uses

 

Ithel Jones, The Effect of a Word Processor on the Written Composition of Second-Grade Pupils, in Computers in the Schools, vol. 11(2), 1994, pgs. 43 - 54

 

Jay Blanchard, Judy Lewis, and James Crossman, Technology in Middle School Reading Education: Opportunities to Transform the Classroom in Computers in the Schools; vol. 11(3), 1995; pgs. 79 - 91

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Presentation Tools

e.g., Microsoft Powerpoint, Hyperstudio

Presentation tools allow students and teachers to take text, numerical data, graphs, sounds, and visual images and organize this information into "multimedia" presentations. While it is possible to use multiple media (e.g., sounds and images) within a presentation, it is also possible to create a text-only presentation. It is important to remember that although most presentation tools allow for the creation of very sophisticated products, the degree of sophistication and complexity is very much under the control of the author.

Virtually any student project can result in a presentation. Presentations can be made before an entire class or be designed for individual viewing. Multimedia presentation tools can be integrated into any lesson or unit that would otherwise result in a "paper and paste" project product.

While a presentation tool such as Powerpoint is simply software, this software usually requires the use of particular hardware to acquire digital images/sound and to display the resulting multimedia presentations. Nevertheless, much of the material that makes its way into most presentations results from other software applications such as word processors and spreadsheets (which create tables and graphs).

Key Benefits

 

 

 

 

 

Example Uses

 

Karen Milton and Pattie Spradley, A Renaissance of the Renaissance - Using Hyperstudio for Research Projects in Learning and Leading with Technology; March, 1996; pgs. 20 - 22.

 

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The Internet

The Internet is one of the most exciting new technology "tools" available to teachers and much is written about the instructional benefits of using this resource. In its broadest sense, the Internet is telecommunications. A vast network of networks, the Internet allows students and teachers to reach out to a world of information that can be accessed, analyzed, and brought into research and other projects. Further, the Internet provides students with the capability of becoming information providers. Whether through sending electronic mail or by publishing WorldWideWeb pages, students can place their knowledge and work before the interconnected users of the Internet.

Some describe the Internet as a vast "library." This analogy is only partially correct. Like a library, the Internet contains many pieces of information. This information is held on WorldWideWeb servers (i.e., webpages) and by individuals with which anyone with electronic mail can communicate. But unlike a library, the Internet has no particular order to the information it contains. Anything and everything, published by anyone who has computer access to the 'net, can be found on the Internet. Thus, the Internet is really more of an electronic "town square" than an organized library. This presents challenges and problems for the students using the Internet. In this wide-open information universe, critical thinking and research skills must become much more refined than when using a closed information universe such as a traditional library or even a CD-ROM encyclopedia. Many teachers believe that the critical thinking skills that grow out of successful Internet use are the major educational benefit of the Internet.

The networked world of the Internet provides a wonderful ground for student collaboration. Students can electronically "meet" with individuals connected anywhere else on the Internet. This means that students researching a particular subject can communicate with adult researchers, access primary information sources, and gain in-depth content area learning experiences. Students can share cultural experiences with peers located around the globe. Students can share their work with anyone by publishing it on the WorldWideWeb. Indeed, the availability of the Internet means that "school" is no longer defined by four walls and a particular geographically-bounded community. The Internet brings the world to teachers and students.

Key Benefits

 

 

 

 

Example Uses

Peter Copen, Connecting Classrooms Through Telecommunications in Educational Leadership; October, 1995; pgs. 44 - 47

Thomas March and Jessica Puma, A Telecommunications-Infused Community Action Project in T.H.E. Journal; vol. 24(5); December, 1996; pgs. 66 - 70.

 

Caroline McCullen, World Wide Web in the Classroom: The Quintessential Collaboration in Learning and Leading with Technology; November, 1995; pgs. 7 - 10

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Last updated, January 8, 2001