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Meaningful Learning Using Technology: What Educators Need to Know and Do

reviewed by Craig A. Cunningham - June 09, 2006

coverTitle: Meaningful Learning Using Technology: What Educators Need to Know and Do
Author(s): Elizabeth A. Ashburn and Robert E. Floden (Eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807746843, Pages: 232, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

These are interesting and uncertain times for educational technologies. The promises of these technologies have been seductive, leading to large investments in connectivity, computers, and complementary resources such as software, technical support, and training. However, the return on these investments has been (perceived as being) uneven at best, leading some to suggest that the cost of incorporating new technologies into schools is simply too high relative to other pressing needs. Others suggest that such efforts are premature given the current evolutionary status of technology and that young children (in particular) should be shielded from said technologies. Lastly, some believe that learning how to use technology is just one of a long list of educational goals that students need to master along with (and, often, apart from) reading, writing, subject-matter knowledge, etc.  These cautionary perspectives serve double duty as rationalizations for the recent “accountability” regime, which has largely co-opted existing technologies for use as expensive test-prep devices—a development that in turn reinforces the notion that technologies are most useful for automatizing existing routine activities or procedures rather than transforming teaching and learning.

While this current state of affairs is upsetting to some visionaries who believe that technologies will ultimately lead to a revolution not only in teaching and learning in schools but also in a radical restructuring of the basic concept of institutionalized schooling, the current wane of enthusiasm for educational technologies could have been predicted. Schools in the United States are notoriously difficult to change, given the exigencies of local control in a polarized culture, not to mention the rigid structures of teacher-school labor relations, the difficulties of convincing a skeptical public to increase financial support for schools, and our society’s generally anti-intellectual and increasingly anti-progressive attitudes. It should not have surprised anyone that it has proven much easier to introduce technologies that fit nicely into existing structures than it has been to use technology as leverage to make fundamental changes to the ways that teachers, students, and subject matter interact to produce learning. Such relatively easy changes as assigning students to do research on the Internet, establishing “computer classes” as electives or “specials” along with, or in place of the fine, industrial, or domestic arts, or using computers to replace worksheets, chalk boards, or paper newsletters allow the major structures of schooling to remain intact, yet justify increasing expenditures. Convincing the public to connect schools to the Internet and to increase the number of computers is a simple matter of pointing out that technologies are having deep and significant effects on daily work and home life; additionally, it can be argued that schools have lagged behind businesses in both incorporating technologies and in realizing the attendant gains in productivity, and that our children’s future lives will inevitably require new levels of comfort and skill with computers. These arguments have, for the most part, achieved a level of wide acceptance.

A much more difficult task is convincing stakeholders that schools should not only use technologies to increase productivity and to provide students with technological skills, but also that the capabilities of technology should be utilized to facilitate new types of learning activities and realize new or radically revised learning outcomes. Inevitably, debates about what knowledge, skills, and dispositions are most important heavily impact conceptions of what constitutes effective teaching and, hence, how technology should be used to support teachers.  These conceptions, in turn, influence ideas about preferred methods and goals for teacher pre-service education and ongoing professional development. Debates about these issues seem particularly heated right now, as some loud voices attack “government schools” and the “entrenched interests” that support them, along with the allegedly bloated teacher education institutions and their out-of-touch faculties.

I have spent some extended time describing this contextual landscape because it affords the only way to make sense of the recently edited volume Meaningful Learning Using Technology: What Educators Need to Know and Do.  While the book is marketed as an examination of “the intersection between course content, types of technology, and the supports and professional development required to effectively implement technology in the K-12 classroom”—and indeed the explicit content of the book touches on all of these things—the book is implicitly and perhaps essentially an argument for what used to be called “progressive” education; that is, education that pays considerable attention to student interests, the “big ideas” of the subject-matter disciplines, and the norms and processes of socially-mediated inquiry. While neither John Dewey nor Jerome Bruner is mentioned in the book, Lev Vygotsky and Joseph Schwab are—and it is the spirit of these thinkers that suffuses and, ultimately, justifies this book and its recommendations for educational reform. At the same time, the book also serves as a subtle but effective attack on not only the recent accountability regime but also those who would try to undermine the centrality of teacher education or the role of pedagogical and subject-matter experts (that is, university personnel) in school improvement.

The most obvious clue to the book’s primary purposes is the cover, which shows “meaningful learning” in purple with “using technology” in plain black, and features a dramatic photograph centered not on students using computers (as is more typical of educational technology books), but of a smiling, seemingly inspired and inspiring teacher standing in front of her students. The juxtaposition of the highlighted “meaningful learning” with the image of an almost levitated teacher suggests a book that argues for a radical transformation of learning through a radical re-centering of teachers in the learning process. What is not as obvious from the cover is the underlying argument that this transformation will only be possible if universities are allowed to continue their role as the primary providers of teacher education, and furthermore, that they are also given new roles as developers of curriculum-centered technological tools and as dispensers of deepened subject-matter knowledge to teachers.

Meaningful learning, as described in the first chapter of the book, by Elizabeth A. Ashburn, is learning that is characterized by:  intentionality, content centrality, authentic work, active inquiry, construction of mental models, and collaborative work. This description resembles the more familiar concept of “engaged learning,” with the addition of “content centrality,” which is described as “aligning learning goals and tasks with the big ideas, essential questions, and methods of learning that are central to the discipline” (p. 9). This conception of learning assumes that students actively construct their own knowledge as they frame, examine, and attempt to answer questions that relate to their own interests, resulting in “understanding that includes the capacity and dispositions to develop and apply knowledge creatively, flexibly, and appropriately in a range of situations” (p. 27). Notice how this conception implicitly argues against the form of knowledge routinely assessed on standardized tests, and seeks at the same time to reframe the debate about whether technologies contribute significantly to student learning.

Meaningful learning with technologies (“MLT”), as described in the second chapter by Martha Stone-Wise, uses technologies not to automate the activities of a traditional classroom, but to “support interaction, dynamic displays, multiple and linked representations, interactive models and simulations, networked communication, hyperlinked text, multimedia, and the storage and retrieval of multiply categorized information,” thus offering “means of tailoring instruction, engaging a wider range of intelligences, connecting schools to the real world, and supporting collaborative learning” (p. 28) as well as making thinking visible in ways that encourage ongoing performance assessment.  

However, technologies themselves do nothing to move schools toward this vision without the concomitant availability of certain contextual supports (this is where the argument for continuing and expanding the roles of universities comes in). More importantly, technologies must be specifically developed (or significantly modified) to support the activities involved in inquiry-based learning. Existing productivity software is insufficient for supporting meaningful learning. The details of the developmental process are spelled out in chapters 3, 4, and 6: the third, by Marcia A. Linn, describes the Web-based Inquiry Science Environment (WISE) developed at the University of California, Berkeley; the fourth, by Nancy Butler Songer, describes the development and use of “curriculum-focused” science and social studies technologies as part of the Learning Technologies in Urban Schools (LeTUS) project at the University of Michigan; and the sixth, by Elizabeth A. Ashburn, Mark Baildon, James Damico and Shannan McNair, describes two curriculum units related to learning social studies developed through TIME, a partnership between the Battle Creek public schools and Michigan State University.  These chapters argue convincingly that the best technologies to support learning are developed to facilitate the central activities of a subject-matter discipline by collaborative teams of teachers, technology specialists, and subject-matter experts who work for extended periods of time with the support of large-scale federal grants.  According to these chapters—and repeatedly reinforced in the remaining chapters of the book—teachers should not be asked to learn how to use “technology” in general, but rather, only a few dedicated technological tools that are directly focused on the subject-matter of the teachers’ curriculum. Ideally, the teachers would participate in the design of the tools and the designers would participate in the teaching of the tools, through significant structures of collaboration including ongoing meetings of design teams, continual feedback from teachers and evaluators, and deep involvement and leadership from experienced mentor teachers, teacher educators and subject-matter experts. Such projects, it must be acknowledged, are neither common nor inexpensive; Project TIME, for example, received more than $5.7 million over five years from the U.S. Department of Education, while WISE and LeTUS received significant ongoing support from the National Science Foundation. The expenditures can certainly be justified by what these projects can teach us about the ideal conditions for significant technology integration into subject-matter teaching. However, one question left frustratingly unanswered in this book is whether the technological products of such funded partnerships—limited, as they are, as “standalone” tools that can be easily integrated into existing curriculums and consigned inevitably, as they are, to technological obsolescence within a few years—will prove to be useful beyond the geographical and chronological boundaries of the projects themselves.

The images conjured by these central chapters, such as teachers participating in ongoing, collaborative inquiry into the ideal methods for supporting student engagement in inquiry in specific subject areas, teacher educators and subject-matter experts freed from portions of their teaching loads to work directly with teachers, technology experts dedicated to (and paid for) developing, improving, and maintaining specialized tools that reflect the results, and students having access to up-to-date, specialized tools that help them to ask deep questions and to confront the big ideas of each discipline as they use dedicated tools to display and reflect upon their thinking in a classroom environment dedicated to meaningful learning are compelling, instructive, and…utopian. I do not mean to denigrate these images or the lessons they suggest about how technologies can support meaningful learning; rather, I wish to reinforce the point that this is fundamentally not a book about technology, but instead, a type of education very much at odds with the “back to basics,” direct instruction, anti-pedagogical agendas of many contemporary policy-makers and commentators.   

Chapter 5 by Robert B. Bain and chapter 7 by Raven McCrory reinforce two additional themes of this book: that teachers need to develop understanding of the deep structures of their subject-matter disciplines and that teachers also need to learn how technologies (both with and without “plugs”) can be used to reveal those deep structures to young learners.  These understandings can only come from significant opportunities for teachers to learn from subject-matter experts and experts in subject-matter pedagogy (that is, teacher educators). Bain’s chapter is (for me) a highlight of the volume because it demonstrates through a description of Bain’s own professional development as a teacher and teacher educator the specific ways in which history should be taught in order to support meaningful learning, with or without computers. It is also refreshing, in the context of the other chapters, in that it shows that a committed teacher—without the support of a multi-million dollar partnership with a university—can reflect upon and modify his or her own practices.  McCrory’s chapter clearly articulates the view that teachers must learn how to use technologies that are specific to the curriculum they are teaching—that “it is difficult to provide generic education for teaching with technology” (p. 142), and that because teachers can only use the technologies actually available to them in the classroom, professional development should be focused as much as possible on the specific, local conditions in which the teachers teach and the students learn. This latter conclusion is further reinforced in chapter 8, by Yong Zhao, Kenneth A. Frank, and Nicole C. Ellefson.  

There is a paradox hidden here that is not brought out in the book itself. The best technologies are those that are developed by a local group of teachers to support a specific curriculum; professional development in the use of such technologies should be localized to reflect the local conditions in which they will be used. Still, most of the technologies described in the book could only be developed by large-scale funded development partnerships between schools and universities. Can the products of these large-scale development projects be generalized beyond the contexts for which they were developed? Or, as the authors suggest, do local conditions vary so much that each teaching context requires its own set of such tools? Is it reasonable to expect that groups of teachers would be able to develop such tools on their own?  If the products are in fact of “general” applicability in a broad range of classrooms and curriculums across the country, are they even useable by teachers who did not participate in their development or who are not supported by a team of experienced mentors, teacher educators, subject-matter experts, and software developers? What, in short, is the true accessibility of the projects, products, technologies, tools, and methods described in the book?

These questions, I believe, ought to occupy much of the space taken up by the final chapter by Robert E. Floden and John E. Bell, but they are never  articulated. Instead, the authors of the final chapter summarize the “lessons” learned in the other chapters as a set of six themes:  “deep, flexible subject matter knowledge; organizing group inquiries [by students and teachers]; assessment of meaningful learning; skill with a small set of technological tools; collaboration; and working beyond school walls” (p. 182).  These themes are indeed critically important.  In detailing their implications, however, the chapter begins to take the form of a long list of imperatives for teachers; the phrases “teachers must” and “teachers need” appear dozens of times. What’s more, (and it begins to get annoying) each time an imperative for teachers is spelled out, the originator of the imperative or the provider of the solution is someone working at a university. The universities will provide the foundational understandings of how children learn meaningfully, the pedagogical knowledge of how to teach in light of those understandings, the deep knowledge about subject matter and the big ideas and essential questions of each discipline, the facilitation of ongoing professional development regarding how to teach this content, and the development of the “small set of technological tools” necessary to teach the content successfully.  Like the recommendations of the progressive educators of the beginning of the previous century, these authors not only want to change our notions of “meaningful learning” in schools, but also attempt to convince us that we should let them and their colleagues do much of the work.

While the final chapter acknowledges that the book provides no answer to the inevitable question of how teachers will find the time to learn all this new (or deeper) material in light of competing demands, it fails to mention the huge economic resources required to implement the recommendations and the enormous inequities in the U.S. educational system that make it much less likely that schools serving lower SES students will be able to move in the suggested direction. Thus, inevitably, and despite the attention that some of the large-scale partnerships have paid to the education of poor, urban children, the book suggests that “meaningful learning” will continue to be the province of the wealthy, and that rather than democratizing such education as some would hope, technology will reinforce the growing gap between the rich and the poor, as wealthy districts find the intellectual and economic resources to focus on meaningful learning with technology while poor districts will continue to dumb down their curriculum for the allegedly critical purpose of improving scores on standardized tests.

Nonetheless, this is a very fine book overall. It offers many important and timeless lessons about how technologies and concomitant supports can transform teaching and learning, and will be an absolute must-read for people who are responsible for teacher professional development in educational technologies. Anyone planning or writing a large-scale development grant or research project of any size will benefit from its thorough overview of issues and excellent bibliography. Bain’s chapter should be on the reading list of anyone involved in the teaching of history.  Even though it left me pessimistic that the systemic collaborations and deep resources required for meaningful uses of technologies in learning are likely to be widespread, Meaningful Learning Using Technology offers a compelling vision with lots of practical advice for realizing it in those rare situations where conditions might be right.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 09, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12538, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 7:59:27 AM

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About the Author
  • Craig Cunningham
    National-Louis University
    E-mail Author
    CRAIG A. CUNNINGHAM is associate professor and program director in the Technology in Education program at National-Louis University in Chicago. Prior to joining NLU, he was research associate at the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago and curriculum director for the Chicago Public Schools/University of Chicago Internet Project, where he helped develop professional development programs and curriculum for encouraging technology integration in urban public schools. Dr. Cunningham’s recent publications include Curriculum Webs: Weaving the Web into Teaching and Learning (with Marty Billingsley, Allyn & Bacon, 2006) and a chapter on the history of character education in Character Psychology and Character Education (edited by Daniel K. Lapsley and F. Clark Power, Notre Dame Press, 2005).
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