Computers and Classroom Culture
reviewed by Benjamin Bell - 1996
Janet Ward Schofield has painted a vivid picture of the realities accompanying the use of computers in the everyday life of the classroom. In Computers and Classroom Culture, she describes in detail a number of school settings in which computers, teachers, and students interact in ways that advocates of computer-supported learning seldom anticipate. The author introduces her research by summarizing some startling statisticsfor example, between 1981 and 1987, the number of schools possessing at least one machine for instruction jumped from 18 percent to 95 percent; the number of computers per school increased tenfold from 1981 to 1985 and is still increasing at about 10 percent per year.
Nonetheless, computers have failed to transform education to the extent projected by educational technologists. Problems associated with lack of teacher training, and with the difficulties faced by administrators in selecting appropriate hardware and software, contribute to the typically ad hoc process by which computers enter the classroom. But the author cites as an equally problematic factor the failure of technologists and administrators to view classrooms and schools as social organizations that both influence and are influenced by technology.
This perspective frames the dual focus of the book: how computers influence classroom social processes and vice versa. To explore these questions, the author led a team of researchers in a two-year study at a high school that was using computers in ways typical of large urban socioeconomically diverse public high schools, for example, classes in math, business, and programming as well as in special education, and for individual work during students lunch periods.
The study, carried out during the 1985-1986 and 1986-1987 school years, is comprehensive in scope.1 The qualitative data were gathered in two ways. First, observers took detailed notes in classrooms where computers were being used, amounting to roughly 400 hours of observations. Second, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with members of the schools faculty (twelve interviews) and with students in the observed classes (approximately 250 hours of audiotaped material). An appendix provides detailed accounts of the methodology.
Four different classroom environments were included in the study: a geometry class in which students used an intelligent tutoring system, a computer science class that included lab time allocated for students to develop their own software, classes oriented toward business applications of computers, and a computer lab that students were free to use during their lunch periods. The author also draws on observations taken from other school contexts (the library, a special education class), but the four listed above receive the most attention in the book.
Students in a geometry class used a tutoring system called Geometry Proofs Tutor (GPTutor).2 The program provides an environment in which students can visually construct proofs, by creating a graph linking the givens (appearing at the bottom of the screen) to the statement to be proved (appearing at the top). The student constructs the graph by applying axioms to the top of the graph until the target statement has been proven. The tutoring system can identify when a student is likely to require help and can further generate some contextually appropriate intervention.
The author articulates two kinds of observed change attributable to the introduction of the GPTutor program: changes in teacher practice and changes in student behavior. In particular, three kinds of change in teacher practice were noted. First, there was a shift in the amount of attention directed toward different students. Prior to the introduction of GPTutor, the teacher spent a disproportionate amount of time answering questions posed by more advanced students, since this strategy was more likely to save time, result in a correct answer, and avoid embarrassing less advanced students. In contrast, it was the poorer students who began receiving more of the teachers attention in the GPTutor classroom, since such help was somewhat more private and since brighter students could take advantage of the help given by the software.
A second change reported in the study was a shift from the traditional role of the teacher as an authoritative expert to a role in which the teacher was more of a collaborator. Accompanying the introduction of the computers was a reduction in the time used by the teacher for lecture. Instead, the teacher would roam about, checking students progress and making himself or herself available to students requesting help.
A third change noted in the study was that the help given by the teacher became more individualized, and was more often initiated by the student than by the teacher, as compared with the situation prior to the introduction of computers.
Changes in student behaviors were characterized by an increased sense of competition and challenge, and by a decreased fear of embarrassment. Competition was apparent in student conversations that made reference to the progress each had made through the problem sequence within the program. Students also reported that the desire to beat the program contributed to the sense of being challenged. The decreased fears-of being embarrassed in front of the peer group arose from the privacy of the interaction between each student and the program, and from the reduced necessity to publicly pose a question to the teacher.
Computer science classes employed two facilities: a classroom for traditional instruction via lecture, and a lab where students could engage in individual programming work. The computer science syllabus was devoted primarily to programming, and teachers used the classroom to deliver lectures about programming as well as making use of the computer lab.
There were three principal findings reported from observations of these classes. One was that students exhibited a strong preference for the lab over time spent in classroom. A second was that peer interaction in the lab was reported as being an aspect of the class that students valued. A third was that the role of the teacher in the classroom was significantly different from his role in the lab. In the latter case, he visited students at their computers individually, and helped work through programming tasks on a collaborative basis.
Observations of classes oriented toward business uses of computers revealed several barriers to the effective use of computers. One was: the difficulty in using computers in classes where the students far outnumbered the machines. Issues raised in this regard include how to schedule students for computer time and how to overcome the noise and distraction that computer use creates in the classroom. A second was that the teachers lack of familiarity with the hardware and software threatened their sense of competence and authority.
Another context included in the study was a computer lab that students could use during their lunch periods. The author notes that the students who made most frequent use of the lab were brighter students who generally felt excluded from their peers in the school cafeteria, where status was often linked to prowess in sports, physical appearance, and popularity with classmates of the opposite gender. In contrast, there seemed to emerge within the computer lab a close community where acceptance was based simply on a shared enthusiasm for computers. The author does point out, though, that some girls became disenchanted with the computer room, not because of lack of initial interest, but because of the links between computing and masculinity (e.g., game software with-strong elements of aggression or competition) that seemed to be reinforced there. This, the author says, tended to make the girls feel isolated.
Gender issues were also explored in four case studies of girls who enrolled in an advanced computer science class. In addition to their feelings of isolation, and the masculine orientation of some of the computer activities, some of the girls also seemed to enter the class with much less experience in using computers than was possessed by their male counterparts.
The findings reported in this study make a convincing argument that adding computers to the complex ecology of a classroom is likely to be accompanied by changes beyond the learning effects that software designers presumably have in mind. What are we to learn from this study? It depends which we is being considered. Three potential audiences are school administrators and technology planners, classroom teachers, and educational software designers.
For administrators and technology coordinators there are certainly some relevant conclusions to be drawn from this research. A common theme throughout the study was that the way computers are physically situated influences their use, teacher practice, and student attitudes and behavior. A comparison of the various contexts in which computers were deployed strongly suggests that a sufficient number of machines should be available to accommodate all students, and that the computers should be spatially separated to create identifiable work areas. Another strong theme was the need for teacher training, and in particular, for hands-on, timely instruction in how computers will be useful to each individual teacher. Although these conclusions do not seem at all surprising, the study provides an empirical basis for advocates wishing to appropriately apply technology in their districts.
Another potential audience is teachers, for whom many of the stories told in this book are likely to ring true. For instance, the study offers insights into problems that can arise when training teachers to adopt computers. Timing introduced some problems, since there was often a lapse between when training was conducted and when the computers arrived. Teachers also commented that the training itself did not afford them the opportunity for sustained hands-on exploration. And computers would sometimes arrive just days before the start of the term, leaving little time for the teacher to develop a plan for their integration into the curriculum. Other conclusions relevant to teachers include the observation that students will generally respond in a positive way to self-paced, individualized study, that one-on-one help reduces a students exposure to public scrutiny, and that, given the opportunity to interact, students are likely to assist one another. Teachers, of course, are acutely aware of this already, although this research sheds light on some of the social mechanisms underlying these phenomena.
For the authors findings to have meaning for educational software designers, her conclusions should suggest one or more specific courses of action. The problem for this audience is that few of the findings are directly attributable to the presence of computers, and those that are do not necessarily apply to educational software more generally.
To see why findings from this research are likely to be particular to the software observed in the study, consider some results from the GPTutor classroom. The increased competition noted by the students was strongly influenced by the manner in which the program steps each student through the same sequence of problems, and from a control structure that does not allow a student to advance to the next problem until a correct solution has been provided. It is unclear how software not possessing these attributes would effect student perceptions of competition.
The second question raised about findings from this study is to what extent they are causally linked to computers. The changes in teacher practice noted in both the computer science and GPTutor classrooms, for instance, were the result of several factors, including the distribution of students at individual work stations throughout the classroom. This influenced the teachers movements among the students, and allowed teacher-student interactions to be conducted privately. But structuring a classroom for individual work can be done in the absence of technology and, conversely, a computerized classroom could be created that follows the spatial conventions of the traditional classroom. Another factor was the heightened level of motivation that students exhibited. It is interesting to question whether the change in teacher practice helped motivate the students, or the increased motivation encouraged teachers to alter their practice. The authors data suggest that both processes were at work, which makes forming conclusions about the technology that much more challenging.
In short, the research reported in this book is of interest to designers of educational software because it brings to light several contextual factors with which the introduction of computers may interact in the classroom. The book stops short of making any recommendations for how to act on such awareness, and is not intended as a source of design principles, which limits its utility for this audience.
The author is to be commended for carrying out a comprehensive research program and for reporting the results in a clear and engaging way. Investigating how the social context affects and is affected by cornputer usage is a subtle goal, for how computers reused seems by definition to be part of the social context, so lurking within this research is the circular question of how use shapes use. Another manifestation of this problem comes when the author discusses computers effect on curriculum, because the reader must then distinguish curriculum from social context. In fact, one can argue that all aspects of Destruction, including technology where present, are subject to the phenomenon of both influencing and being influenced by the social context.
The research presented in the book does present convincing evidence that the introduction of computers is often accompanied by changes in the classroom environment. But little evidence is presented that computer usage causes such changes, and the evidence that is presented suggests that it is the software that has the most pronounced effect on such changes (which makes these results difficult to generalize).
Software is critical because it is the primary factor governing how motivating (and thus indirectly how instructionally effective) a computer interaction will be. While it may be true that computers in general can be motivating because of (1) their novelty and (2) the break in normal classroom routine that accompanies their use, studies cited by the author suggest that it is the software itself that determines the factors influencing motivation.3
At issue is the linkage between the software and the instructional environment that a teacher elects to create. Computers may indirectly contribute to new patterns of classroom learning without being the agents of change. In the computer science class, for instance, students preference for the lab over the classroom was strongly influenced by the different kinds of instruction, namely, didactic lecture (in the classroom) versus original design and self-guided exploration (in the lab).
To be fair, I believe the authors intent is to direct attention toward features of the classroom that are often overlooked by advocates of computer-supported learning. She further acknowledges that the quest to delineate a set of inevitable consequences of instructional computing is, most likely, futile (p. 190). So what precisely does this study tell us? Although the book touches on a host of issues, a central finding is that teacher training and software design are the two principal factors governing the effect of computers on instruction. The importance of teacher training can be summarized by one teachers remark: I cant see teachers using computers unless they can see how it could be useful (p. 103). This feeling (which the study found echoed among many of the faculty interviewed) suggests that the central issues for effective computer-supported instruction seem to revolve around software design and teacher training more than around the social factors embraced by the author.
My own reaction to how these results may be interpreted is summarized in the authors admonition that the effect of computer usage is likely to depend on a plethora of factors including the kind of software used (e.g., drill and practice, simulations, networking, tutoring), the kind of students using the software, the social and physical context of the computer use, and prior classroom practices (p. 61). This list establishes the appropriate order of importance for the relevant factors. That the book itself reverses that order does not detract from its contribution to an emerging empirical literature. Surely subsequent research will address the pressing question of how these findings ought to be acted on.