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The Status of Technology in the Education System: A Literature Review

Report by Elizabeth Wellburn, Technology and Distance Education Branch, Ministry of Education, Skills and Training, British Columbia, Canada, May, 1996


In early 1991 this author completed a lengthy literature review related to learning through telecommunications and computer technologies. At that time one of the major hopes, as stated by Pea and Soloway in a report for the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment (1987), was that technology might be the factor to help "bridge the ever-widening gaps between schools and society" (pp. 33-34). Much of the educational literature of 5-10 years ago expressed concern regarding the relevancy of what the education system was able to provide (with or without technology) and many of the studies (including this author's 1991 review) concluded that the investigation of the impact of technology was just beginning (Wellburn, 1991, p. 21). Later in the same year, Kerr (1991) stated that "those of us who try to foster the use of technology in the schools are often guilty of hubris: We start from a premise that the value of the new approach we urge is self-evident, and that teachers should naturally want to shift their ways radically to take advantage of the new. Impatience is another characteristic of those interested in seeking transformation of the educational system through technology."

Technology has advanced rapidly (perhaps more rapidly than many in the field expected) over the last few years and there have been literally hundreds of published studies investigating its educational effect. Although there might not yet be a definitive conclusion since it is becoming apparent that the type of learning that technology best enhances is difficult to quantify (Johnson, 1996), there are many research reports that indicate we now have a deeper understanding of how to maximize the benefit to learners through a variety of technology-rich educational environments. Hopefully there is no longer any need for the impatient premise that the value of technology is self-evident since there is now a more significant body of research findings which support its usefulness. These studies also help us answer the important question: 'useful for what?'

With regard to the earlier issue regarding the relevancy of technology in education, most of the more current literature is overwhelmingly positive about the potential of a variety of technologies to be powerful components in accomplishing current educational visions. Such visions include helping s tudents "develop a broad, deep, and creative understanding of community, culture, economics and international politics, past and present, and acquire the social skills to work across differences and distances" (Riel, 1993) by providing "an array of tools for acquiring information and for thinking and expression [allowing] more children more ways to enter the learning enterprise successfully. These same experiences provide the skills that will enable students to live productive lives in the global, digital, information-based future they all face." (Dwyer, 1994).

These visionary perspectives on the purpose of the education system are similar to those that guide most of the literature reviewed in this paper. Many of the studies describe goals of individualization, cooperation and collaboration, enhanced information evaluation, problem solving skills, and lifelong learning. These studies talk about students who become "better citizens, better consumers, better communicators, better thinkers - better people," (Johnson, 1996). Writers such as Riel (1993), Means (1993), and Means and Olson (1994) relate these ideas to the educational reform that is taking place (particularly in the U.S.) and describe a conviction that the technologies are now being applied to an appropriate model for education.

In addition to the visions described, it is also true that "students must feel comfortable with the tools of the Information Age" (Peck and Dorricott, 1994) and that "individuals need to learn at higher rates of effectiveness and efficiency than ever before because of rapidly growing bodies of relevant information and the escalation of knowledge and skill requirements for most jobs." (Alavi, 1994)

Technology: a factor in the blurring of boundaries between distance education and the traditional classroom

"Education has received a much needed boost in the form of distance learning and a key catalyst for the growth of distance learning is video communications" (Walsh & Reese, 1995).

Although the literature tends to deal with distance education applications of technology and traditional classroom applications of technology separately, many of the goals, techniques, and actual uses of technology overlap across the two domains and will probably do so to an even greater extent in the near future. As students within both traditional and virtual 'classrooms' make greater use of the interactive power of computers (e.g. computer mediated communications [CMC], video communications and other information technologies) the boundaries between traditional education and distance education are becoming blurred. Concepts such as "learning without limits" and "computer networks to extend educational opportunities and communications opportunities for people of all ages" (Hiltz, 1994, xvi) apply to all CMC learners, wherever they are situated.

In March of 1992, the ERIC Digest service performed a content analysis to determine trends in the field of educational technology over the previous year, and stated that "distance education is evident at almost every educational level in almost every sector." (Brennan, 1992).

This paper will look at the highlights of research related to technology in both traditional and distance education.

Quantitative Research and Educational Technology

As D'Ignazio (1993) describes it, "businesses have been building electronic highways while education has been creating an electronic dirt road. And sometimes on a dirt road, it's just as easy to get out and walk." It is fairly obvious that education has not turned to technology to the same degree as has the business community and it can be argued that the education system has not done an exemplary job of evaluating the impact of the technology it has implemented. Peck and Dorricott (1994) describe schools as "rumbling along, virtually unchanged by the presence of computers." Since the education system has typically used technology in a rather non-systematic manner and in some cases has been quite resistant to the implementation of technology (Kerr, 1991, Hodas, 1993), it should not be surprising to find that there is still some controversy surrounding the quantification of technology's impact (e.g. Swan and Mitrani, 1993).

Jamieson McKenzie outlines a number of reasons why this might be the case. His reasons include the lack of time and resources required to conduct the necessary research as well as the lack of an understanding of how such research findings could be used beneficially, for instance, to inform future implementations. McKenzie also states that "the most substantial research into student learning with technologies has examined performance on lower order tasks and basic skills... Too little work has been done measuring gains in higher order skills" (1995). He and many others who write on this topic (Hawkins and Honey, 1993, Riel, 1993, Ehrmann, 1995, etc.) talk about large scale change and the accompanying need for careful planning (including the provision of professional development opportunities related to technology) to enable the maximum benefits for learners to occur.

For this portion of the paper, key studies have been selected that do take an empirical look at the larger picture. These investigations have incorporated important features such as an experimental approach, meta-analysis, longitudinal methodologies and/or large sample sizes. More importantly, the questions asked and the types of technological interventions used to address those questions (including support to the teachers involved) were dealt with in a thorough and thoughtful manner.

The results are very promising.

Classroom-oriented studies

Studies of technology in the classroom have tended to focus rather narrowly on very specific learning outcomes. Also, such studies rather frequently forget (at least at the onset) to take into account the need for ongoing support to the teachers, although almost all reports on technology in the classroom end up mentioning this factor in their discussion sections.

The following statements summarize these tendencies:

"Perhaps one of the best documented successes with computers in education is in developing students' writing." (Peck and Dorricott, 1994)

It has "become clear over the past decade that simple motivational and short-workshop schemes are vastly insufficient to enable veteran (and even new, computer-generation) teachers to teach differently, and to teach well with technologies" (Hawkins and Honey, 1993).

Two classroom-oriented studies describing the larger picture

The first two studies described are both large-scale longitudinal experiments where technology was deliberately introduced into classrooms as the independent variable of the investigation. The integration of technology (into the classroom and with the curriculum) was a key focus in both studies, and both monitored discrete skills (such as reading, writing, math, etc) as well as observing many other indicators of learning and attitudinal changes related to the new technologies. Each study also ensured that teachers were supported on an ongoing basis (and not through simple one-shot workshops) as they went through the technology-associated shifts in their modes of instruction.


The 'Computers Helping Instruction and Learning Development' (CHILD) study was a five year investigation in nine Florida elementary schools, which began in 1987. Over 1400 students participated and their teachers received training which included not only the technological components of the program (3-6 computers were placed in each classroom) but also emphasized establishing a team environment with other teachers in the project. Much of the students' daily routine involved self-paced interactions in a learning station environment. 'Student empowerment' was a key concept of the project.

Standardized test scores indicated a positive and statistically significant result across all grades, schools and subjects, withthe largest effects appearing for students who had been in the program for more than one year. When surveyed, none of the nine schools expressed dissatisfaction with the project, five were planning to expand their level of participation and nine new schools were about to become involved.

"The goals of Project CHILD go beyond improving achievement as measured by standardized tests. The program stresses problem solving... and higher order thinking skills" (Kromhout and Butzin, 1993).


The Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) project began in 1986 with the donation of equipment to the schools and homes of teachers and students. "Two years into the project, about 20 teachers and several hundred students had spent more time teaching and learning with technology than probably anyone on the face of the planet" (Dwyer, 1994). The Apple team worked closely with participants and "after nearly eight years of studying the computer's effects on classrooms, ACOT researchers have observed profound changes in the nature of instruction, learning, assessment, and the school culture itself."

At one of the ACOT sites, computers were used successfully in a deliberate attempt to raise student test scores in vocabulary, reading comprehension, language mechanics, math computation, and math concept/application. As with the CHILD study, increases in test scores were not the real objective of the project, and observations showing increases in how students employed inquiry, collaborative, technological, and problem-solving skills were considered to be the most important findings. The technology was described as a 'conceptual environment' in which students acquired, explored and expressed ideas.

The ACOT report discusses the broad support that teachers require (administrators need to help by allowing flexible schedules, etc.) to incorporate the benefits that technology can provide. The traditional assessment requirements of the education system (e.g. student and teacher evaluations) were identified as the most serious barrier to the learning that was observed in the study and the report notes that if the shift to active learning is to thrive, there must be change throughout all levels of education.

Two meta-analytic reports

The next two studies are examples of research that re-analyzes the combined outcomes of a large number of investigations that have been done individually on a small scale. By combining results, more generalizable conclusions can be drawn than would be possible from the small studies alone.

Self-paced learning with computers

Kulik and Kulik (1991) investigated studies of the effectiveness of software incorporating self-paced instruction. They found that a meta-analysis of educational technology studies conducted up to 1991 showed that such software improved learning outcomes (speed of learning and achievement) by a consistent 20%. Observations related to this milestone study include the statement that "few other teaching methods have demonstrated such consistently strong results" (Ehrmann, 1995), although it is also observed that this type of software works best in areas such as mathematics or grammar exercises where there is clearly a correct answer.

Software Publishers Association

More recently (1996), the Software Publishers Association (SPA) commissioned an independent consulting firm (Interactive Educational Systems Design, Inc.) to prepare a meta-analytic report on the effectiveness of technology in schools. Research from 1990 to 1995 was included, and 176 studies were analyzed.

The report concludes "that the use of technology as a learning tool can make a measurable difference in student achievement, attitudes, and interaction with teachers and other students."

With respect to achievement, "positive effects have been found for all major subject areas, in preschool through higher education, and for both regular education and special needs." Student attitude toward learning and student self-concept wereboth found to be increased consistently in a technologically-rich environment across the studies included, and in general, (although not necessarily for low achieving students who tended to require more structure) student control (self-pacing) was found to be one of the more positive factors relating to achievement when technology was used.

Telecommunications capabilities, interactive video applications, and tutorial software providing feedback were among the features identified in effective technological tools for learning. Cooperative/collaborative environments were seen to be enhanced by the introduction of technology, which also increased teacher-student interaction.

The evidence suggested that teachers who use technology in their classrooms are more effective if they have received training, if they have district-level support and if they have a network of other computer-using teachers to share experiences with.

A discussion of change

The most recent research indicates that interactive, self-directed learning and higher order thinking can be fostered by technology, and that technology can have the greatest benefit when the environment is conducive to such experiences.

"The tools are already in hand to make transformative change--and I would not have said that as recently as 1993. We can make some good surmises about technologies that are coming to help us further, but even if we have only the PC and the Internet, we have enough to revolutionize education. We can create teaching tools interactive enough to let students seek them out and work with them at their own pace." (O'Donnell, 1996).

Literature related specifically to Distance Education and Technology

In this section discuss distance education and technology are discussed from the international perspective and selected projects that are local to British Columbia, Canada are described.

The International Perspective on Distance Education

"What happens to higher education when every student has a link to a flood of words and images of every imaginable kind from around the world, and when every teacher and every student can reach out to each other at all hours of the day and night?"(O'Donnell, 1996)

"Distance learning has become a core education strategy in the 1990's, with a reach that extends to a broad cross-section of institutions and curriculum providers around the world" (Walsh and Reese, 1995)

The Walsh and Reese report, which focuses on distance education networks that have been established in a variety of states including Georgia's GSAMS (the largest in the world), Missouri, and California, describes how distance education can extend and improve the quality of an institution's educational offerings, provide substantial economic benefits, and offer a strategic advantage in penetrating potential new market segments, including corporate education, continuing adult education, and job training.

The authors suggest that the key to the success of these and hundreds of other networks is video. "When combined with other media, video has proven to be a highly effective way of getting and holding students' attention, so real learning can take place."

Distance learning is not dependent upon time or place and in many ways it can be more flexible than the traditional model.

"Groups of students may form naturally because of common interests at a given point in time, largely independent of decisions made by any single educational institution.... overcoming a major weakness of conventional educational provision, namely the long reaction time required by institutions to adapt curricula and content to the changing needs of society" (Romiszowski , 1993)

Romiszowski also notes that "the costs of telecommunications are falling whereas the costs of educational space, staffing and transport are rising." The issue of cost effectiveness in distance education was also addressed by Perraton (1994) who looked at 16 tertiary institutions in various parts of the world and determined that the cost per student is lower for distance education programs when compared to conventional systems.

"Proof that the technology works... is in the consistently high scores that distance learners get on examinations" says Weiss (1994) in a report on a variety of video applications for distance education, which range from the "tried-and-true to the highly experimental."

Hiltz states that the technology-enhanced distance education environment facilitates collaborative learning, active learning, and independent learning and "exceeds the traditional classroom in its ability to "connect students and course materials on a round-the-clock basis" (1994, p. 251).

Distance Education projects in British Columbia

The Standing Committee on Educational Technology (SCOET) produced a report at the end of 1995 which stated: "Learners in British Columbia will have open access to post-secondary education and training. A complete range of educational services will be available throughout the province, overcoming the old barriers of distance and time. Learners will choose the services they need for their own educational and training needs. They will also decide when they learn and where they learn. This learner-centered educational environment will provide more access and flexibility while maintaining the high quality of our learning services."

This vision will become reality through innovations such as the Provincial Learning Network, which will also have a major impact on the K-12 system in this province.

In association with B.C.'s Open Learning Agency, the pilot project 'New Directions In Distance Learning' (NDDL) has been offering a high school graduation program to students in small schools, learning centres, and at home for the past three years.

"NDDL courses are mediated by a variety of technologies and communication tools designed to enhance student involvement, interest and participation, including audio conferencing, video block feeds and television broadcasts, audiographic tutorial seminars, electronic mail, and computer conferencing. Students are able to speak with mentors and peers on a regular basis, as well as communicate asynchronously using computer-mediated communications." (Phase 2 Review, 1995, p. 15).

By September, 1995, over 77% of students who had enrolled in NDDL had completed their courses and of those who completed, only 12% received grades of C+ or less.

As it expands for the 1996-97 school year, NDDL will also offer selected college prep and university level courses and teacher professional development programming to audiences in B.C. and beyond.

Students, principals, teacher-mentors, and teacher facilitators in the project commented that the feedback, self-pacing, communications opportunities and expanded course offerings of the NDDL model were positive features that enhanced student learning.

The future: how to make best use of what we have learned about implementation

Swan and Mitrani state that "computers can change the nature of teaching and learning at its most basic level" (1993). We need to ensure that we are using our current knowledge about the application of technology in education as a basis for proceeding in the future.

Peck & Dorricott's summary (1994) of the top ten reasons for technology use in education represent a good overview of the current status of what technology can accomplish. These reasons include technology's potential to assist with educational goals such as:

1. individualization
2. increasing proficiency at accessing, evaluating, and communicating information.
3. increasing quantity and quality of students' thinking and writing
4. improving students ability to solve complex problems (a skill that cannot be "taught" [transferred directly from the teacher to the learner] but which appears to develop in a more focused manner when productivity tools are available)
5. nurturing artistic expression (many flexible tools are available)
6. increasing global awareness
7. creating opportunities for students to do meaningful work [work that reaches out and has value outside school - e.g. is presented to an audience other than the teacher]
8. providing access to high-level and high-interest courses [even in districts where some courses have been impossible to offer]
9. making students feel comfortable with the tools of the Information Age [which they are almost certain to use in their future]
10. increasing the productivity and efficiency of schools.

We have learned that these benefits do not happen in some miraculous way simply because the technology has been provided. Research indicates that to accomplish the profound changes associated with the integration of technology in the overall learning environment, there is a real need for training and support at all levels (e.g. Means, 1993, Aust and Padmanabhan, 1994, etc.). This is reflected in ACOT's current mission statement: "Change the way people think about and use technology for learning" (Dwyer, 1994), and in Means (1995) observation that "sites most successful in infusing technology throughout their entire programs were schools and projects that also devoted a good deal of effort to creating a schoolwide instructional vision -- a consensus around instructional goals and a shared philosophy concerning the kinds of activities that would support those goals. What appears to be important is not the point at which technology becomes part of the vision but the coherence of the vision and the extent to which it is a unifying force among teachers. "


That the roles of teachers and learners are changing is an obvious conclusion. Every article reviewed alludes to this. Leslie, (1994) puts it as follows: "One consequence of the information explosion is that teachers can't know everything of value to their students, but with the aid of telecommunications, they often can guide students to the information they seek... A broad range of studies seems to confirm the educational value of telecomputing networks" and O'Donnell (1996) says much the same thing: "The real roles of the professor in an information-rich world will be not to provide information but to guide and encourage students wading through deep waters of the information flood"

A final quote from Kinnaman (1995) is appropriate: "One thing is crystal clear: The advance of technology makes constructing new and richer contexts for teaching and learning ever more tenable and more necessary" (p. 86).


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