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Materials and Technology

Perhaps at no time in the history of schooling in the United States has the use of technology1  in schools been more widely hailed as a crucial ingredient for quality education. There seem to be countless potential uses for satellite-linked classrooms, for CD-ROMs that hold previously unimagined amounts of information, and for an "information superhighway" whose power has just begun to be tapped. Educators and the general public are eager to see some of those potential uses put into practice.

Likewise, science and mathematics education reformers are eager to see technology used effectively in American classrooms. However, while we believe wholeheartedly in the power of technology to make a positive impact on education, we urge educators, policymakers, and the public at large to approach educational technologies with an eye towards their educational value first and their technological glamour second.

Previous technology reforms have almost always been hardware-driven and have largely ignored the content and structure of the curriculum they deliver. Therefore, the use of many technologies with potentially great educational value have followed a similar pattern: first, they are introduced with great fanfare and anticipation of the powerful impact they will have on student learning; then they are eagerly and hurriedly introduced into classrooms with little emphasis ever having been placed on examining their content or defining their role, and even less emphasis on training teachers to properly use them; and finally, their weaknesses are soon revealed to students, teachers and parents, and they are shelved permanently, their potential power forever wasted.

Technological Literacy

The social need to be technologically literate grows more urgent every day. One can no longer go through life without being aware of and able to use technology. While many of the issues of learning about technology are beyond the scope of this chapter, it is important here to point to using technology to access information and as a learning tool. Increasingly, much science learning, both in and outside of school, occurs through interaction with sophisticated media. This technology used to consist of measuring instruments and books. Today's media are not only more widespread, but also more sophisticated and complex. They require knowledge and skills to select and use them, as well as critical thinking skills to interpret them.

People Using Computers at Work, by Level of Education

In spite of attempts to make computers, video equipment, and other technology user friendly, the skill and knowledge required to use them increases continually. It is no longer thinkable to be computer phobic. Nearly everything, from ignition systems to cash registers, has programmed chips that require, at the least, knowledge that they exist. Adjusting a carburetor or spark plugs the "old-fashioned way" can lead to major engine damage in a new car. And technology is also largely responsible for the well-known information explosion. New sources of information on the Web, cable TV, and public access media are not edited or prepared, bringing with them the responsibility for broader knowledge and critical thinking in all areas, including science. As the boundary between school and out-of-school learning blurs and technology becomes an integral part of the curriculum, these literacy issues will become increasingly important.

People Using Computers at Work, by Occupation

Technology and media innovation in American schools has been characterized by cyclic fads and a failure to use the sound tools and processes of science to systematically and progressively improve the quality of instruction. As we enter the 21st century, technology has become a far too powerful and valuable learning tool to allow this pattern to repeat. This chapter aims to help prevent just such repetition. The first section analyzes current and past practice in the use of technology in American schools, the second introduces an ideal vision for using technology in the classroom of the future, and the final section explores ways to close the gap between current practice and the ideal vision.

The Current Status

Hardware-driven vs. Content-driven Reform

For decades, cutting edge technologies have been touted as groundbreaking boons to American education. But despite the optimism that frequently accompanies the introduction of new technologies into American classrooms, research on their use in schools has found a pervasive cycle of inappropriate use followed by disappointment and abandonment (Cuban, 1986). Perhaps the main reason for the repetition of this cycle is that when instructional "innovations" that use new technologies are introduced, the focus has centered on the lure of the new hardware and its ability to process or deliver information faster, in greater quantities, and from greater distances, rather than on the quality of instruction that the hardware carries or supports. These are hardware-driven, rather than content- or instruction-driven, reforms.

Hardware-driven reforms are doomed for three major reasons. First, they assume that technology alone will improve student learning, ignoring how it might actually produce affective and cognitive results. Second, because the hardware is assumed to make the difference (as opposed to the teaching or the quality of its software), new hardware tends to be introduced into classrooms hurriedly on a wave of enthusiasm and public support, but with little time and few resources devoted to training teachers to integrate the hardware into their curriculum. Third, because technology is often hurriedly introduced, its role and purpose in instruction is usually left undefined. These severe problems cannot be solved without drastic changes in current practice by the producers and marketers of hardware, in the research on educational technology, and in the ways schools select and implement hardware.

Students using computers at school, by level of instruction

Student Outcomes

The lessons from history tell us that if technologies, media, and materials are to be productive, the curriculum content and pedagogy that is implemented through them must have promise and value in their right. Some of the technologies in schools today are being introduced without attention to how they actually affect student performance. For example, computer-assisted instruction (CAI) is still one of the more popular forms of technology use in schools. However, most CAI programs are highly individualized, a method that has been criticized for increasing the gap between high- and low-achieving students (Hativa, 1988). A simple but crucial question is: How effective was the original instructional approach (in this case, highly individualized instruction) before mediation in the form of computer-assisted instruction? This factor is critical, especially when the approach has high acquisition and maintenance costs as CAI does.

Students per Computer in Public School

These costs are important to keep in mind when considering the role student outcomes should play in selecting technology for use in the classroom. For example, if a $2,000-per-student, computer-based program intended to raise achievement does only as well as an existing program, then the technology has failed in terms of cost-effectiveness. On the other hand, if technologies are selected for their ability to save money, educators must make sure student learning does not suffer.

Of course, not all uses of technology produce poor results. There are numerous examples of substantive advantages of technology over comparison programs. In some cases, technology-based programs delivered their results at one-tenth the cost, for wide ranges of student ability, and in content understanding that transferred to new situations (see for example, Thorkildsen & Lowry, 1990; Woodward, 1994). Although technology was important for providing access, these results were attributed in large part to the specific combination of pedagogy and curriculum organization in the program content.

Staff Development

Many educators contend that the major problem for the dissemination of technology-based instructional programs and materials is one of equitable access for all students. It is true that many American schools, especially in disadvantaged areas, are not designed or equipped for technology-based instruction. However, even if technology is available, a program can't work unless we know how to provide sufficient training to the teachers who will use the technology with students.

Computer Access in Relation to Income

In the past, and in many current technological reforms, the dissemination of technology-based materials has not been accompanied by staff development that is substantive, program specific, or sustained long enough to be effective. Teachers are, therefore, put in an extraordinarily difficult position. They are often charged with designing instructional materials to accompany technologies that they are not familiar with and whose educational purpose is often ill-defined. On the occasions when staff development does take place, methods for teaching with a new technology are often prescribed by individuals far removed from the classroom, and they have little relevance for the unique needs of each teacher's classroom. The result of poor staff development, loosely defined goals, and traditional methods of implementation is that gains of time and efficiency rarely materialize. Instead, we find loss of teacher control, understanding, and autonomy (Callister & Dunne, 1992).

Eighth Grade Math Teachers' Preparation

Those who would send instructional technology and materials down the information highways of the future must recognize that teachers are the most important link in the chain that connects technological innovation with improved student performance.

Technology's Role in the Classroom

Whenever a new technology is introduced into classrooms, its role should be clearly defined before it is used. Too often, it is assumed that the role of a certain technology is understood by students, teachers, administrators, and marketers of the product alike. Few educational administrators work with teachers and others to clarify how technology will be used in the classroom, and few marketers of technological hardware determine the unique needs of specific districts or schools in which their products are to be sold.

Failure to define technology's role can have several adverse consequences. For example, if a technology-based program is to be the entire curriculum, then a certain set of evaluation criteria apply for assessing its worth. If this same program is to serve as a tool to support the learning of some other curriculum goal, an entirely different set of evaluation criteria apply. A spreadsheet program, for example, might be the focus of a curriculum unit or an entire course in which the goal is to teach students how to use a spreadsheet program. This same program might be used in a chemistry class because the teacher believes that using spreadsheets improves the quality of students' data collection, analysis, and reporting in laboratory experiments. Used for these two purposes, the same spreadsheet program has vastly different roles. If those roles are not clearly defined, it is impossible to determine how effective a technology is, apart from the specific instructional contexts in which it is used.

The Role of Industry

Needless to say, if technological innovations in the classroom have a history of mediocrity, administrators and teachers are not alone in taking the blame. Industry salespeople are likely to emphasize the unique contribution to science learning of a piece of hardware and less likely to stress that the machine alone makes no significant contributions to student performance. Not only does this create an obvious temptation for the manufacturer to exaggerate the benefits of a specific piece of hardware over and above all others, it also ignores the fact that any hardware is likely to be obsolete within four or five years, or less. This is no small consideration for schools, most of which run on extremely tight budgets.

Finally, educators are often frustrated with unfulfilled promises about hardware and software. Among the examples are hardware and software that are not compatible, the never-ending requirement for more memory capacity and speed, poorly written manuals, and difficulty with installations and upgrades. Given the level of technical assistance available to teachers and the cost of continual upgrades, the truly user-friendly technology always seems just beyond reach.

The Role of Research and Evaluation

The educational research community also shares responsibility for the failure of many technological reforms. According to Clark (1992), for decades researchers have studied whether one mechanical or electronic medium produced more student learning than another, with little reference to the educational context or pedagogical or curricular content of these media. Much of this research is confounded by uncontrolled variables, rendering it invalid and not replicable. A reasonable first step in future research would be to move away from comparing technologies or methods and begin to describe carefully the science teaching and learning situations in which technology has an impact on student performance and behavior. This research-based focus on observation, analysis, and synthesis of approaches that work would at the same time meet the need to tie technology to science content and provide science teachers with specific information about how to implement technology successfully.

Because the greatest attention in many program evaluations is focused on the final results, educators often overlook the need for data to provide midcourse corrections that will improve the program. When evaluations are planned, reported, or read, it is important to think not only about the question "How well does a finished program work?" but also, and perhaps more usefully, "What must be done to create and progressively refine the program?"

Improving the nature of evaluation research on the use of technologies in schools is valuable not only in and of itself. Unless evaluation results are valid, reliable, and transportable to contexts other than the specific situation studied, it is impossible to use those results to define the goals of technology more clearly, or to provide teachers with a framework for using technology effectively in their classrooms.

Needed Changes

Effectively used technology would have three simple distinguishing characteristics. First and foremost, technologies should provide quality education to students. There are numerous examples of effective applications of technology that not only are better than traditional approaches, but also offer unique learning opportunities. Collaboration via the Internet, real-time data collection, computer modeling, and image analysis are all examples of science learning that is either impossible or cumbersome without technology. An important distinguishing characteristic of these applications is that they focus on the specific combination of teaching and curricular organization resident in the content of the program, and on the subsequent benefits to students, rather than on the hardware that carries the application. In these examples, technology can be integrated fully into the curriculum so that all students gain an understanding of its nature, power, and limitations.

Second, teacher competency would be treated as the most important and most potent variable in implementing programs. State or district leaders, with input from science teachers, would set broad but clearly defined goals for the use of specific materials or technology. Only then would highly targeted, field-based, site-specific staff development take place to provide teachers with the knowledge and support necessary to effectively use the new materials or technologies in their classrooms.

Finally, educators, researchers, and marketers of materials and technology would combine forces to stress that the hardware, the curriculum content, and the instructional context form an indivisible package. Researchers and evaluators would examine the processes that make technology-based programs work, and draw their conclusions solely from the results on student learning; marketers would stress the flexibility of their product to adapt to many different instructional packages; and educators would base their selections of materials and technology on the results of high-quality, replicable research and the cost-effectiveness of their purchase. This ideal situation appears to be a long way from current practice. In the following section, we explore some approaches to bringing current practice closer to this ideal vision.

We strongly endorse the idea to analyze, describe, and disseminate reports on science, mathematics, and technology curriculum materials that can help students achieve science literacy as spelled out in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) and in Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993). This process is being developed by Project 2061 as part of Resources for Science Literacy.2  Curriculum materials that are aimed at the singular goal of having student outcomes match benchmarks and standards can serve as tangible teaching tools that will bring the visions for science reform into the classroom.

These curricula can also provide a framework around which to focus staff development efforts, helping to define the role that technology, media, and materials can play in a school's reformed science curriculum. Once staff development has passed its formative stages, the curricula can provide teachers with the content of their instruction, thus removing from them the burden of having to design instructional materials on their own.

Finally, in order to ascertain that curricula are effective, they will have to be accompanied by an associated body of assessments that gauge their effectiveness. Designers of these assessments should refer not only to Benchmarks, but also to Blueprints' Chapter 8: Assessment, which describes assessment practices and procedures that match the goals for reform. The assessments will need to undergo the same rigorous analysis procedure as the curriculum in order to describe how they meet benchmarks and standards.

This cycle of design and independent analysis of science curriculum and assessment not only builds teachers' expertise in judging and using science materials, it also leads to curriculum development that is standards-driven rather than market-driven. Educated science teacher "consumers" will expand the market for curricula that actually can be used to teach benchmarks, driving out materials and technology that are attractive for other reasons.

In designing and implementing the most effective science curricula, one approach is to follow the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Education Program Effectiveness Panel (PEP) for designing and validating educational programs, judging whether those programs are effective in meeting their goals, and assessing whether similar results are likely to be attained by others who use the program. Backed by a wealth of practical and theoretical expertise, PEP suggests that any educational program measure its effectiveness by the following three criteria:

Ralph and Dwyer (1988) discuss the PEP criteria in more detail and offer a practical look at the problems involved in integrating the principles of program development with the everyday realities of public schools.

Staff Development

One of the keys to successful program change is a focus on staff development. The use of facilitators at the state, regional, or district level can provide the link between those who develop educational programs and their prospective clients, namely, schools and teachers. A large portion of resources should go to support highly qualified trainers who work directly with schools to plan, develop, and deliver intensive, program-specific, long-term instruction to teachers and administrators. Although this type of program is extremely effective, the cost of sending thousands of highly qualified trainers to school sites to train staff in specific science and technology programs makes it impractical as a vehicle for large-scale reform. A more cost-effective method is to use the growing power of communications networks to support quality training. Professional associations, curriculum developers, local alliances, universities, and regional centers can form networks of expert resources and clearinghouses for information about how to implement specific science programs and technologies, providing tailored on-site help as needed.

In-Service Education Topics

The science and mathematics knowledge needed for new curricula and technology is an important area of staff development. However, simply taking more courses is not the answer, because researchers have found little, if any, correlation between a teacher's understanding of a subject (as measured by the number of college courses taken) and student outcomes (Ball, 1991). Instead of more mathematics and science knowledge, teachers need more "context-specific case knowledge" that blends subject matter and pedagogical knowledge (Brophy, 1991). For example, teachers need to know how to use their knowledge of molecules to ask questions that guide sixth graders through experiments on whether sugar dissolves faster in hot water or cool water. For this reason, highly targeted, program-specific staff development deserves far more attention than it has received in the rhetoric of reform.

The Role of Industry

Just as science and mathematics curriculum analysis may serve to refocus the use of technology toward improving student outcomes, it can also provide industry with an understanding of what schools truly need from technology. Hardware and software that can be adapted to a variety of science instructional programs that meet benchmarks and standards is much more useful than technology that might make a unique contribution to one component of science learning.

Considering technology, media, and materials as independent tools and resources has two distinct advantages: it places the emphasis on the content of the educational products that will be delivered through the technology rather than on the media itself, and it ensures that a piece of hardware will adapt to a variety of different instructional programs-an important consideration in the rapidly changing, high-tech field of software development and design.

An independent technology base must be capable of storing and presenting instructional content in an elegant and user-friendly form, and must ensure the highest quality and greatest generalizability across present and future media forms. At present, a highly generalizable media base could include a broadcast-quality, 30-frames-per-second video, and text and graphics that can be reproduced in black and white and color. Promising tools are the laser video disc, with high-quality motion and still-video storage, and CD-ROM formats, which hold more than 60 minutes of quality, compressed, full-motion video. The CD-ROM is moving from 600 megabytes to more than 6 gigabits of storage and can store text and graphics files in digital form along with the still and motion video. This provides an "offline" or "online" vehicle for print, audio, and analog video information that is now stored on laser videodisks. At present, stiff competition is driving down prices in the hardware industry. This reality is likely to make manufacturers more amenable to working with science educators to develop products on their terms.

The Role of Research and Evaluation

The most important way in which research on the use of technology can support science education reform is to make student outcomes the primary measure of a program's effectiveness. Observations of teacher behavior, costs, and physical and social infrastructure are important in assessing a technology's worth, but they are nonetheless secondary to that technology's ability to produce positive changes in cognitive and affective student performance.

Another factor vital to the success of any effort to make better use of technology in science education is the increased use of formative evaluation in testing program effectiveness. The process of formative evaluation has great potential to limit or prevent unintended negative consequences because it involves intense, sometimes even intrusive, monitoring of student reactions. Formative evaluation allows researchers and teachers to decide whether their ideas are having negative consequences before they are irreversible. This is an especially important consideration given the growing diversity of the American school population and the respect for diversity that is found in the goals of science education reform. For children without a support system outside of school to supplement their education, it is unconscionable to experiment full-scale before doing pilot testing and formative evaluation. By examining the effects of a specific science program on students before it is fully implemented at a school or district level, educators can ensure that it has the desired effects in a variety of classrooms.

For any formative evaluation to be effective, teachers must be included in its design and implementation. Although for many teachers it is too burdensome to design, implement, and evaluate their own science programs, they can still be instrumental. For example, at the Far West Laboratory, teachers were heavily involved in reviewing the design of the curriculum, as well as the formative and summative testing of the program's qualities (Borg & Gall, 1989).

Finally, formative evaluation must become an institutionalized part of all educational program development. In rigorous science, significant time is devoted to the formative stages of a research project's development. But much educational research is constrained by the timed nature of grants, meaning that researchers often must select problems with known solutions, spending relatively little time in the formative stages of program development. Barbara Flagg's Formative Evaluation for Educational Technologies (1990) blends the general principles of program development and formative evaluation with the rapidly changing range of educational technology alternatives, and can serve as an invaluable guide to researchers and science teachers who wish to make formative evaluation a key part of program development efforts.


If technology and media are to play a crucial role in implementing science education reform, visible leadership must be cultivated to carry this vision forward. Designers and supporters of science education reform, an enlightened sponsor, and a national media platform could serve as a powerful voice for significant progress. It is a voice that is currently missing, but one that is vital if science education reform is to gain widespread acceptance.

This chapter has set out to identify, exemplify, and recommend a course of action for addressing the teacher enhancement and instructional materials envisioned by reform. This course of action would require all involved parties to collaborate in the following actions:

As the information age dawned, several observers accurately predicted the classroom implications and called for a "technology of instruction" that would support the teacher and enhance instruction. The following quote by Peter Drucker thoughtfully and accurately summarized and predicted the issues now faced by reform in science, mathematics, and technology: Learning and teaching are going to be more deeply affected by the new availability of information than any other area of human life. There is a great need for a new approach in new methods, and new tools in teaching, man's oldest and most reactionary craft. There is a great need for a rapid increase in learning. There is above all, great need for methods that will make the teacher effective and multiply his or her efforts and competence. Teaching is, in fact, the only traditional craft in which we have not yet fashioned the tools that make an ordinary person capable of superior performance. (Heinrich, 1970, p. 56)
References and Bibliography
Chapter 8 Assessment


1The use of the term "technology" in this chapter refers to computers, video and audio systems, calculators, print production, and other hardware and software used as tools to support instruction and learning in the sciences and mathematics. It does not address the important issues involved in the study of technology as described in Science for All Americans, Chapter 8: The Designed World.
2Project 2061 has developed a procedure for analyzing science curriculum materials whose content and pedagogy match benchmarks and standards, and is training teachers and others to analyze materials. A small set of science curriculum materials has been analyzed; work is underway to analyze more materials and develop a greater capacity for training people to do the analysis.


Blueprints Online
Project 2061
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, DC

Copyright © 1998 by American Association for the Advancement of Science