Researchers study how technology shapes the ways in which students learn
The meeting of education researchers in Wallenberg Hall began with a suggestion that the group move their rolling desks into a circle so they could face each other instead of being lined up in traditional classroom rows. "It's really easy to do and it will change whole the nature of the conversation," said education Associate Professor Brigid Barron, host of one of the first meetings of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Collaboration.
The Nov. 3 gathering of about two-dozen people from around the country, many of whom had never met in person, instantly became more friendly and informal. It was an appropriate move for researchers discussing cutting-edge work aimed at understanding how technology is helping to change the way kids learn in the classroom and beyond.
Barron, who researches social influences on children's learning and cognitive development in school settings, recently received $750,000 from the MacArthur Foundation to study an after-school program for underprivileged students developed by Stanford alumna Nichole Pinkard, a senior research associate at the University of Chicago.
Barron's three-year grant is part of a new $50 million commitment by the MacArthur Foundation to help build the emerging field of digital media and learning. Constance Yowell, the foundation's director for digital media, learning and education, said the foundation has supported education since it was established a quarter-century ago. Recently, its president, Jonathan Fanton, told his staff that he wanted to know how technology is influencing the areas they fund. "We are heavily invested in schools as they exist, but what about schools of the future?" he asked, according to Yowell.
"Our perspective was to think, Will kids be different?" Yowell said. "In 10 to 15 years, will kids coming into public education be thinking, behaving or acting differently, or expecting different things because they've been engaged in digital media?" The foundation's statistics suggest they will be: For example, on a typical day, more than half of American teenagers use a computer and more than 40 percent play a video game. In addition, 83 percent of young people play video games regularly, and nearly three-quarters use instant messaging.
"Digital technology is here, kids are using it in incredible ways and we need to understand its impact, for good or bad," Yowell said. "This is peer-driven learning and I really think that, ultimately, it's going to be the kids who push for the changes in schools. We think that young people are way ahead of the adults in understanding how to use these tools."
Pinkard's project-based program in Chicago uses advanced computing tools to teach robotics, game design, graphic arts, broadcasting and digital filmmaking. "We work closely with the schools up front, so teachers are comfortable," Pinkard said. "Teachers are happy to work with us because they learn what their kids are doing. What's been fascinating is seeing kids who may not be successful during the school day be successful out of it and [learning new] skill sets they can take back into the school and get credit."
In one case, a teacher asked students to read Elie Wiesel's memoir of the holocaust, Night, and write an essay or produce something related to the hope expressed in the book. One student, who was struggling in school, was studying digital music in Pinkard's program. "He wrote the most extraordinary rap I have ever heard about the night," Yowell said. "The teacher, in reading the rap, understood for the first time that this young man had a much deeper understanding of the class material and lectures than he would have ever guessed, and it transformed his relationship with the student. [The student] got to demonstrate his competency in ways that he never would have demonstrated on an achievement test."
Barron, Pinkard and Kimberley Gomez, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, will spend two years studying the students' learning in the after-school program and compare their technology skills and confidence levels to children who have not had the same opportunities. The research will look at how the experience supports the students' ability to learn on their own, collaborate with others, plan projects and critique new media. The research, which will include comparison sites in Silicon Valley, aims to learn how to support all students but particularly those facing economic barriers or gender stereotypes about computing.
"The concern that many people have is that computing technology is increasing differences along typical lines, whether it's gender, socio-economic status or ethnic background," Barron said. "The digital divide nationwide in terms of physical access is decreasing. So [the issue] is not necessarily about access to the technology itself but about children's access to ideas and communities doing interesting things with the technology. I think it's important to provide opportunities for children to produce with the technology in ways that help them see the computational power, the expressive power, the political power and the persuasive power" of the medium.
Back in Wallenberg Hall, Barron and the other researchers presented their work and listened to Yowell discuss the importance of confronting inevitable tensions as research is framed in this emerging field. "It's absolutely critical that we avoid [schisms] in terms of being able to accelerate this work because I think it's going to have an enormous impact on how we think about young people and learning," she said. "We don't see digital media taking the place of reading or most of the literacy work that goes on in schools; we see it as [accompanying] it. There is much that has to change about how we understand social institutions that support learning. We will help think about what assessments need to look like, because the current assessments don't fit what kids are learning" inside and outside the formal classroom.