Education Development Center, Inc.
Center for Children and Technology
Technology's Role in Restructuring for Collaborative Learning
CTE Technical Report Issue No. 8
Bolt beranek and Newman Inc.
The problem of supporting
collaborative learning is placed in the framework of the organizational
restructuring of schools. This paper contrasts the organizational impact
of two technology systems in terms of: (a) the physical location in the
school, (b) the curriculum, and (c) how time is scheduled. Considered first
is a class of computer systems for which the function is individualization.
In contrast, an environment called Earth Lab is described. Examples of its
use in one school illustrate the way that collaborative learning is supported
in the three categories: location, curriculum, and time. In conclusion,
the complex relationship between school restructuring and the implementation
of technology for schools is addressed.
Collaborative learning involves approaches to instruction that are not typical
of American schools. Fundamentally, if students are going to collaborate,
there must be a task for which
work groups in schools occurs at the level of the schoolwide organization.
The technologies of central interest are local area networks (LANs) within
the school. The group members do not normally communicate with each other
via this network. Instead, they use the LAN to access technology resources,
to communicate with the teacher and other groups, and to store and access
group products. The classroom work group is thus very different from a group
that conducts its work the teacher or workbook or computer is not providing
step-by-step instructions. The group must have some autonomy, otherwise
there will be no occasion for discussion, group problem solving, question
asking, or other processes that account for the benefits of collaborative
work in schools. Such open-ended tasks may require changes in the way instruction
in a school is structured. The duration of the task may extend beyond the
single classroom lesson, since once students begin working with some autonomy,
the project may involve new goals that are discovered in the process. Teacher
relationships, including distribution of expertise and collaboration among
the teaching staff, may change as student projects begin to cross over the
compartmentalized curriculum structure. Evaluation of students may also
have to move from the typical short-answer tests of individuals to assessments
of the group performance of the project itself.
This paper addresses how to get collaborative learning to occur in schools
and how computers might support itor at least not inhibit it. The central
theme in the paper is that computer support for such primarily
via computer with each member in a different physical location.
Software design issues are often considered at the level of the student-computer
interaction without concern for issues such as the social organization of
the classroom or school. When considering the use of local area networks,
we must also consider these organizational issues in technology design.
I will begin this paper by placing the problem of collaborative learning
in the framework of the organizational restructuring of schools. I then
turn to a description of a class of computer systems which are currently
popular in the U.S. and which are not designed for collaborative learning,
in fact quite the oppositetheir function is individualization. I will then
describe, in contrast, some work my colleagues and I have been doing on
an environment called Earth Lab. Based on observations of Earth Lab, I will
summarize the organizational impact of the system in relation to (a) the
physical location in the school, (b) the curriculum, and (c) how time is
scheduled. In conclusion, I address the complex relationship between school
restructuring and the implementation of technology for schools.
Why Consider School Restructuring
This paper takes a step back from the small group of children working around
a table or a computer on some shared learning task in order to enlarge the
usual time and space framework that is used in studies of collaboration.
Experiments on cooperative learning groups, for example, typically examine
learning processes once the group has gotten to work or learning outcomes
as soon as the group finishes its work. When we turn to how collaborative
learning might be supported by computers, a timeframe much longer than the
group's task must be used in order to consider the teacher's work in setting
up the task and appropriating the results into future lessons. Teachers
are critically important for the support and guidance they provide and for
creating the context in which groups of students can work on their own.
The support provided by computer technology can be considered in the complex
web that includes the classroom interactions as well as interactions around
School restructuring is currently a focus of many school reform efforts
in the U.S. that recognize that improving education requires changes in
governance, modes of teacher-student interaction, incentives, and methods
of evaluation (17, 2). Technology's role in restructuring is very much a
matter of debate. While it has been common for technologists to paint scenarios
in which schools are transformed by technology, other analysts of school
change note that technology has not penetrated beyond the margins of the
school system (3, 5). A common explanation for marginal impact is the incompatibility
of the teaching styles that are called for by the new technologies and the
styles that are at the core of current teaching practices. Collins (4) argues,
on the other hand, that the rapidly growing role of technology in the workplace
will drive the adoption of technology in schools and spur collateral changes,
including a shift from lecture to coaching and from a competitive to a cooperative
social structure. These discussions of technology and restructuring often
assume an incompatibility of technology and current practices which, as
argued in this paper, is not warranted for all computer technologies. But
in relation to reform attempts, the debate is raising the critical issues
concerning the impediments to change and the possible mechanisms by which
technology may have an impact on school structure.
The support of collaboration must be considered both at the level of the
collaborative group and the level of the school organization. A combined
interest in cognitive change in students and in school restructuring suggests
that we look both at the way teachers might collaborate with support from
the school administration and at the way students might collaborate with
support from their teachers. At both levels the support system is central:
Students will not just start collaborating without appropriate tasks, accountability
assumptions, and timeframes organized by the teacher. Teachers cannot provide
collaborative tasks within the structure of the typical school, which demands
that subjects be covered in a particular place and time. I will be focusing
on the schoolwide level of the organization in this paper. But it should
be clear that the schoolwide structure has direct effects on the students'
At the heart of this argument is the notion that a decompartmentalization
of the school's curriculum can be beneficial for student learning. Students
will benefit from seeing the connections among topics, such as between math
and science or science and writing or writing and geography, and so on.
Projects that groups of students undertake can be made more authentic
and perhaps more motivating if related to real-world concerns where the
disciplinary boundaries do not necessarily hold. Students can also become
more motivated if their school work is to a greater extent under their own
control rather than tightly controlled by the school schedule. Computer
technology can be arranged in the school to help make the cross-disciplinary
connections and to help give students flexible access to these connections.
A theory of cognitive change that takes into account the social construction
of knowledge may be a useful guide in exploring how learning takes place
in the complex organization of a school. Social context can be understood
as a tool that can be put in place by the teacher to assist learning, rather
than as a background to individual learning processes (12, 9). The critical
learning events, in this view, may be the points at which the teacher brings
the small groups together and appropriates their contributions into a larger
classwide project, or events where the teacher supports the students in
combining information from a variety of sources. Also, learning may take
place over an extended period of time as students slowly acquire skills
with various tools, such as computers, and change their way of thinking
across several projects. In this view, the processes of cognitive change
occur as part of these events that may be organized at the cross-classroom
level well beyond even the group of students who form the collaborative
work group. In the next two sections, I will contrast two very different
technology systems and attempt to trace the ways in which their impact on
the school organization directly conditions the social construction of learning
events in the school.
Integrated Learning Systems
Computers in schools have as much potential for reducing collaborative learning
as for promoting it. I want to start with an example of a category of school
computer systems that discourage collaborative work in order to make the
point that there is no sense in which computer technology naturally promotes
collaboration. Features of these systems, called integrated learning systems
(ILS) or more recently, integrated instructional systems (IIS), can be used
to structure a contrast with a different kind of approach, one that promotes
the practice of collaborative learning.
James A. Mecklenburger, director of the Institute for the Transfer of Technology
to Education, set out the goals of integrated instructional systems in his
forward to a report by the EPE Institute on these systems (16):
The IIS idea, which first emerged as a major national project known as PLATO
in the 1960s, is this: educators should apply large quantities of computer
power cost-effectively to effect large-scale (schoolwide, statewide, even
nationwide) improvement of teaching and learning. The dream of IIS developers
and usersreflected in this report by both the enthusiasm of current users
and by their frustration over the shortcomings of today's systemshas been
that computers could:
- through software, provide masterful instruction, consistently and on
- help organize and manage the individualization of instruction for millions
- boost educational results nationwide and worldwide, across all curriculum
areas for all students.
The report by the EPE Institute, an independent consumer information organization,
provides a detailed catalogue of the major integrated learning systems currently
on the U.S. market. These systems typically consist of networked personal
computers with a fileserver that both delivers programs to the individual
workstations and keeps records on the progress of individual students. The
IIS software (or "courseware") covers all or most of the school
curriculumthus the term "integrated." Systems are sold to school
districts at costs ranging from $60,000 to $180,000 for a "lab"
of 20 to 30 stations. These systems are growing in popularity according
to the EPE report, which estimates that sales doubled in 1989. The vendors'
sales reps, often recruited from among retired school district superintendents,
are expert at selling to the highest level of the district administration
(14). The arguments of the sales force usually focus on achievement gains,
especially on standardized tests of basic skills for which the superintendents
must answer to the school board and parent community, and which find their
way into state and national reports of school achievement. These arguments
are made in spite of the doubts expressed by reputable researchers about
the validity of the IIS claims for achievement gains (7). Often state and
federal funds that are targeted
for disadvantaged students can be used directly for purchasing these systems
because of the strong relation between the students identified for these
special programs and low test scores.
The EPE report documents a generally high level of satisfaction with IIS
systems among the teacher and student end users. The high level of student
satisfaction may have resulted from the interactivity in comparison to workbooks
and paper-and-pencil drills. And from the teachers' point of view, the automatic
individualization and record keeping of student progress helps them get
through those classroom tasks. The report notes that in most of the sites
where observations and interviews were conducted, the IIS system was the
first exposure teachers and students had had to computers. The EPE researchers
also detected a consistent undercurrent of dissatisfaction. They note that
"teachers want more software options, and (along with students) they
want IIS lessons to be more varied and less repetitious in instructional
style (or, as students put it 'less boring')" (p. 295). There was also
some concern with the lack of openness of the systems, which generally do
not accommodate software from other vendors. Overwhelmingly, teachers say
they would like to have the IIS stations in their own classrooms rather
than in a lab so the work can be better integrated with their curriculum.
In general, however, the IISs can be considered a successful implementation
of computers: one that serves a perceived need and fits in well with the
practices of the school. In fact, their fit with the existing school structure
provides a framework for looking at the ways the computer support for collaborative
learning may require restructuring of the school. We can examine three prominent
features of IIS practice: location, curriculum, and the timeframe of the
The EPE report notes that it is an all but universal practice to put the
IIS in a lab. There is nothing inherent in the technology or even the pedagogy
that requires this configuration. The local area network cabling can extend
throughout the school. But IISs are sold as "labs" in units of
about 30, which is sufficient to simultaneously accommodate a whole class
brought into the lab. Having the IIS centralized in a lab means that the
system can be more easily managed by a school computer lab teacher, or nonteaching
paraprofessional, who can retain the school's technical expertise. For a
school starting with a low level of expertise, the centralization reduces
the training costs that would otherwise be necessary. The lab arrangement
also makes it possible for regular classroom teachers to leave the class
with the computer teacher for the lab period and take a preparation period
or spend the period with half the class not accommodated by a smaller lab.
In most cases, however, teachers accompany their students to the lab and
attempt to connect their classroom lessons with the material learned from
the IIS, according to the EPE report.
The 30 computers in a lab scenario assumes that students will be working
at the computers individually since it provides a 1 to 1 ratio. In many
IISs, students also wear headsets as part of their computer interactions,
so are further cut off from peer interaction. The teacher's role is to help
individuals who are having difficulty with some aspect of the computer-presented
task. While it is argued that the one-to-one instruction that is afforded
by having students occupied with computer tutorials offers teachers an opportunity
for individualized tutorial dialogue with students who are often ignored
in whole class teaching (15), others have pointed out that teachers can
experience this mode of classroom work as deskilling, since the overall
direction of instruction and the tasks presented are controlled by the computers
Individualization of instruction is the fundamental premise of these systems,
so there is certainly no attempt to promote collaboration. As the use of
these systems evolves over time, schools may begin distributing workstations
among classrooms rather than centralizing them in a lab, in which case some
of the prominent features of IIS practice may change (7).
Another feature that provides a good fit to the organizational structure
of the typical school is the content organization of the courseware. It
is straightforward to categorize the courseware into the standard school
subjects: math, reading, language arts, or science. This is no different
from typical textbooks, which are designed to cover the material in a particular
recognized subject area. In fact, IISs are often tied explicitly to the
major textbooks. The IISs reviewed by EPE were all rated on "breadth/scope/coverage"
in the major curriculum areas. While not all IISs got "A" ratings
in all areas, the application of the rating scheme speaks to the intent
of these systems. Also, like the typical textbook,
the content is, for the most part, presented as facts or procedures to be
mastered in sequence. While several IISs provide tools such as word processors
and built-in calculators, the presentation of the courseware is predominantly
designed to match the sequence of topics in the textbooks.
The content and its sequencing is an integral part of the management and
evaluation functions. Discrete tasks that result in a single correct answer
can be evaluated by the system itself. More open-ended tasks requiring,
for example, formulation of the problem or research into sources outside
the computer, or any kind of free-form response, cannot be handled by the
system. The system cannot provide the teacher with interactions that are
needed to support open-ended tasks, nor can it evaluate the responses.
The management function that tracks students through the sequence of topics
depends on individualization. Given the heavy use of automatic tracking
of individual student progress, there is a strong disincentive for group
work. While a system could be designed to track groups of students (e.g.,
simply by providing feedback and evaluation to the group based on its responses
as though it were an individual), none of the IISs have that capability.
Collaborative learning is thus hindered both by the individualized tracking
system and by the fact that the tasks represent small steps in a learning
hierarchy which do not call for the kinds of open-ended problem solving
for which collaborative groups are well suited.
The division of topics into clearly defined subject areas also eliminates
the need for teachers handling different subjects to collaborate or for
a teacher in a self-contained classroom to consider the integration of learning
across subjects. In this respect, too, IISs strongly support the structure
of most schools where teachers are not expected to know much about what
other teachers are doing. A major advantage of lISs, in comparison to other
approaches to school technology, is that teachers and students can get started
using the system with little technical or subject matter training and without
adopting new styles of teaching or interacting with other teachers.
A common complaint of IIS users, according to the EPE report, is that many
systems will not pick up exactly where the student left off in the previous
session. Tasks are intended to be completed within the timeframe of a single
period in the computer lab (usually about 45 minutes). Single tasks, such
as an arithmetic problem, can usually be done in a matter of a minutes and
so many can be completed in a period, but nevertheless, these short tasks
may still overlap the end of a period and need to be picked up later. IISs
are designed on the assumption that each period will be self-contained.
The tasks do not require preparation prior to the computer lab period and
call for a minimum of technical capability on the part of the student. This
design allows it to fit nicely into the usual school structure that is divided
into periods devoted to discrete topics and, in the upper grades, taught
by different teachers. Teachers can thus schedule the use of the computer
lab into the preexisting slots in the day.
The short tasks of the IIS are very similar to the kinds of tasks found
on the standardized tests used extensively for evaluation. The short, carefully
constrained answer slots are ideal for automatic scoring in both instances.
And in both cases, it is not expected that students will collaborate on
producing answers. The timeframe assumed by IISs is thus well suited to
both the individualized instructional practice and the structure of the
school day schedule, which is broken down into discrete periods. Collaborative
tasks may create problems both for the usual evaluation procedures, as noted
above, and for the fundamental structure of the school day as compartmentalized
into separate periods.
The Earth Lab Project
For the last four years, the Earth Lab project has been designing, implementing,
and observing the effects of a local area network system intended to facilitate
collaborative work in elementary school earth science. Our plan was to create
a prototype LAN system and demonstrate it in a New York City public school
using an earth science curriculum. The pedagogical rationale was that students
should use technology the way real scientists do: to communicate and share
data; that is, to collaborate. The school is a public elementary school
(grades 3 to 6) located in central Harlem, New York City. The school population
of approximately 700 students is predominantly black with a minority of
Hispanic and other groups. The school's achievement scores are about average
for New York City but lower than the national averages. With a few exceptions,
the staff took a traditional approach to teaching through
whole-class lessons, textbook reading, and worksheet drill. Under normal
circumstances, the school would have been a likely customer for an integrated
instructional system. However, the school's computer teacher, who had a
different vision, was able to play a leadership role and make use of the
technology provided by the project.
A year-long formative experiment began in the fall of 1986. In the initial
setup, a LAN connected the 25 Apple lIe computers in the school to a hard
drive, which allowed for central storage of data, text, and programs. The
Bank Street Writer word processing program was enhanced with an electronic
mail system (8). The Bank Street Filer was another basic tool which made
it possible for students to create databases that could be accessed from
any computer in the school. Along with the technology, we introduced a year-long
earth science curriculum designed in collaboration with the teachers (1).
The formative experiment took as its goal an increase in the frequency of
collaborative work among students. At least for the one year in which systematic
research was funded, we were prepared to modify the design of the technology,
introduce new software, develop curriculum materials, and conduct staff
development workshops as needed (10). After the first year, the school obtained
an additional 20 Apple IIGS computers through an award from Apple Computer
Inc., and over the last few years has added several other computers, including
five Macintosh computers. Several other application programs are in use
on the network, including "hypermedia" systems, LogoWriter, telecommunication
programs, and Macintosh programs, including desktop publishing tools.
Databases are used extensively both within and outside the the earth science
curriculum. During the lunch hour, students can be found inventing databases
of their favorite action figures. In social studies, students research almanacs
and other sources to fill in databases about countries of the world and
figures from black history. In earth science, they examine databases of
dinosaur fossils and earthquakes and create databases of the weather readings
and indicators of seasonal change that small groups of students collect
over a period of several months.
The primary means for supporting collaborative groups is the Earth Lab's
network interface, which makes it easy for individuals or groups to store
and retrieve data pertaining to their projects. The work of the projectin
the form of text, database, graphics, and code filesis stored in workspaces,
which are folders or directories on the network fileserver. These workspaces,
available to any computer on the school LAN, give groups a location for
their work together. Students and teachers can be assigned to any number
of workspaces. For example, workspaces are set up for pairs of students
to work on writing assignments together. Other workspaces serve schoolwide
clubs or other projects. Each individual also has a personal workspace.
In the first year of the project, the science teacher, who had the students
for two periods a week, had the class form into groups of three or four
for the purpose of conducting investigations in the science lab. The science
groups gave themselves names that were used for group workspaces on the
network. Students shared different data with different students or groups
in the school; for instance, a science group, a noon hour club, and the
whole class. The current Earth Lab network system is designed to present
the same information when students are on either Macintosh or Apple II computers.
When our project began, our explicit goal was to create a classroom environment
in which students used technology the way scientists didfor collaborative
work. Our analysis of what actually happened led us to a broader conception
of how the local area network technology can function. While direct support
of collaborative work groups is still important, we have increasingly become
interested in the decompartmentalization of the school that can result from
this kind of use of a local area network. Teachers are better able to collaborate,
students are better able to carry their work from one context to another,
and the computer lab is increasingly used in a heterogeneous manner with
several projects or groups from different classes working simultaneously.
This restructuring supports both individual and group work and contributes
to a sense of community in the school. The following examples taken from
our observations at the school illustrate these changes within the same
categories used to describe the integrated instructional systems.
From an initial 25 computers, the school's network has grown to about 50
in two separate labs: a satellite lab in a small room off one of the classrooms
and network connections in several
other classrooms into which computers can be moved as needed. When teachers
bring their class to the lab, they stay with the class rather than hand
it over to the computer teacher. The computer teacher works with the teacher
to develop activities that can be continued back in class. The way the project
workspaces were set up for groups and individuals helped to develop a sense
of continuity not possible with IISs. The following stories illustrate some
of the ways this worked.
We expected that projects would be started while the class was in the computer
lab and would be continued in the classroom. We found that students were
taking this flexibility another step. For example, we observed two girls
working on a book report at a computer in a small room off their classroom.
They had not finished when the teacher announced that it was time for the
class to go upstairs to the computer lab. Instead of dropping their work,
they brought their notes with them and asked if they could continue their
work at a lab computer while the rest of the class worked on other assignments.
The students logged on and called up the file on which they had been working.
The network makes the boundaries between classrooms and class periods more
permeable. This permeability was used by the students to pursue their tasks
on their own initiative.
Several students from different classes and different grades were editors
for the school newspaper. The newspaper had a workspace on the network that
students used for storing articles and other material for the newspaper.
Beyond the editorial group, many students around the school contributed
articles to the newspaper by sending them as messages through the electronic
mail system to the editors. The common workspace made it easy for the editorial
group to work at different times and places on the newspaper. The ease with
which any student could contribute to the newspaper and the identity of
the group task that was supported by the workspace widened participation.
Students became familiar with the network's function as a data organizer
so that when other school projects, such as editing a video newscast, were
started, students thought it quite sensible to create a workspace for their
scripts, plans, and edit lists.
Although the computer labs, housed in adjacent rooms, have enough computers
to accommodate a class with a 1 to 1 ratio, we seldom see the computers
used that way. Usually students work in pairs or small groups. Often a small
group will use more than one computer simultaneously. Since there are spare
computers, students from other classrooms that do not have their own computers
and teachers on their prep periods also come to the lab to work on various
projects. As a result, activities in the labs are very heterogeneous.
Students frequently work in groups and often work with more than one computer.
For example, a group of students was using the Bank Street Writer to compose
a letter to students in Australia with whom they had been telecommunicating.
One of their members suggested that they include some of the data from their
math project in the report. A second student turned to an unused computer
at the next desk. She called up the Bank Street Filer, compiled the report
and "printed" it to the group workspace on the network, converting
it into a word processing file where it was easily merged into the letter
they were preparing. The completed letter was mailed on the LAN to the person
responsible for portaging it to Australia. lt was possible for the students
to create a "multitasking system" out of the two computers because
they knew, in terms of the workspace, where one computer had to save the
data in order for the other computer to find it. For the students who were
accustomed to sharing data on the network, it was quite obvious how to do
The fact that the "tool" applications (as opposed to games or
drills, i.e., content specific programs) were used heavily made group and
individual projects the appropriate mode of computer use. The Earth Lab
interface, which displays for students and teachers lists of their project
workspaces, enables them to work on any of their projects whenever they
have the opportunity and inclination at any of the networked machines available
to them. With this greater continuity over space and time, students can
take greater initiative in following through with work on a project.
The earth science curriculum developed for the initial field test, and the
curriculum materials that the teachers have continued to develop over subsequent
years, have been interdisciplinary. As they worked on weather and seasonal
change, students made connections to physics, math, writing, and social
studies. The network system made classroom projects easier to manage and
promoted collaboration among the teachers.
Over the initial year of observations, there was substantial movement from
whole-class teaching toward more collaborative work in small groups. We
found that the science groups, which had been formed to work together in
the science lab, were being used by the classroom teachers for a variety
of social studies research activities, some of which were unrelated to the
earth science curriculum. The network system produced these changes in an
unexpected way: It made it possible for all teachers to assign classroom
work to the groups created by the science teacher. The science group workspaces
were a convenient means for organizing small-group projects in other curriculum
areas. The science groups became a resource across the school. There had
never been a mechanism by which a social organizational structure created
by one teacher in this school could be used by other teachers as a resource
for managing instruction (11).
At the beginning of the field-test year, some teachers in this essentially
traditional school had doubts about the students' capabilities for handling
the autonomy involved in small-group work. Having the small-group workspaces
on the network helped communicate to the teacher community that students
were expected to do collaborative work. Where interdisciplinary projects
become a more common feature of the curriculum, the workspaces can give
the students a clearer group identity or sense of project continuity and
thus help in the classroom management. Instead of greater centralized control
of individualized instruction, as is common in integrated instructional
systems, control can be distributed to the students. We suspect that the
solution to the teachers' difficulties in managing instruction involving
collaboration among the students is to provide students with tools with
which they can assume some of the burden, rather than to provide teachers
with tools with which to gain greater control.
But students are not simply going off on their own projects unconnected
to any curriculum goals of the teachers. The network also makes it easier
for the teachers to appropriate the output of the small groups into whole-class
activities so as to go back and forth between individual or group work and
integrative projects that combine the work of the small groups. The LAN
technology seemed naturally to invite coordination in which students contributed
to some larger quest for knowledge, since it was easier to give common access
to the same shared database than to maintain separate copies for each individual
or group (11). An example is provided by our weather data collection project.
The data had been collected by a rotating group of students throughout the
school year from a small rooftop weather station and entered into a database
in a shared weather folder. The database was later used to discover correlations
between such variables as pressure and cloudiness. The whole dataset became
the object of group discussion of relationships that cannot be found in
the individual contributions. This coordination around a shared database
was a new activity structure that emerged with the LAN technology.
The Earth Lab network made no attempt to provide a technological solution
to the problem of assessing student progress or grading student projects,
which is the central function of integrated instructional systems afforded
by the hierarchical nature of the courseware. We have, however, begun exploring
the use of group and individual workspaces as portfolios of student work.
The notion of a portfolio is receiving growing attention among U.S. educators
as an alternative means of assessment in which the stages of work on a project
collected in a portfolio can provide insight to both the teacher and the
student about the state of their work and, in retrospect, about the process
of learning (6). The workspaces currently serve as archives of the group
or individual project work and so can serve the function of a portfolio
in this sense.
The project workspaces provide continuity over time as well as location.
Projects involving collecting weather data and data on seasonal change extended
over many months. In some cases, projects may extend over years as new cohorts
of students move through the school curriculum. The continuity over time
that is developing in the school may have an important impact on what students
are able to do as they gain technical skills with the computer tools available
for their project work. The following examples suggest the nature of that
One science group was analyzing the weather data using the Bank Street Filer
database manager. They were trying to support a theory suggested by their
impression that the last winter had been much milder than the previous one.
They were comparing their data with those collected by the previous year's
sixth grade class. When their
theory was not supported by averages in the report generated with the filer
program, one of the students checked the data entered by their classmates.
Several temperatures seemed unrealistic; for example, several January days
with highs of zero degrees. Suspecting an error attributable to missing
values, they sent electronic messages to representatives of several other
classes who had kept similar records and obtained actual data for the days
Many students used the system extensively for their own work in addition
to the work assigned as part of instruction. Much of the student-initiated
work occurred during lunch and after school when the computer lab remained
open. Students were able to pursue their own writing, data-collection, or
programming projects. While some educational games were also available during
these extra periods, many students chose to pursue projects rather than
to play games. Students developed a sense of ownership of their workspaces
to a greater extent than we anticipated. Some students accumulated hundreds
of files in their personal workspaces over the course of a year. Earth Lab
was also used for student-initiated collaborative work; for example, on
science fair projects, which were a source of great pride for many groups
of students. Their appropriation of the technology also was evident in end-of-the-year
interviews. For example, one student suggested enabling students to determine
who could have access to a workspace because she did not have easy access
to work she was doing with another student. Her suggestion was based on
a need that arose in her own attempts at collaboration. Taking her suggestion
one step further, our more recent implementation has made it easy for students
to create their own workspaces as well as to determine who would be able
to use the files in the workspace.
The use of tool software requires a greater initial investment in order
to bring students up to speed with the technology than is required for integrated
instructional systems, which present small tasks and simple interactions
with the technology. However, the availability of the Earth Lab system to
students over a period of years and the consistency of the available tools
has made it increasingly easy for teachers to introduce long-term projects
as part of their curriculum. In the first year of operation, the sixth grade
class spent several months on fairly simple introductory projects designed
to familiarize them with the word processing, database, and communication
tools. Several years later, teachers were able to start immediately with
substantial projects. Although students enter sixth grade with widely varying
levels of expertise, due to the uneven use of the technology among the fifth
grade teachers, enough students have the necessary expertise to support
the start up of projects. In one case, the class began early in the year
to collect data on the length of their shadows. Students who were familiar
with the Filer entered all the data into a database, which was then available
for all the students to explore. So students who were unfamiliar with the
tool were introduced to it in the context of substantial data that they
had helped to collect.
The school in which Earth Lab has been operating for four years is now engaged
in a major restructuring involving the creation of a school-within-the-school
that will focus on an experiment in teacher collaboration. Approximately
one fifth of the students have voluntarily signed up for a "Computer
Mini-School," which will involve six classrooms spanning grades 3 through
6. The classrooms, four of which bridge between grades, will be heterogeneous
with respect to achievement levels. Each year, new students will be recruited
for the third grade slots, and the program is expected to slowly expand
horizontally to additional classes per grade. There is no shortage of volunteers
spanning the range of achievement levels found in the school. A portion
of the school's computer technology will serve this vertical slice. The
Mini-School will continue to take advantage of the technology in the ways
that have been illustrated. The choice of forming a vertical slice is important
for developing continuity over a long period and building the skills and
expectations among both students and teachers. It is expected that the sixth
grade teachers will be continually challenged by the growing skills of their
Common to these observations was the perception that students had a place
in the computer systemnamely, their individual and group workspaces containing
their project datathat was not dependent on having an individual computer
or being in a particular classroom. Both students and teachers made use
of the workspaces to bridge between school contexts. The extent to which
both teachers and students appropriated the system into their own work gives
us reason to believe that systems
like Earth Lab are sustainable in the educational environment. The system
that we installed in the school was to some extent modelled on the use of
technology in research labs, but the system that emerged had characteristics
quite specific to schools; for example, the coordination of small groups,
the teacher collaboration, and the use of workspaces rather than personal
workstations. Our formative experiment succeeded in using technology to
increase the likelihood of collaborative work groups, but we also discovered
that a critical function of LAN technology in schools is to make a more
seamless connection between school contexts. In this respect, we found ourselves
focusing more on the level of the school organization and the collaboration
among teachers than on the level of students' working collaboratively around
This paper has contrasted two very different uses of local area network
technology in schools attempting to trace their relationship to the way
the school organizes instruction, the way teachers work together, and the
opportunities students have for engaging in long-term, open-ended projects
that are appropriate for collaborative learning. The relationship between
technology and the organization of instruction is complex. An integrated
instructional system certainly does not cause schools to have a compartmentalized
curriculum sequence and division of labor among teachers. It may, however,
provide strong support for those tendencies and place barriers to teachers
who may wish to change their mode of instruction. At the same time, the
use of these systems can be modified quite radically, for example, by distributing
the computers among the classrooms where they might become more integrated
with the ongoing work of the classroom. In the same way, a system like Earth
Lab does not cause collaborative, interdisciplinary project work to happen,
but for schools that are moving in that direction, it can provide some useful
tools and mechanisms.
In planning a replication of the Earth Lab environment in other schools,
we face the complex relationship between the technology system and the existing
structure of instruction in the new schools. Typically, when schools acquire
technology, the approach is to purchase a new lab, even when the technology
is to be devoted to word processing or programming or earth science projects.
The lab becomes the convenient unit for administering the new computers
and for conceptualizing the need when arguing for it to the administrators
who will make the decision. In developing the materials for the replication
of Earth Lab, we were encouraged to think in terms of a technology/curriculum
package that could be implemented in a lab that was devoted to science instruction
at a particular grade level. Distribution of the computers around the school
could not be part of the package, and it was unreasonable to think in terms
of developing an integrated curriculum. From a purely administrative point
of view, the people in charge of technology acquisition have no authority
over school structure, so they necessarily appropriate the technology to
the existing school structure. The restructuring that the Computer Mini-School
is engaged in cannot be provided to the school in the usual technology/curriculum
package. The flexibility of location and time, the collaboratively constructed
interdisciplinary curriculum, and the provision for student access to the
tools over an extended period are critical components of the environment
in which the collaborative projects can emerge. There remains the possibility,
however, that a local area network system like Earth Lab can help in slowly
subverting a rigid structure by supporting teachers and students in developing
and propagating collaborative projects.
For their comments on earlier drafts, I am grateful to Paul Reese and Jan
Ellis. Preparation of this paper was supported by the Center for Technology
in Education under Grant # 1-135562167-Al from the Office of Educational
Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, to Bank Street College
of Education. The Earth Lab project was supported by the National Science
Foundation under Grant # MDR 8550449 and by Apple Computer Inc. External
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Preparation of this paper was supported by the Center for Technology in
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and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, to Bank Street College of
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