The use of technology, particularly hypermedia—an electronic text and image processing system in which text and images can be integrated and accessed in either linear or nonlinear projects—is invaluable because it provides a means by which learners may use a variety of intelligences (Gardner, 1986) in their explorations of information and ideas. In 1988 Apple Computer set up its Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) research project to explore learning when students and teachers have immediate access to interactive technologies. To pursue this research focus, ACOT established technology rich classroom sites and encouraged teachers to develop new curriculums and methods of instruction that take advantage of the technology.
The preliminary results of several four-year longitudinal ACOT studies provide evidence that interactive technologies may be a useful tool to solve some of the problems that exist in our current educational system. ACOT teachers report that their students become increasingly more curious and assertive learners when they have technology at their fingertips. The teachers claim that their students are no longer reluctant to take on new challenges; in fact, the students often pioneer selected topics far beyond the given assignment, just for fun (Baker, Gearhart, & Herman, 1990).
So what does all this have to do with gifted and talented education? In a survey of gifted and talented students, Betts (1990) reported that the three main reasons students are dissatisfied with traditional curricula are: classes aren’t challenging or interesting, they have no input or control over what they study, and assignments do not allow for creativity. Technology can be a useful vehicle in addressing some of these needs.
The use of technology, particularly hypermedia, is invaluable because it encourages learners to use a variety of intelligences in their explorations of information and ideas. Coupling technology with well-planned activities “turns on” all students to learning, but it especially motivates gifted and talented and at-risk students. Using hypermedia, students can create interactive informational presentations which contain text, images, music, live-action video, live-stills of video, digitized samples of spoken voices, or colorful animations. Thus, many students who had been “turned off’ towards school suddenly become excited about their own learning.
As the Instructional Technology and Curriculum consultant for the Northern Lights TeleGeography (NLTG) Project at a middle school in Eastern Montana, I have had the opportunity to observe and work with many students in a high computer access (HCA) environment. Before participating in the NLTG Project most of these students were not motivated or not interested in studying geography. But as they developed computer skills, they became very enthused and excited about their work.
Let me share a typical example with you. A Venezuelan foreign exchange student came to class to share the culture and customs of South America with North American seventh grade students. Among the many topics the exchange student discussed were South American music and dance and their role in the social life of young Venezuelans. Of particular interest to three students in the class was the demonstration of South American dances. These students videotaped a demonstration of South American dances including the mambo, merengue, and lambada so they could use selected footage for a hypermedia project. As they storyboarded their project, they decided that they wanted to include the following elements in their hypermedia presentation:
- maps of various South American countries,
- QuickTime movies of South American dances,
- animated “feet” showing the dance steps involved with the lambada,
- digitized music that went along with South American dance, and
- information about the lambada and South American dances in general.
Before beginning the actual work on their HyperCard stack, the girls decided that they needed to research specific items in these dances such as the steps involved, musical rhythms used, and general information about the dances themselves. As they explored library materials about dance, both girls were able to further crystallize their ideas into the form they wanted to present and thus began to create and design their stack.
Once they had completed their research, they began to produce the QuickTime clips of the dances they wanted, digitizing Latin music, producing the “moving feet” animation, and scanning the maps they wanted to use in their presentation. Three students who had always been late to class, disinterested, and generally problematic students were suddenly engaged. They arrived at school early in the morning to work on their project, came to class with objectives for the day, and worked during noon hour and after school. In observing them, I overheard discussions involving problems in animating the dancing feet and ways they might resolve these problems, what information should be presented as text or images, and information about how Latin dances related to a South American country’s overall culture.
It was thrilling to see how excited they had become about studying the customs and culture of South America, but the most interesting behaviors that I observed were the processes these girls used to solve their problems as they put their HyperCard project together. The use of computer and video technologies also gives students a feeling of empowerment. Empowerment refers to an internal state in which students see themselves as responsible for, in control of, or the source of their own learning. In the classroom, student empowerment is dependent upon the allocation of power between teachers and students. When students control few elements in the learning environment, their empowerment is low; when they control many elements, their empowerment is high. ACOT teachers report that in their high computer access classrooms, students are able to learn without being taught (in the traditional sense) by the teacher (Tierney, 1989). Tierney (1989) identified the following three classroom conditions that affect the level of student empowerment: task shaping, task size, and task complexity.
The level of student empowerment was high when learners were able to expand, modify, or in some way “shape” their work activities and completed assignments. As opportunities for task shaping increased, so did the level of student empowerment. For example, when students could determine the topic for a report and the sources they would consult, they were more empowered than when a teacher (or set of directions) specified the topic, the sources, and the other elements of the process. ACOT teachers and students claim that when students have control over their assignments, they are more highly motivated and more successful learners (Fisher, 1989).
When students worked on large assignments such as writing a play or constructing a model, they experienced high levels of empowerment. Conversely, when they undertook short assignments such as workbook exercises and flash card activities, students experienced low levels of empowerment. Indeed, as their tasks increased in size, so did the opportunity for empowerment (Fisher, 1989).
Activities that required problem solving and other higher order cognitive behaviors offered greater opportunity for student empowerment. Instead of doing worksheets, answering questions at the end of the chapter in a textbook, or writing traditional text-based reports, students prepare databases of information, spreadsheets and graphs, hypermedia stacks, real-time movie clips, animated presentations, electronic collages, or telecommunications.
Other activities in the HCA classroom that supported high levels of student empowerment included writing a play, keeping a journal, and working on a student newspaper. In all of these activities students relied heavily on their computers. Activities that offered little student empowerment included taking recall tests, completing practice exercises, and listening to large group instruction.
In discussing the South American dance project with each of the girls who worked on the project, I asked them why they were so excited about their work, and each of them said that they were very interested in dance. But they each added there was more to it than that-the main reason they were so enthused was because they were in charge of what went into the project. They also stated that the really “cool” thing was that they had to figure out some things for themselves. There was no cookbook recipe for them to follow, and that made the work challenging and exciting. They each told me it was the first time they had felt that way about anything that had happened in their schooling.
Research has shown that when students are provided with means to creatively express their ideas, they are motivated to learn, and they spend more time on projects (Gardner, 1993). Computer graphics and real-time movies give students the tools to experiment with video to produce images that creatively express ideas. The same can be said of working with digitized sound. Using color Macintosh computers, scanners, videocameras, digitizers, and CD-ROM technology allows students to experiment with different ways to express their ideas.
Referring once again to the South American dance project, the girls who worked on the project told me that being able to create something new was much more appealing than merely reproducing something that already existed in a textbook. They were very excited about and proud of the “dancing feet” animation they had created. The girls commented that actually being able to see the feet move in proper sequence was much more meaningful in explaining dance steps than the “dead” still pictures found in a book.
Although the verdict on the effectiveness of using technology to enhance learning experiences is not final, the preliminary evidence indicates that the use of well thought out image processing activities can be effective in certain situations. But we must remember that good activities allow students to be in control of many of the major decisions that need to be made as the activity unfolds. Students in control of much of their educational process will tend to want to be involved in that process.