1996 – Educational Electronic Networks: A review of research and development – Univ.of Illinois

Educational Electronic Networks:
A review of research and development

James Levin
Cathy Thurston

University of Illinois

A “Synthesis of Research” which appeared in the November 1996 issue of Educational Leadership, volume 54, Number 3, pages 46-50.

Students have taken virtual field trips to Central American rain forests and Antarctica, participated in global grocery price comparisons with classrooms all over the world, accessed the latest NASA Hubble Telescope images for units on space, and developed web pages for local communities. These are just a few examples of how electronic networks are changing the way we teach and learn in schools.

Do these uses of electronic networks lead to improved learning? What factors lead to effective and powerful uses of networks? What do we need to do to effectively use networks in learning and teaching? These are some of the issues we will address in this synthesis of research.

When any new medium is developed, people initially use it to do the same things they did before. So the first educational uses of networks transferred over the same activities done previously. Many of the best studies of educational uses of networks have focused on innovative uses that support learning and teaching in ways that cannot be done more conventionally.

Studies of innovative uses.

Many of the research studies of educational electronic networks have focused on developing and then evaluating innovative uses. These studies combine development, evaluation and research, usually in a repeating cycle of formative evaluation and further development. The development and evaluation of the InterCultural Learning Network was an early example of this (Levin, Riel, Miyake, & Cohen, 1987). In this set of studies, students contributed to a network-based newswire, collaboratively tackled problems of water shortages in their communities, and engaged in network-based analyses of cultural differences in holiday celebrations around the world. For example, one study found that student writing for a network-based newswire was much more effective educationally than electronic penpals, a common initial use of networks by novices (Levin, Rogers, Waugh, & Smith, 1989).

What was the impact of these innovative educational network uses? In an in-depth study of student writing, Cohen and Riel (Cohen & Riel, 1989) reported that writing for remote peers over a network produced better quality writing than writing an assignment for the teacher to be graded. This “audience effect” of network-based interactions can provide a powerful context for learning in all areas of learning, not just writing. Other studies have found similar effects in science (Cervantes, 1993; Ruopp, Gal, Drayton, & Pfister, 1993), mathematics (Thalathoti, 1992), and social studies (Levin, Rogers, Waugh, & Smith, 1989).

Networks have also allowed new forms of collaborative learning, both locally and world-wide. Networks have been used to create writing communities (Bruce & Rubin, 1993; Scardamalia et al., 1992), science communities (Learning Through Collaborative Visualization Project, 1993; Newman & Goldman, 1986-87; Ruopp, Gal, Drayton, & Pfister, 1993), mathematics communities (Klotz, 1996), problem solving communities (Levin, Riel, Miyake, & Cohen, 1987), and teacher education communities (Levin, Waugh, Brown, & Clift, 1994; Thurston, Secaras, & Levin, 1996). These learning and teaching communities have involved other students and teachers, and they have also involved adults from outside the educational system. For example, students have been working in communities to analyze and predict weather, to exchange measurements of the sun’s shadow to determine the circumference of the earth, to analyze water shortage problems and develop new solutions to local problems based on similar approaches used in distant places. Teacher education students have been working in communities to find, evaluate, and electronically publish curriculum resources, to develop, implement and publish curriculum units, and to serve as mediators for precollege learning and teaching in ways embedded in their teacher education classes.

The key to the most powerful uses of networks is that they go beyond simple information access. The powerful uses include electronic publishing, collaborative problem solving, and joint project-based learning activities with people from around the world. These uses are often cross-curricular. The majority of the student work is conducted off the network and in many cases off the computer. Network-based learning, unlike other uses like word processing or programming, can start with a small number of computers and a limited network connection, having a powerful impact on individual and group student learning by providing a motivating context for a wide range of activities. As the use of the network proves to be valuable, the computer and network infrastructure can be expanded to allow for ever more powerful uses.

The exploration of innovative uses will need to continue because electronic networks continue to change. As newer network technologies evolve and as higher bandwidth networks become more widely deployed, innovative uses that draw upon these developments need to be explored. Networks will continue to develop for the foreseeable future, and so we will need to continue to look for innovative, appropriate ways to use these new capabilities for learning and teaching.

The impact of networks on learning and teaching.

Initially networks are viewed as media for allowing schools to access the riches of the world. Students in remote rural locations can access the Library of Congress; classes in towns without museums can access the Louvre; students and teachers can communicate with content area experts from around the world. This is an important aspect of electronic networks.

However, electronic networks are highly interactive media. Information flows in many directions. In the longer term, the more substantial impact of networks on learning and teaching may well be the flow of information from educational institutions out to the rest of society.

Many of the recent curricular reform efforts have focused on problem-based and project-based learning. Networks allow these problems and projects to be drawn from the world outside of education. More importantly, networks allow the world outside of education to benefit immediately from any solutions that students and teachers develop. Thus student work, while primarily oriented toward optimizing student learning, can with networks more easily have a secondary benefit beyond the immediate learning context.

For example, students helped to design recreational activities for astronauts in orbit (Cervantes, 1993; Levin, 1992). While this task could have been done by professionals at NASA, it had not been tackled because the American space shuttle is too small for most recreational sports. However, the new space station will provide larger enclosed spaces. So student concepts for transforming everyday sports and for creating new sports were beneficial to aerospace scientists.

In a sense, the lack of knowledge by students, while serving as a barrier to complete solutions to difficult real-world problems, can serve as an advantage. Students can come up with innovative approaches that experts might miss. Educational activities using electronic networks can help to filter out the less useful innovative concepts, and to make the more useful ones available to people worldwide.

Students, teachers, classes, and schools can serve as mediators to help their local communities interact with distant others to solve local problems. In many schools, some students know more about networks than teachers do. Also, in many communities, some schools have better access to networks and more expertise in using them than many of the adults in the communities. Students can, as part of their learning activities, contact adults in their communities to identify problems and challenges, use networks to access remote information and remote other people, and make those remote resources available to the local community members. Thus students, teachers, and schools can become even more valued members of the local community because of this side-effect of powerful motivating learning activities conducted using networks.

For example, students in California, Illinois, Japan, Mexico and Israel tackled the problems of local water shortages using networks(Levin & Cohen, 1985; Waugh, Miyake, Cohen, & Levin, 1988). Initially students drew upon local resources to describe the specifics of their problem and local actions taken to cope with this problem. These descriptions were exchanged over the network, and then students analyzed the descriptions from other places to find if any described actions taken elsewhere that were not used locally. Students in California found that drip irrigation was used in Israel but not in their own location. This served as the basis for a recommendation to use this technique in their California location.

The diversity among collaborating sites can serve as potential innovative solutions, especially if analyzed and modified by students to better fit local conditions. Questions raised by local adults were sent by local students to the distant students, who asked their own experts. In this sense, students served as a means for technology transfer, helping their own communities while learning.

In these ways and others, networks may substantially change the relationship between education and the rest of society. Networks break down many of the walls that have isolated schools from the rest of society. Some of these walls have served as useful protection for students, and those protections will need to be reinvented for the new network medium. But many of the walls have isolated learning from doing in ways that have not been useful for either. The reintegration of learning into the rest of society will require a redistribution of roles, a reinvention of social structures, and a rethinking of the entire learning enterprise.

Barriers to using educational electronic networks and recommendations for effective uses.

Much of the research on educational uses of networks has focused on the difficulties of using networks successfully in education and suggestions for overcoming these deterrents to use. The barriers include lack of access and appropriate infrastructure, separation of telecommunications from the curriculum, lack of support for teachers attempting to work with innovative approaches, and lack of teacher expertise in telecommunications.

Infrastructure and Access

A number of studies indicate that it is important for teachers to have access to equipment directly in their classrooms (Harris, 1994; Levin, 1995; US Office of Technology Assessment, 1995). The Apple Classroom Of Tomorrow (ACOT) research indicates that following training sessions, teachers need to be able to return to classrooms where the hardware and software on which they have been trained is in place (Ringstaff & Yocum, 1994). It is ideal, moreover, for teachers to have access to telecommunications both at home and at school (Harris, 1994).

Infrastructure, which includes wiring and modems or high speed connections, as well as computer hardware and software, is a critical component of effective uses of networks. Currently, only 9% of the nation’s classrooms are estimated to be hooked up to the Internet (West, 1996). Research has shown that training is most effective if it is done on-site, with the actual equipment teachers will be using themselves (Foa, Schwab, & Johnson, 1996). In our experience with the Teaching Teleapprenticeships model, student teachers’ evaluations speak to the importance not only of having hands-on training, but also to being “hooked up” or “wired” (Thurston, Secaras, & Levin, 1996). They complain that a demonstration on a computer hooked to the Internet and then projected to the group is not sufficient for them to use their PowerBooks at a later time, when they will actually be using dial-up connections to telephone lines. They have expressed a need that the training, in all aspects, simulate as closely as possible the real world situations into which they will enter.

Gap between Telecommunications and Curriculum

A second barrier to effective implementation is the gap between network use and the curriculum. Studies show that network use is most effective when it becomes an integral part of the curriculum (Levin, 1995; Thurston, Secaras, & Levin, 1996). Teachers need to be trained so that they see telecommunications as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. It can be used as a tool to communicate with other classrooms world wide. For example, a high school French teacher developed a project where a large number of sites contributed recipes over the Internet. Her students then translated the recipes in French into English, which involved math as well as language skills, and then used desktop publishing to create and illustrate a cookbook based on the project. Teachers can use web browsers to search the Internet for resources for units they are teaching. A study on tap water pollution conducted in Midwest cities, posted on the web, can be used as material for a unit in a chemistry class. Telecommunications can also provide the links to create communities of teachers, electronically joining student teachers with university faculty, with supervisors, and with classroom teachers (Thurston, Secaras, & Levin, 1996).

Lack of Support

Another barrier to teacher implementation of networks is a lack of support. This entails lack of technical support as well as lack of administrative support within a school or district. A number of studies concur on several factors which make successful training more likely. Very few schools have a full time on-site computer coordinator available to help teachers. “The Benton Report” (Benton Foundation, 1995) shows that 60% of schools have no one to help, and it estimates that only 6% of elementary schools and 3% of high schools have a full time computer coordinator. But such support does make a difference, and is, in fact, recommended in the newly released Carnegie Report “Breaking Ranks” (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1996). In its “Priorities for Renewal,” the report recommends that “every high school designate a technology resource person to provide technical assistance and to consult with staff to assist them in finding the people, information, and materials that they need to make best use of technology.” At the very least, a teacher or staff person should be trained and paid for serving as a local expert for part of his time.

Administrative support is as important as technical support. Support from the school and from the district is critical (Harris, 1994; Levin, 1995; Ringstaff & Yocum, 1994), and, in fact, the ACOT studies show that the building principal plays a key role in the relative success of technology staff development. When the principal is not supportive, it becomes much more difficult for teachers to effect change. “The principal’s commitment to a changing vision of learning and instruction is critically important to the success of a staff development program” (Ringstaff & Yocum, 1994). The principal can control release time, provide access to hardware and software, promote team teaching or interdisciplinary study, and acknowledge efforts and provide recognition.

Lack of Effective Training

Finally, lack of teacher expertise with telecommunications is probably one of the most significant obstacles to effective implementation of networks. In addition to providing teachers with appropriate infrastructure and access, opportunities to integrate technology into the curriculum, and technical and administrative support, it is also important that the training teachers receive be truly effective. Studies of technology staff development concur that many teachers have little or no experience with telecommunications, or technology in general, for that matter (Benton Foundation, 1995; US Office of Technology Assessment, 1995). Additionally, researchers have found that the traditional one-shot workshop approach by an outside technical expert is not the best way to truly effect change (Levin, 1995; Thurston, 1990). The typical approach is a short course on a specific topic. For teachers to use technology effectively requires continuous hands on experience and follow up support (Benton Foundation, 1995; Ringstaff & Yocum, 1994). Training is most effective when it is conducted by a colleague or credible peer. Harris advises, “Use a telecomputing trainer who is part of the existing social system of the school or district” (Harris, 1994).

Many feel that it is a mistake to mandate training on telecommunications for all teachers. Schools should support and recognize those teachers who are ready to move forward and learn (Foa, Schwab, & Johnson, 1996; Harris, 1994). Training should incorporate modeling or coaching of effective uses of the technology (Benton Foundation, 1995; Harris, 1994; Ringstaff & Yocum, 1994). The training should begin with hands on, face to face activities, and ideally it should be spread out over a period of time, with face to face sessions followed by practice, then a return to follow up coaching (Harris, 1994). Teachers can learn best in pairs or small groups (Harris, 1994; Ringstaff & Yocum, 1994) which provides them with peer support when they are back in their classrooms. Harris advises that trainers introduce new users to such applications as email first. Teachers may feel more comfortable using tools which most closely resemble communications forms with which they are familiar, such as a letter.

Overcoming these barriers of infrastructure, support, integration into the curriculum, and training can be costly. Kathleen Fulton, Director of the study on Teachers and Technology for the Office of Technology Assessment, indicates “It seems to be a lot easier to buy `stuff’ than to support teachers … that’s true across the board for education. But the point is, with technology, the whole concept of teacher professional development is a different one” (US Office of Technology Assessment, 1995). A number of studies indicate that funds for teacher training should comprise anywhere from 30-40% of a district’s technology budget (Benton Foundation, 1995; Foa, Schwab, & Johnson, 1996; Marshall, 1995; U.S. Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure, 1996; US Office of Technology Assessment, 1995). Typically, however, school districts, allocate less than 15% of their technology budgets for training (Benton Foundation, 1995), and many have no budget for this. In its recent document, “Kickstart Initiative,” the US Advisory Council on the NII finds that teacher training, which initially could account for as much as 30-40% of a technology budget, could be the largest ongoing cost of technology implementation in the schools (U.S. Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure, 1996).

Studies have shown that the use of telecommunications in the classroom, as well as other technologies, has the potential to change the nature of teaching and learning (Foa, Schwab, & Johnson, 1996; Means, 1994; Wilson, Hamilton, Teslow, & Cyr, 1995). Integration of technology into the classroom often requires changes in classroom management and curriculum goals (Foa, Schwab, & Johnson, 1996). It can shift the focus from whole group to small group interaction; it marks a shift from lecture to coaching; it enables teachers to work more with individual students; it can cause a change in assessment from test performance assessment to assessment based on products and progress (Wilson, Hamilton, Teslow, & Cyr, 1995). It can encourage team work, collaborative inquiry, and individualized instruction (Means, 1994; US Office of Technology Assessment, 1995).


Research on the uses of educational electronic networks has often started with the exploration of innovative educational uses, and then has developed conceptual frameworks for successful uses and studies of barriers that lead to difficulties and failure. Educators can use these studies to base their decisions to use networks in their own settings, and to guide their own efforts to design successful innovative uses appropriate to these settings.


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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. RED-9253423. The Government has certain rights in this material. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Hardware and software support was provided by Apple Computer and Microsoft Corporation. Our thanks to Sandy Levin for her comments on earlier drafts.