Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bringing Novel Study Into the Computer Lab

The Computer Lab

There is currently a divergence in thinking about the role the computer lab should play in educational programs. While the deployment of a class set of computers in a lab makes sense, both from an economic and class management point of view, there are considerable drawbacks to this approach. The sharing of the computer lab space with other classes means that access is restricted to as little as one half hour block a week. Often the time spent in the lab focuses on teaching specific skills such as typing or word processing, and opportunities to integrate technology into curriculum areas are lost.

The reality of budgetary restrictions and cost-cutting measures mean that it is unlikely for most public schools to be in a position to purchase class sets of computers that can be either distributed to individual classrooms or shared between a small number of teachers whose rooms are clustered together in the school. Implementing mobile labs (consisting of laptops and wireless internet access) are another alternative, but this approach also requires a serious commitment by teachers to integrate this technology into curriculum areas. If we hope to develop technology supported learning environments, we need to create an environment within the school where the integration of technology becomes as seamless as using pencil and paper, or a chalkboard. Computer labs are a reality – they are expensive to create and maintain and schools have invested a considerable amount of budgetary resources to their existence. So, it is necessary to develop instructional approaches and learning contexts that can combine long-term integration with limited access to the technology.

The school population at Strawberry Hill Elementary School includes 612 students, 412 families and 61 staff members. Most of the student population speaks Punjabi, English, Urdu or Hindi, with the remaining students speaking a variety of other languages. The Ministry of Education 2002/03 School Data Summary indicates that the school’s proportion of students receiving ESL support is 61% (Provincial average is 10%). The proportion of homes where a language other than English is spoken in the home is 86% (District average is 37% and the Provincial average is 20%). (B.C. Ministry of Education. 2004.) Our school goals are designed to promote and improve student performance in reading, writing and critical-thinking.

My class consists of 28 Grade 7 students, 27 of whom speak a language other than English in their home. Reading and writing is often seen as a laborious process and many students still prefer to read picture books rather than novels. In fact, there are several students who have not read a novel from cover to cover. Literacy has not developed in the first language as children in our school are often born in Canada and enter school in Kindergarten unable to speak English. So, all literacy skills are developed within the school environment.

My students have been designated as computer monitors or facilitators within the school. They make minor repairs, deliver equipment, assist teachers in the lab and set-up the digital projector and other audio-visual equipment. “Special computers jobs” have proved to be a popular incentive with students and we have worked extensively with digital media in several projects. My students seem to be developing digital literacy skills at a pace that far exceeds their acquisition of language. Additionally, there is a need within the school to create models of technology integration that can provide inspiration and ideas for other teachers.

The learning environment for this novel study unit includes a blank web site which we will build and modify using technology available in the computer lab. Rather than relying on written responses or comprehension questions, the focus of this novel study will be to encourage students to experiment with different reading genres and to make connections between events within their novel, real-life events and events in other novels (these have been identified as specific reading goals for Grade 7 students at the school). Literary elements will be taught and discussed in class using mini-lessons and students will be required to experiment with different genres during silent reading. The development of this web site will be an ongoing project and will take several months to complete. Activities in the computer lab will include, but not be limited to, word processing, web design and experimentation with digital media. Students will be encouraged to post their work to the web site, and then to make connections using live links to their previous work, the work of group members, relevant internet sites and the work of students involved in the study of a different novel altogether.

Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning is often confused with co-operative learning, but in fact goes beyond having students work in groups. In a collaborative classroom the role of teacher shifts from instructor to mediator and facilitator. Student groups identify their learning goals and create project ideas that support these goals. These project ideas and learning goals are reflective of the students’ interests and provide them with a voice to express their learning. Students take responsibility for their own learning. They are encouraged to develop and share their learning and learning strategies. A major component of collaborative learning is that students are put together into heterogeneous groupings. They are required to work together as a team, sharing knowledge and strengths and weaknesses to reach a common goal. Success is dependent on every member of the group and groups will need to include the work and opinion of all members in order to accomplish their learning goals. (

Project Based Learning (PBL) theory also emerges from the constructivist idea that social interaction is essential to the acquisition of knowledge. In other words, we attain knowledge as a result of experiences and interactions with our peers. Like collaborative learning, PBL is a teaching strategy that focuses students’ attentions on a specific topic or problem and then, through a co-operative and group learning process, encourages them to produce student-generated representations of their learning. The focus is on investigation and exploration. The teacher’s role is as facilitator or coach. PBL not only allows students to participate in a group community, but also provides opportunities for social interaction and exploration with alternative peer groups. As an additional benefit, necessary skills are learned in situ and as needed. PBL also provides opportunities for a teacher to build relationships with their students, to have “real-life conversations” emerge from the project work and to identify interests, needs and strengths of their students. (San Mateo County Office of Education. 2001)

Both learning theories specifically incorporated in this unit are based on the constructivist theory of knowledge acquisition. Developmental psychologists such as Piaget believe that all knowledge is constructed from a prior experience or previously acquired knowledge base. Children play an essential role in developing these knowledge bases through active participation in the learning experience. (Encarta) The role of an educator is to create a learning environment or context where students can begin to construct their own learning situations and make connections in ways that make sense for each individual student. This requires educators to take a less formal role in the classroom and also to take risks – the learning path is an unknown at the beginning of the unit. There are many advantages to using these approaches.

Project-based learning (PBL) is a model for classroom activity that shifts away from the classroom practices of short, isolated, teacher-centered lessons and instead emphasizes learning activities that are long-term, interdisciplinary, student-centered, and integrated with real world issues and practices.

One immediate benefit of practicing PBL is the unique way that it can motivate students by engaging them in their own learning. PBL provides opportunities for students to pursue their own interests and questions and make decisions about how they will find answers and solve problems.

PBL also provides opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. Students apply and integrate the content of different subject areas at authentic moments in the production process, instead of in isolation or in an artificial setting. (San Mateo County Office of Education. 2001)

Bringing it all together in the Computer Lab

So, the question remains, is it possible to create a collaborative, project-based learning context using the computer lab? Studies have shown that the use of computer integration can provide strong motivation and remediation for students at risk. In particular, the opportunity to engage in hands-on, problem-solving, technologically-based curriculum seems to provide opportunities for at-risk students to experience success, expand on their knowledge base and develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. (Cardon. 2000) The use of technology has proved a major source of inspiration to many of my students and has provided them with an opportunity to approach a problem (such as producing a novel study) from a new direction. Despite the school’s intense focus on reading for the past three or four years, the problem of students not liking to pick up a book still exists. In Grade 7, magazines and Mary-Kate and Ashley books are the norm and although many students read, they don’t read well. Challenging books are spurned for those with easier vocabulary, less words and predictable plots. The one exception to this is the Breadwinner series of books by Deborah Ellis. Set in Afghanistan, these books tell the story of a girl, her family and friends, and their life under the Taliban regime and in refugee camps. These books recount experiences my students from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India can relate to. And, they provide challenging stories, vocabulary and ideas. The key to encouraging these students to read seems to lie in helping them make connections that have some real-life meaning.

The creation of heterogeneous groupings is an important component to the success of this project. A good reader may support a poor reader, and a student with a more “expert” background in computer skills will provide support for their group during project time in the computer lab. Heterogeneous groupings also provide opportunities to separate students-at-risk from their peers. If, for instance, reception level ESL students always work together, then they are denied the opportunities to learn more advanced grammar and syntax from native-speakers. Support can also be provided for struggling readers through the use of audio books on CD and tape. Everyone “reads” the story and everyone can contribute to the web site projects.

In longitudinal studies that looked at the impact of learning from computers (using them as tutors or as part of integrated information systems), and learning with computers (using them as a reading and writing tool during collaborative learning situations), researchers found that in all cases student achievement was positively impacted. (Barnett. 2003) In the first scenario, students’ gains could be measured in increased scores in statewide tests and increased discipline, and all evidence indicates that this benefit continues in higher grades. Students learning with computers made significant gains in other areas:

1. Students routinely used higher-order thinking skills far beyond what was expected for their grade level.
2. Students demonstrated enhanced ability to collaborate with peers to develop projects and reports.
3. Students demonstrated increased initiative. They maintained time on task for longer periods and often continued their work during recess, before school, and after school. (Barnett. 2003)

Students in the second group also outperformed students in the first group in areas such as “understanding content, adapting their message to their intended audience, and applying principles of design”. (Barnett. 2003) It’s clear from studies such as these, that PBL and collaborative learning instructional approaches, when combined with computer technology, can provide powerful learning opportunities for students.

In addition to the benefits of creating technologically integrated and collaborative learning experiences, using the web page in this particular learning context allows students to makes connections or links to the ideas and the novels posted by other students. Using hyperlinks that connect one idea to another, one plot summary to another (either similar or dissimilar), one author to another and one genre to another, will help students build and make connections between the work of their group and the work of their peer group as a whole. A plot summary of the novel Breadwinner could be linked to news stories on the refugee crisis in Afghanistan that have been posted on the internet by reputable news sources. Conferences or links could be created where students add to the ideas of previous groups. Pictures drawn by students can be scanned and posted to the web site. Videotaped book talks or recommendations can be added. Knowledge construction and project goals need not be linear or sequential, but rather can develop through a complex “web” of interconnections. The computer lab contains the technological tools students need to accomplish this, and as such becomes the setting for the collaborative and PBL learning context.

The key to any learning is motivation. Some children believe “they can’t do it” while others decide “they won’t do it.” Learning with technology, while not a panacea for these beliefs, does allow students to approach projects from a different direction. Those students who freeze at the thought of filling a page with words and reflections can successfully report verbally. Or they can create a web of connections, each of which contains some part of the larger picture.

Recently I received a video book report created by two of my students. One boy is a reception level ESL student from Czech Republic and the other is an intermediate level ESL student from Pakistan. These boys were allowed to choose their own novel study project based on a high-interest, low vocabulary book chosen by me (Hiroshima by Laurence Yep). They asked if they could do a book report and I reluctantly agreed since their written output is often almost negligible. One morning they put a CD disk on my desk (with no explanation) and a few days later when I took a look at it, I was amazed at what they had accomplished. The boys had videotaped their book report using a web cam they had at home and managed to produce a very good, very detailed summary of the novella. Technology had provided them with a way of expressing their learning that far exceeded what they could have accomplished using paper and pencil.

The power of the lab lies in the attraction it holds for most students. Everyone is equal there and students are able to demonstrate skills that are not conditional on their level of language acquisition. Both collaborative and project-based learning allow students to regain control (or ownership) of the learning environment. The teacher’s role is of mediator, facilitator or, in this instance, web master. Students set goals, choose project materials and tasks, work together and produce a representation of their novel study that reflects both the reading experience and their understanding of issues and connections raised by the author. The lab server allows them to save work in shared folders and to exchange files and folders with their group members electronically. Students are learning with computers and from their own experiences, project ideas, and interactions with classmates and group members.

One significant finding that has emerged from longitudinal studies is that those benefits attributed to computer integration are more consistently attainable when students have regular access to the computer technology. In other words, computers in the classroom can have more impact than computers in the lab. (Barnett. 2003) During collaborative or project-based learning which is dependent on the use of technology, it would seem that easy access to the technology is an important component and in fact, this is where the problem with using the computer lab in this context can be found. There is no ease of access in most schools, where each class needs to share the technology with the rest of the school. The learning context must be structured so that as much work as possible is completed before students enter the lab. True technological integration may not always be possible in this learning context, simply because there are not enough of the tools to go around.

Conclusions ……. and Questions

Three conclusions or questions emerge from analysis of the computer lab as a context where PBL and collaborative learning can be carried out. The first has to do with the issue of funding and the physical attributes of the learning context. The second centers on the role of teacher. The third is whether we will recognize this type of learning as valuable.

While few people involved in education today dispute the value of computers in the educational process, there is a definite lack in the funding directed towards integration. If no classrooms in a school have even a single computer, should all the technological resources be collected in one location where access is limited? In our district, every classroom has been wired for internet access but there are no computers to plug into the network. Technician support has been cut or eliminated altogether. Mobile labs consisting of laptops and wireless internet access are proposed as an alternative to updating the lab, but no real funding is provided for this alternative either. A set of ten laptops made available to a class for an hour a day would create an environment that could support collaborative and project-based learning but again, funding remains an issue. Can teachers adapt their approach so that the computer lab is used in this fashion? Can they share? Can they give up their allotted weekly slot to others and use the lab for integrated units rather than typing practice?

The role of the teacher becomes essential. Again because of budget cuts, funding is not provided staff development and in-service. Many teachers are not familiar enough with what technology can offer and do not use it themselves. They have no prior knowledge on which to build upon. Professional collaboration is also necessary if this learning context is to be successful. An alternative to teachers as leaders in the lab is to provide training to students so that they can mentor and support individual teachers when using the computer lab. Is this possible? Will teachers embrace this alternative?

Another question centers on acceptance of this learning context as valuable. Certainly it is not traditional. Society is on the verge of a paradigm shift and electronic technology will revolutionize learning to the same extent as the printing press did in the 1500s. Computer literacy will certainly begin to become almost as important as language literacy. Will oral literacy be enough? Can voice recognition software and a fast computer replace the need for reading and writing competency? Will educators consider computers valuable or is it just an expensive and under used toy? Hopefully the use of project-based and collaborative learning in the computer lab will help answer these questions and promote students’ literacy learning and critical thinking.


Barnett, Harvey. (2003) Investing in Technology: The Payoff in Student Learning. ERIC Digest Number EDO-IR-2003-02.

B.C. Ministry of Education. (2004) Summary of Key Information. Retrieved February 1, 2004 from:

Cardon, Philip L. (2000) At-Risk Students and Technology Education: A Qualitative Study. The Journal of Technology Studies. 2000. Retrieved on January 31, 2004 from:

Foster, Bob. (1999) Thirty Kids and Three Computers - How Can You Make It Work?. Retrieved on January 31, 2004 from:

Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. (2004) Child Development. Retrieved on January 31, 2004 from:

San Mateo County Office of Education. (2001) Why do project-based learning?. Retrieved on January 31, 2004 from:

Theroux, Priscilla . (2002) Should we put the computers in the classroom or the computer lab?. Retrieved on January 31, 2004 from: