Technology's Influence on Student-Centered Learning Environments 

Chip Flemmer

Boise State University

 

Abstract
The research for this paper was conducted to explore the various aspects in which student-centered learning environments have been influenced and aided by educational technology. The results from the research indicates that technology and the wide array of technology tools available can significantly help meet the wide range of student learning needs that exist in the classroom.  The goal with using technology in the classroom is to create learning environments where students are actively engaged in the learning process (Beeland, n.d.). Technology can broaden and enhance the learning process allowing students to construct learning through a plethora of methods.

 

Introduction

 

Educational technology has a profound effect on creating a student-centered learning environment. There are numerous areas in which educational technology has been used to improve and meet the unique needs for students. This paper will explore seven major areas in which educational technology has influenced student-centered learning environments; (a) software, (b) internet, (c) assistive technology, (d) problem-solving, (e) authentic learning, (f) collaboration, and (g) independence and uniqueness. 

Computer software can guide a student's learning at a pace which is suited to their own level and speed.  The internet has an abundance of resources and information which can be tailored to benefit each student.  Assistive technology can help special-needs students accomplish tasks previously never imagined.  Problem-solving can easily be explored through technology while truly authentic learning experiences can become a reality.  With technology as a part of the learning environment, collaboration can more easily play a critical role in learning, and allowing for student's independence and intellectual uniqueness can shine. Promoting active learning is critical for engagement (Beeland, n.d.), and displaying creativity is another benefit that educational technology can bring to a student-centered learning environment.

The Past 

 

Technology advancements in the classroom have come a long way from dusty chalkboards and smeared overhead projectors. The new-look classroom features PowerPoint presentations, interactive software, web quests, podcasts, wikis, smartboards and even incorporate cell phone into a learning activity. Many learning theories have also developed over the years and a transformative shift has been seen in many classrooms from the traditional role of the teacher as the source of all knowledge and disseminating information to the teacher becoming more of a supportive guide allowing the students to construct their own learning.  

 

Throughout the history of educational technology there have been many innovations that have played an important role in assisting both the classroom teacher and the learners within. By the mid-1800s a chalkboard and eraser was a fixture in most classrooms. With a chalkboard in a classroom, large numbers of people could receive the same information at the same time. Problems could be posted on the chalkboard and problem-solving could take place with the large group present. This provided a unique variation in how a teacher could disseminate information and foster learning.

Other changes over the years have also found their way into aiding learning.  The typewriter was invented in 1873 and until the personal computer typewriters to attics and museums; they were a revolutionary way for people to create documents.  The inventions of the telephone (1876), Kodak cameras (1888), television (1927), Polaroid camera (1947), mini-computer (1965), video games (1972), compact-discs (1980's), and the World Wide Web (1993) have all caused educators to rethink the way they create learning environments and have taken learning to a new level.

The invention of the calculator took mathematics to another level. Calculators in the classroom is the subject of no small amount of debate in the K-12 environment; but it is impossible to deny that these devises have had an important influence not only in education, but in life in general. Mathematical problems that would take careful calculation and a fair amount of time to answer could quickly be solved with the punching-in of a few numbers and symbols. An array of technologies has found their way into the classroom.  Many have had an enormous impact on the learning environment.  As new technologies have emerged the cry for educators to find meaningful ways to incorporate these technologies into the classroom – be it the typewriter, the television, the calculator, or the computer (Klopfer, 2009) has been raised, often to ear-splitting decibels.

Through all of the technological changes over the years, learning theories have evolved as well.  Student-centered learning environments have absorbed and adapted the ideas of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky and accelerated with Carl Rogers's formative ideas.   With the Internet as a supporting resource for obtaining knowledge there are countless positive effects of the student-centered approach that have been proven in numerous case-studies, (Motschnig-Pitrik, 2002).

Student-Centered Learning

 

Student-centered learning environments (SCLE’s) are environments that focus on the needs of the students while addressing their unique and individual learning styles and interests. SCLE’s are supported by the constructivist theory of learning, which holds that knowledge is constructed by adding new information garnered from authentic experience to prior knowledge in order to build a new, more complete knowledge picture (Thanasoulas, 2001). The students’ roles in a SCLE must be that of active learners taking personal responsibility for their own learning and taking advantage of the learning environment.  Without active learner participation SCLEs can not reach their full potential as a means of fostering the skills that the student of the future will need to thrive in the modern, collaborative, and techno-centric society.

 

Before we rush to embrace technology, Baxter (2000) suggests that we should look not at teaching, but at the ways in which children learn and decide how technology can enhance that learning process. SCLE’s primary focus is on the students and therefore any technology that could improve the learning process is not only useful; but necessary. Technology is an important component, and will play an increasingly pivotal role in fostering a successful student-centered learning environment.

Constructivist Theory

 

The constructivist learning theory is important to understand when incorporating a SCLE. The constructivist theory posits that the learner constructs new knowledge by applying old understandings to new ideas and experiences. Constructivist pioneers such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget felt that humans can understand only that which they have constructed. Constructivism is considered an overarching theory that does not intend to demolish but to reconstruct past and present teaching and learning theories. Constructivism seeks to shed light on the learner as an important agent in the learning process, as opposed to wrestling power from the teacher (Thanasoulas, 2001).  The nature of constructivism makes it a perfect match for establishing SCLEs. Because the theory is learner focused, as opposed to system oriented, the theory offers the ideal prescriptive framework for SCLEs.

Concerns

 

We all have seen groups of people gathered together; but ignoring one another. No one is saying anything because everyone is looking down and either sending a text, reading a text, or playing a game on their cell phone.  There are some concerns that technology is taking away from personal interaction, so we must remember when applying technology to an educational problem, to appropriately utilize that technology to enhance collaborative problem solving and other positive uses (Teague, 2004). 

 

Another concern is that as soon as you learn new technology; something else arrives to take its place.  Most school districts can not afford to keep up with the rate that technology is improving.  Groff and Mouza (2008) determined that there are six central factors that interact with one another to produce barriers to implementing technological innovations in the classroom: (a) Research & Policy factors, (b) District/School factors, (c) factors associated with the Teacher, (d) factors associated with the Technology-Enhanced Project, (e) factors associated with the Students, and (f) factors inherent to Technology itself.

 

Many teachers are apprehensive about incorporating technology while there are also serious security concerns that often cause schools to shy away from fully-utilizing technology in the classroom.  Traditionally, education has been impeded by these security issues and other potential dangers of employing social networking technologies (Klopfer, 2009).

 

Software

 

Technology-based solutions are available to match almost any need that a student may have in the classroom. It is stated (Edyburn, 2007) that if a student is having a difficult time in remembering facts they need to access a site like www.askforkids.com which can aid in answering questions. If a student is unable to independently read their textbook there is computer software available to meet that need as well. Students that have problems with pacing themselves have been able to improve their efforts having an online stopwatch on the projector in class. The facilitator in a SCLE needs to be continually assessing their student’s needs and determining if there is an educational tool that could possibly assist in remediating the deficiency or elevating the level of learning.  Software is available to remediate student's needs; the facilitator's job is to find the right software to match the need.

 

Internet

 

Today it is the rule more than the exception for students to utilize the internet in research.  They learn various reading and math skills through interactive computer software, and even become members of social networks which foster collaborating on projects or assignments with people that they may or may not have ever met face to face. The Internet has opened up a world of information and learning opportunities that have never before been available in the classroom. Computers can be used as tools to explore the world. Castro says that with the use of computers, “students are urged to research, explore and express themselves in ways which are not possible, practical or powerful with more conventional means” (Castro, 1999).

 

 

 

Assistive Technology

 

Technology in SCLE’s has also helped students that often have been over-looked; special needs students. If you are working with special needs students, there is a plethora of assistive technologies available to improve learning. Microsoft Enable is a feature which helps make the computer easier for the visually impaired to see, the hearing impaired to hear, and everyone to use. There are a plethora of assistive technologies that allow students previously unable to participate in the classroom as a true peer, to work with fellow students on an equal or near equal basis.  This is what student-centered learning is all about; addressing ways to help all students learn in the best way possible. Educational technology is bolstering those SCLE’s with assistive technologies.

Spellchecking, which has been widely adopted, is an assistive technology which can aid those with spelling difficulties.  The size of font on the computer can be magnified to help the visually challenged.  Ergonomic keyboards can reduce the discomforts of typing; large-print keyboards are available.  One of the more amazing assistive technologies is the foot-operated mouse.  If there is a need or a market for an assistive technology, more than likely it is available to make technology experience either possible or more user-friendly.

 

Problem-Solving

 

Problem-solving is being emphasized in classrooms and enhanced through the use of educational technology. Educational software can take students away from the constraints of imitating a routine or a prescribed set of steps; and helps learners develop a stronger conceptual understanding via interactive simulations controlled by the software.  Constructivist theory believes that as students learn, they are not just memorizing information, but they are creating their own meaning and understanding.  It is essential that problem-solving become a larger part of our children’s educational experience because problem solving is an essential life skill. The interactive history simulation; Oregon Trail demanded that participants plan and use the provided resources effectively, or they would succumb to any one of the potential dangers common to travelers on the arduous trek, and fail to reach their destination.

 

 

Authentic Learning

 

SCLE’s can use technology to provide authentic learning experiences. Simulations are a great way for students to take advantage of technology to participate in an authentic learning experience.  Many schools recognize that it is important that students learn higher order thinking skills as an integrated element of any curriculum. Teachers are encouraged to incorporate learning that promotes student acquisition of those higher level skills. Simulations are one way to provide an effective, authentic learning environment crucial to quality SCLEs. Authentic learning activities involve students in complex tasks that require them to use higher level thinking skills, (Conway, 1998). Conway also believes that in order to succeed in the workplace, children need to become independent, critical thinkers. They must know where and how to find information, organize it, evaluate it, and then effectively express their new knowledge and ideas.

 

Collaboration

 

SCLE’s can utilize technology to encourage collaboration. Most of the workforce acts as a part of a greater whole which requires us to work well with colleagues. While many people have these skills; there are a plethora of others who need to develop these skills in order to become more effective in their work environment. Collaboration can be incorporated easily and frequently in a technology based SCLE. Collaboration can be as simple as two people working together on a computer to research a topic or as complex social networking and building a classroom community of practice.

 

SCLE’s can incorporate social networking to aide in the learning process as well as collaboration. Anytime something new rocks the boat of conventional thinking; naysayers pop up like groundhogs on the prairie. Social networking essentially requires a less controlled, user-generated environment, which challenges conventional views of the effective “management” of teaching and learning, (Reynard, 2008). There are so many possible positive ways to utilize social networking in a student-centered learning environment. According to research (Grunwald, 2007); if instructional design intentionally maximizes this kind of skill development, learning could benefit, and students would be engaged in the process.

 

Technology and collaboration can take a passive learner and make him or her more of an active learner. Social networking tools can be used to develop collaborative skills when integrated a project-based approach to learning. When students are encouraged to start with the end in mind and bring various resources and participants into the process, all working towards their solution; they are improving their problem-solving skills through collaboration (Grunwald, 2007).

 

Independence and Uniqueness

 

SCLE’s can help improve independent learning and enhance academic performance as well. One concern with many classroom environments that stress group collaboration is that students might come to over-rely on their supporting cast to help them with the learning process. However, an SCLE can use technology to assist with improving independent learning skills as well as enhance or remediate academic performance. Technology offers the ideal way to connect students to people, students to places, and students to virtual laboratories (Aplin, 2008). The challenge for education is to design technologies for learning that draw both from knowledge about human cognition and from practical applications of how technology can facilitate complex tasks in the workplace (Bradshaw, Powell, & Terrell, 2002).

 

SCLE’s and technology can facilitate expressive outlets which display a learner’s uniqueness. There are a lot of students who fly under the radar in a traditional teacher-centered classroom; however, their skills often bloom when allowed to work with technology in their learning environment. I recall having a rough time loading a grading program when OS X came out on my Macintosh laptop. For some reason beyond my understanding, my grading program wouldn’t load and I was getting really frustrated. I looked over the 7th grade math class and asked a boy named Allan, who had no athletic ability and average grades at best, to forget about the daily Algebra assignment and figure out how I could open my grade book. After about five minutes, he announced to me, “The grade book is now working. The problem is that your grade book can only open in Classic and is useless with OS X.” Allan was hero that day and it is amazing how some people who don’t excel in traditional school activities were made for technology and can pick things up so quickly. Technology is necessary in a SCLE so students like Allan can utilize their talents and strive to maximize their potential.

 

 

Conclusion and the Future

 

As was mentioned earlier, some people fear that technology in the classroom can be harmful and take away how people relate to one another. Technology can have a negative impact if used without guidance and direction. Using computers for a drill and practice game is more similar than different than using a workbook and represents a misapplication of a valuable resource. Presenters who think using a PowerPoint presentation means they are effectively utilizing technology are misguided.

 

What does the future hold for SCLE’s and technology? It is hard to know what the future holds for technology and its application to SCLE’s; but one thing is for sure, things will not stay the same and the sky is indeed the limit. Since providing for the needs of the student is the primary focus of a SCLE, technology is going to play a key role in the learning process.  As we look to the future of online learning environments we know one thing for sure; this is fast-moving field that has been growing rapidly with the aid of technology and the internet. With the changes in technology coming so quickly, educators need to be lifelong learners and keep in mind that there will be many tools to master, many approaches to research, and little time to get there (Aplin, 2008).  

 

The influence of technology on student-centered learning environments is enormous, and will only increase as time goes on, and as yet unimagined advancements take us to places that previously did not exist.  If educators can keep in mind that the main purpose of a student-centered learning environment is to focus on the needs of the students; then advancements in technology will have a positive influence on the learning process and be applied for the benefit of students. In conclusion, one might say that certain technologies drove the “center” of the classroom from the professor’s podium to the students’ desktops, (Bender, 2003).

 

 

 

 

 

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