When the computer helps you learn

Research confirms benefits of using technology resources in the classroom, especially for students with learning disabilities

Elementary school student at a public school in Araraquara: interactive whiteboards under evaluation

Municipal Department of Communication / PMAElementary school student at a public school in Araraquara: interactive whiteboards under evaluationMunicipal Department of Communication / PMA

A research study that tracked 400 high school students at a public school in Araraquara, in rural São Paulo, found that there are benefits to using technology resources in the classroom, especially for pupils with learning disabilities. Led by Silvio Fiscarelli, professor with the Department of Didactics, of the School of Science, Language and Letters, São Paulo State University (Unesp), Araraquara campus, the study evaluated how the use of learning objects impacted performance in physics, chemistry, Portuguese, and mathematics among sophomore and senior students at Bento de Abreu State School, in the city of Araraquara. Although the definition of a learning object is broad and can include any type of digital content that supports teaching, the focus of Fiscarelli’s study was more limited. He used animations, simulations, and virtual exercises on a computer screen to help students more easily and concretely understand concepts taught in the classroom.

With the aid of teachers at the school, the research team created 20 learning objects for use in the experiment. One of them, an exercise in combinatory analysis, required students to organize a soccer tournament so that none of the teams played each other more than once. Another exercise, involving calorimetry, simulated heat transfer from an object to water; objects were heated on a hot plate and then submersed in water – all simulated on the computer screen.  After two years of research, from 2013 to 2014, the team found that the grades of students who had used the learning objects averaged 24% higher in specific content than those who had learned using only books and exercises on paper. The difference rose to 46% when the comparison was restricted to students who had a record of poorer performance. “Since learning objects work visually and through demonstration, they have a greater impact on students who have trouble learning in a conventional classroom. The difference is smaller among students with good grades,” observes Fiscarelli, who coordinates Unesp’s laboratory for Informatics Applied to Educational Management (IAGE). “It’s important to stress that the goal of this technology is to support the teacher’s work in the classroom, not replace him with the computer.”

One of the team’s challenges was to devise activities guides, that is, educational sequences designed to guide students as they use the objects and encourage them to engage in active learning, following steps laid out by researchers and by teachers of particular subjects.  According to Fiscarelli, the team employed a methodology known as task-based learning, which made it possible to take content first developed in the classroom and explore it in new contexts through simulations, exercises, and interactive activities.

“A good share of the success with this study had to do with these guides,” the professor explains. In his opinion, when applying technology in the classroom, the use of appropriate methodologies is vital to successful learning. “It upsets me when I see the computer lab serving as a stopgap activity,” he says. “Students go there to search the Internet, but without a guide, what’s the learning goal? What do I want my students to learn with this?”

Computerized classroom in Serrana, in rural São Paulo

Silva Junior / Folhapress Computerized classroom in Serrana, in rural São PauloSilva Junior / Folhapress

The pilot phase of the project was conducted from 2011 to 2012, with Unesp funding. A number of objects were tested with 400 high-school students at the school’s computer labs, but their activities were often interrupted because there were problems with the Internet or there were not enough teachers. But gains in learning were still observed.

To overcome these problems, Fiscarelli adopted another strategy, submitting a research project to FAPESP’s Improvement in Public Education Program. After the project was approved, the agency provided funding for the purchase of 33 notebooks, in addition to sponsoring grants for participating teachers. “This gave us mobility, because we could do the studies right in the classroom, with no need for Internet access, since the learning objects were downloaded onto the notebooks. And we got the teachers more involved. They often had to use their free time to attend meetings with us and travel to Unesp,” says the professor.

Research into learning objects began in the 1990s, when computer use was growing steadily in schools.  In 1996, the expression “learning object” was adopted by the Technical Committee on Learning Technology (TCLT), a task force of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). “In the United States, companies that make educational material often produce learning objects and provide them for student and teacher use,” notes Fiscarelli. In Brazil, says the professor, these resources are generally put out by textbook publishers and offered in CD-ROM format. But so far they have had little impact on public teaching in Brazil. “Learning objects haven’t caught on yet because schools lack methodology and infrastructure. But I still think they’ll take off in the future because they do an efficient job of expanding students’ understanding.”

Institutions like the University of Waterloo in Canada and Fox Valley Technical College in Wisconsin have set up repositories of learning objects. In 2008, Brazil’s Ministry of Education (MEC) also created a database of learning objects, which offers nearly 20,000 items related to various subjects and teaching levels. Made in Brazil and abroad, the objects were evaluated by experts before being offered through the repository. However, the database stopped receiving new objects over a year ago and has been losing momentum since the 2011 closing of MEC’s Department of Distance Education, the agency that created it. “The idea behind the repository was to encourage teachers to look for digital resources to apply in their classes, but the fact is that few people take advantage of them,” explains sociologist Rodolfo Fernandes Esteves, who is doing his dissertation research at IAGE on the use of learning objects in conjunction with digital interactive whiteboards. “Furthermore, the quality of the items in the database is quite uneven.” There is a prevalence of objects related to mathematics and physics and a good deal of the content is meant for distance education at the high school and college levels.

In his research, Esteves works with 150 elementary students at municipal schools in Araraquara, in two first-grade groups and two second-grade groups. He proposed to the city government that he evaluate a public policy under which interactive whiteboards were to be installed at municipal schools. Using these large touchscreen monitors, teachers and students can view content in the form of multimedia resources and navigate the Internet. As part of the study, 250 math and science learning objects were selected and are currently being tested in the classroom.  “Our goal is to get teachers to use these objects, analyze their pros and cons, and see what results they’ve brought.”

Children taking part in the One Computer Per Student program in Nepal

Ole Nepal / Wikimedia CommonsChildren taking part in the One Computer Per Student program in NepalOle Nepal / Wikimedia Commons

A second goal is to create a repository of well-evaluated digital resources, which is already active. Building a repository is more important than one imagines, Esteves points out, and this has to do with the process of implementing technology in the classroom. “It’s pointless to distribute one computer per student or give each one a tablet if there’s no suitable content to use on the equipment,” he emphasizes. The earliest findings show that elementary school teachers will engage more with math learning objects than those from other subjects. “More objects are available for this discipline and they’re better designed. In the first grade, for example, instructors teach numbers using the objects, like the ones with little cars that carry 1 to 10 boxes, representing numbers and quantities,” says Esteves, who expects to complete his doctorate by 2018. “In Canada, most schools have interactive whiteboards that rely on repositories, and in South Korea digital resources are utilized so much that they’re talking about not using cursive in schools anymore,” he observes.

The experiences of other groups have corroborated how hard it is to cement the use of technology in the classroom. From 2010 to 2013, José Armando Valente, researcher at the Center for Informatics Applied to Education (NIED) and professor at the Institute of Arts at Campinas University (IA-Unicamp), coordinated the project One Computer Per Student (UCA-Unicamp), funded by MEC and tied to a program that distributed low-cost computers to students in a number of countries around the world. The Unicamp project helped train teachers whose students were using the laptops in three states in northern Brazil (Acre, Rondônia, and Pará) and four cities in São Paulo State (Campinas, Pedreira, Sud Menucci, and São Paulo).

“It was an interesting experience, because every school did things its own way. What we did was provide the teacher with support and help him incorporate technology into his activities,” says Valente. One of their efforts was to change the attitude of the teacher, who was challenged to propose activities to his students and guide them in finding answers with the help of the computer and the Internet. “This pedagogical approach differs from the one for which teachers have been trained,” Valente notes. “Although the computers were low-cost, they made it possible to engage in a variety of activities, like taking pictures and making recordings, and with these materials, other ways of representing knowledge could be devised.”

Despite the positive results obtained during the pilot experiment, the project yielded limited fruit. In 2012, the laptop experiment was replaced with a program that distributed tablets in schools. “The tablets came loaded with a number of software programs and learning objects that didn’t have much to do with the context of the schools,” Valente says. And there is still a lot of resistance to using technology resources in the classroom, according to the researcher. “Teachers have trouble working with a less schoolmasterly approach that places value on the use of technology. So much so that there are laws in many places around Brazil that force students to keep their cell phones and mobile devices turned off during class so they don’t cause a distraction. If a teacher proposes an activity using a cell phone or tablet that involves problem solving, and the problem makes sense to the student, there’s no way he’s going to be distracted.”

Learning objects in the classroom: resources, methodologies and strategies for improving the quality of learning (nº 2012/15487-0); Grant Mechanism Regular research grant – Improvement in Public Education Program; Principal Investigator Silvio Henrique Fiscarelli (FCLAr/Unesp); Investment R$49,763.15.
2. Digital interactive whiteboard and learning objects: the convergence of technologies to improve education (nº 2014/25460-7); Grant Mechanism Scholarships in Brazil – Doctorate; Principal Investigator José Luis Bizelli (FCLAr/Unesp); Grant Recipient: Rodolfo Fernandes Esteves (FCLAr/Unesp); Investment R$149,891.04.