Saturday, January 10, 2009

STEM on the Web is still a challenge

The journal, Science, begins the year 2009 with a good series of articles, podcasts and video that address the use of technology in education.

For those interested in the challenge of creating useful internet-based platforms for education-friendly science for use in classrooms, the article, "NSF Rethinks Its Digital Library" is a important article. NSF's National Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education Digital Library (NDSL)
"was launched in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, at the height of the dot-com boom, when expectations about the Web’s potential were sky-high...NSDL was seen as a way to ... improve student performance, heighten student interest in science, and make high-quality material readily available to parents, teachers, and students" (p. 55-56).
Today after spending $175 million,
"Its biggest advocates admit that relatively few educators and researchers have even heard of NSDL, much less visited the Web site or contributed material. It’s proven to be no match for Google as a search engine for finding good sites. And there’s no evidence to date that NSDL has improved student learning" (p. 55).
There are a variety of reasons for these difficulties-- lack of connection between what is needed in the classroom and what is available in the library, lack of coordination between curriculum objectives in schools and the structure of the libraries, lack of engagement of higher education science faculty in translating science reports into classroom-appropriate material, and more.

Despite the promise of the web as a basis for improving education, there is still much we need to learn. Despite this gloomy report there continue to be hints that we can design powerful web-based resources for use in the classroom. Tamara Summer at the University of Colorado has begun working with secondary earth science teachers to customize the school district's curriculum in an interactive fashion. She states,
“We’re creating Web 2.0 teacher guides for earth science courses,” she explains about a pilot study now under way to give Denver teachers an interactive platform to develop individualized lesson plans. It allows them to integrate information from the district’s own IT system, which teachers now use to maintain student records and track their performance on ongoing formative assessments as well as year-end standardized tests, with material tailored to address the needs of students across a range of abilities, from gifted and talented to English language learners" (p. 57).
Transforming educational practice in classrooms will require a lot of trial and error with scientists, curriculum experts and teachers working side by side to design the platforms and tools that will work. Although we have made great progress in searching the web, we have made more limited progress in learning from the web. Reflecting on our progress in developing a transformative online educational system over the past decade, Mimi Recker at Utah State notes,
"we assumed that we could build a resource bank of high quality interactive material and that change would follow. That was na├»ve. Once we started to go into the classrooms, we realized the complexity of the environment [emphasis mine]” (p. 58).
The current challenge is to learn from all these efforts and to not be discouraged from continuing to build an online informational structure that will serve the purpose of learning. Despite the failures and less than spectacular successes of these efforts, we still need scientists and teachers to be engaged in developing the models, techniques and strategies for using the web for learning. We are at the beginning of this change, not at the middle and clearly not at the end.

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