Home Learning: IT and the Learning Process


Ronald G. Ragsdale
Northwestern State University
Natchitoches, LA 71497, U.S.A.
(318) 357-5554 FAX (318) 357-6275


This paper reviews findings from research on Logo, using the Internet for teaching, constructivism, home learning, peer tutoring, and the use of electronic forums. On the basis of this review, strengths and weaknesses of the home learning-IT combination are identified and explored. Recommendations for future practice and exploration are given. The research review is based on findings from personal research, research of students and colleagues, and the research literature.


Internet, home learning, constructivism, peer tutoring, electronic forums

Paper presented at EUROLOGO 97, the Sixth European Logo Conference, August 20-23, 1997, in Budapest, Hungary.

1 Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to consider possible advantages and disadvantages of using Information Technology, particularly Internet applications, in home learning. Jacques Ellul [8,9] was prolific in pointing out the drawbacks of technology implementation for four decades. His concerns are echoed by Neil Postman, who wrote, “All technological change is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.”[10, p. 193] Therefore, it is imperative that we consider possible disadvantages as well as possible advantages of Information Technology. [11, 12]

1.1 Data Sources

The primary source of data for this discussion is a series of research projects conducted in and around Toronto. Since 1987, our research team has studied government policy and the adoption of computers in schools. We began when a suburban Toronto school board, having set a long-term goal of (a minimum of) three computers in each of its classrooms, asked us to evaluate a JK-8 pilot site. Our role in this study, observing classroom practice, led to a three-year investigation of the bilateral relationship between educational policy and practice, including the Ontario Ministry of Education, three Boards of Education, and more than a dozen classrooms. A variety of analyses have been carried out on different portions of the resulting textual database. Results of these analyses, plus personal experiences and contacts outside of these studies, form the basis for selecting the topics discussed in this paper.

2 Some Challenges of Home Learning

Applying IT to home learning can lead to a wide range of experiences, both positive and negative, depending on the specific context. The following topics do not form an exhaustive list, but are selections based on the results of the research described above and can serve to stimulate discussion of effects that are not often discussed in the literature. These topics are briefly presented in this section and then expanded in the following sections.

2.1 Isolation

Although home learning has become increasingly popular in cities across North America, isolation from other students is often a characteristic of home learning, particularly in the lightly populated areas of Northern Canada and central Australia or for those students who do not speak the local language.

Email is an obvious solution to such isolation, along with access to the World Wide Web (WWW), or perhaps software packages that permit the emulation of some WWW functions. A possible positive effect of relative isolation is that a low “pupil-teacher” ratio may make it more likely that “teachable moments” will be detected and addressed.

2.2 Constructivism

Learners in a constructivist environment are expected to construct knowledge based on observations of and interaction with the environment (both physical and intellectual). Consequently, the richness of the environment, including the IT environment, is a factor in determining the success of home learning via constructivism. Outcomes in constructivist learning are also likely to be a function of the tension between free exploration and guiding feedback.

2.3 Electronic forums and Logo

Sherry Turkle [17] distinguished between computer users who were “hard masters” and those who were “soft masters.” This distinction between goal-oriented and exploratory behaviors can be applied equally as well to WWW searching as it was originally applied to computer programming. The hard masters are more likely to achieve their original goals, but may be less likely to experience the richness of the environment, be it the realm of programming possibilities, uncountable web pages, or thousands of interactive discussion groups.

2.4 Student Agendas

Interaction with computer software, or any other part of the curriculum, is a function of the agendas that students bring to the interface. For example, boys often have an agenda of competition that they impose on any task, including writing. This is one specific instance of a general “goal redefinition” that changes the software challenge from the developers’ intended goals into the students desired goals.

2.5 Teacher Training

The teaching role in home learning is often played by someone who has had little or no formal training in teaching and/or IT. As a result, the students may convince their teacher that they are expert in the use of technology, based on a combination of inaccurate information and wishful thinking. These “student experts” may experience increased self-esteem, but lack of discernment can cause problems for them and their teacher. An underlying source for this problem may be the teacher’s inability or reluctance to monitor student activity, particularly when it includes IT.

2.6 Form versus Content

Insufficient monitoring of student IT activity and over-valuing of routine IT applications can also lead to an emphasis on form, rather than content. One example is being uncritically praised for the use of multiple and varied fonts in writing.

2.7 Higher Education

For many years, teachers have been reporting the joys of learning with their students, as they and their students acquire proficiency in the use of computers and IT. One drawback to this phenomenon has been the difficulty of duplicating the thrill, unless the class is supplied with resources that were previously unknown to the teacher. The WWW offers such a rich and changing environment, however, that teachers and students can continually find new sources, even in higher education classes.

3 Isolation and IT

3.1 Email

Many home learning students are isolated from fellow students, because of geographical, linguistic, or other barriers. Even for students in familiar surroundings, however, email is becoming the favored source for enriching their social and academic lives. In remote and lightly populated regions, such as Australia and Northern Canada, email is almost a necessity. Email becomes even more effective as a solution to such isolation when it is supplemented by access to the World Wide Web (WWW). The latter facilitates graphics in communication, providing alternatives for those who have writing problems. Establishing links with other students is usually not a serious problem, particularly if contact is made with students in a different geographic region, for distance adds mystery.

3.2 Internet Emulators

Though it seems that we are saturated with opportunities on the WWW, in many areas of the globe, WWW access is not available. WebWhacker [19] is one example of software that provides emulation of some WWW functions. When you have access to the WWW, WebWhacker permits you to gather pages from the WWW and store them on floppy or hard disks. Then, when you do not have access to the WWW, you can use WebWhacker to retrieve these pages and the links between them. A parent who is conducting home learning at a remote location could collect WWW pages related to the curriculum during a summer visit to a WWW access point, then use these resources at the remote location for the remainder of the teaching year.

3.3 Teachable Moments

Finally, a possible positive effect of the relative isolation is that the low “pupil-teacher” ratio makes it much more likely that the “teachable moments” will be detected and addressed. Blackstock and Miller [1] observed 7-year old students using a variety of programs and noted that many of the “teachable moments,” times when the student-computer interaction had made the student ready for a new concept, were lost because the teacher was not part of the interaction. In the home learning environment, the “teacher” is likely to be close at hand for these opportunities.

4 Constructivism

In a constructivist approach, the learner is expected to construct knowledge, based on observations of and interaction with the environment (both physical and intellectual). For those learners who have moved to a new physical environment, the opportunities for productive exploring are increased, but access to IT, particularly the WWW, provide a rich landscape, whatever the physical surrounding. The struggle between free exploration and guiding feedback may play a major role in determining the outcomes of the constructivist approach.

4.1 Free Exploration

In free exploration, students may choose to become “generalists,” learning a little about a great many topics, or they can choose to become “specialists,” learning a great deal about very few topics. The danger is that the generalist will learn nothing about everything, while the specialist will learn everything about nothing. Students may not stay in either mode for long periods of time, but parental concerns may cause the teacher to intervene before the students broaden or deepen their scope. Or, teachers may intervene because they find that free exploration leads students into content areas the teachers are unable to handle.

4.2 Guiding Feedback

When the teacher intervenes to guide student exploration, it can destroy the constructivist learning environment. The key to effective guidance is to match the suggested approach to the interests of the student. For example, if the student is only interested in fish, the teacher can ask questions about the number of different species of fish in order to shift to quantitative issues, or ask about other issues, such as diet for different types of fish, ask why whales are not fish, etc., in order to widen the area of study.

5 Electronic forums and Logo

5.1 Goal-based and free exploration

Based on her research on individual students using Logo, Carmichael writes in favor of more free exploration. She asserts that “Self-directed learning in a new domain is more analogous to an artistic process than the hierarchical novice/expert categorization of problem-solving.” Carmichael also claims that “Recent instructional approaches may overemphasize top-down and pre-planning and not give enough importance to the role of ‘low-level’ and exploratory strategies in the learning process.” [4, p. i]

Sherry Turkle [17] distinguished between computer users who were “hard masters” and those that were “soft masters.” The hard master sets out to achieve a definite goal and although this may be slightly augmented or modified, the goal must be achieved for the program to be a success. The soft master is seen as more interactive, more likely to change goals on the basis of the computers response to the preceding attempt at a solution.

In her more recent book, Turkle [18] discusses the variety of personae that people can adopt as they communicate with IT, particularly via the WWW. She sees the distinction between the ‘real” and the “virtual” becoming blurred as our identities are distributed over real and virtual environments. Her observations raise the concept of exploration to a new level, giving new meaning and a certain ambiguity to the term, “goal-based exploration.”

Rojo documents the transient behavior that dominates Internet interactions via Listservs and Newsgroups. [15] The continual migration of discussion group members leads to instability in the structure of the discussion groups. Since this transience, or “free exploration” seem to be a part of many IT information gathering applications, perhaps we must acknowledge that the richness of the WWW can serve as a distraction, leading students away from their original goals and into free exploring, but “coping with distraction” is a necessary life skill.

6 Student Agenda

6.1 Redefinition of Goals

In our observations of computer use in classrooms, plus interviews with students, we noticed that students imposed their own agenda on the computer activities. The agenda changes were usually based on their out-of-class experiences, particularly TV channel surfing and video games. For example, students using Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego [20] would often bypass the intended knowledge acquisition in favor of blind trial-and-error selection among the multiple choices offered. Similarly, students using the Cargo Sailer program [3] were usually unable to deliver the cargo to the designated port, primarily because the port was defined by latitude and longitude. This did not decrease their enjoyment of the program, however, and they would happily use the software, content to experience the sound and graphics of the storm scene, until the crew died of starvation in about six virtual weeks. Carmichael et al. [5] reported similar behavior among students exploring with Logo; when they found it difficult to achieve their first sub-goal, they tended to change their main goal and thus alter the first sub-goal. This behavior characterizes the “soft master” described by Turkle [17].

6.2 Competition

Some students, particularly boys tended to turn most of their computer activities into competitive games. For example, two boys were seated side-by-side at computers, entering text for a writing project. Both boys focused their attention on the “number of lines in this file” counter and each tried to get a “better score” than the other. They used multiple blank lines and other tricks to increase their “score” but the competition did little to increase the quality of their writing.

6.3 Eye-Hand Tasks

The competition between students also resulted in the redefinition of applications for some hand-eye coordination software. The purpose of the software was to increase the eye-hand coordination of primary (ages 4-8) students, but boys in the eighth grade (13 years), and their male teacher would often use this game for competition because it reported seconds to complete the task, a score for their competition..

7 Teacher Training

Home learning usually operates with untrained staff, the parent(s), but we expect them to have greater knowledge of their students and their interests. As the parents gain experience, the lack of training is unlikely to be a problem. For example, we might expect parents to be more discerning when their children-students claim expert status in IT and to be more thorough in monitoring student activities than classroom teachers are able to do.

7.1 The Student Expert

When teachers are unfamiliar with IT, the students may be able to claim and maintain expert status with a minimum of knowledge. For example, in a first grade class, the teacher told us that one boy was the class expert in using the computers. A few moments later, the boy was called over to a computer where a fellow student was having trouble. The expert tried several keys, but nothing worked and he drifted away. A short time later, the problem was resolved by the student using the computer, but on seeing this, the “expert” informed the teacher that he had fixed it and the teacher accepted his claim at face value.

7.2 Monitoring Student Activity

A lack of familiarity with IT can also lead to teachers who do not monitor the IT activities of their students and therefore, may overestimate the students’ abilities. Our observations indicated that students can have considerable confidence in their use of IT when they have little understanding of the process. The following is an extract from my field notes:

Most of the students I interviewed, if they had tried BC Lumbering, said it was too complicated, too difficult. One, not a particularly strong student, said it was his favorite program. When I mention that some people said it was complicated, he says, “Not really, it’s just hard to understand, like it’s a fun game to play, but it’s hard to understand.” That, to me, was a good illustration of dividing the program up into compartments. “Can you do it?” was the important part. He could “do” BC Lumbering: he could put in things so that pictures, graphs and so forth would appear. “Can you understand it?” was another thing. [14]

8 Form versus Content

8.1 Monitoring Student Activity

The activities teachers monitor make a statement about what the teacher values and this statement is usually conveyed to the student. Morgan's (1984) review of intrinsic (contained as part of the task) motivation seems to lend support to this view, indicating that although the recipient's view of the reward is a crucial determinant, when a reward is seen as being given for merely participating in an activity, motivation to continue taking part in the activity declines. On the other hand, if the reward is seen as being given for high performance in some activity, then motivation to continue in the activity increases. The key point is that the recipient's view of the reward (whether it is for participation or high achievement) is crucial, not the intent of the courseware designer or teacher. Therefore, it is crucial for teachers to monitor student activities, to ensure that they are reinforcing achievement (content) and not merely participation (form). [13, p. 162]

8.2 Student Writing

The increasing sophistication of word processing software can lead children or adults into pursuit of form over content. Here is an example from a third-grade (age 8) class:

When Greg chooses a topic, he enters a line of random characters. He erases this text, puts in a few meaningful words, then chooses a new font. He selects large Gothic characters, so only five lines of 15 characters will fit on the screen (though usually only two or three lines are displayed, due to his choosing double spacing), and writes “On Monday my mom.”

The ornate gothic font seemed to be a favorite in this school, particularly among the boys. Use of this font did interfere with writing, however, since few characters were displayed on the screen and students also had difficulty recognizing individual letters in this visually complex font.

9 Higher Education

9.1 Teachers Learning with Students

Eaton and Olson [7] wrote about teachers who were acquiring computer literacy along with their elementary school (age 12 or less) students. They report that although the stated goals of increased problem solving skills were not achieved, the teachers planned to continue because of the “new relationship with students through . . . a shared learning experience.” (p. 6) The problem is, it is very difficult to recapture the “learning together” experience, unless the teachers and students are continually moving on to new topics. For example, Carmichael et al. [5] report that in the second year of their study, teachers were generally less involved in the students’ work with Logo and that the level of student achievement also declined. My personal experience, working with graduate students in Educational Technology, is that the WWW offers such a wide range of material, that one can recapture the experience of learning together, year after year. That is, even though you are dealing with the same topics, the associated and supplementary materials located via the WWW are so numerous, that the knowledge “constructed” by the students can be substantially different each year.

10 Summary and Conclusions

10.1 Summary

This exposition is a brief illustration that IT applications in instructional settings can include hazards, obstacles, and pitfalls. But, because IT applications in education also provide attractive opportunities, we continue to pursue them.

We should expect experiences with home learning to be much the same as those discussed here, but should not expect to find exactly the same results. Instead, we should monitor all IT applications, so that all unintended outcomes, both positive and negative can be defined and reinforced/discouraged as appropriate.

10.2 Conclusions

On the basis of this selected and partial review, we can propose the following:



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