Lorraine Sherry

Shelley H. Billig

Bruce Havelock


RMC Research Corporation, Denver





In this article, we discuss several approaches to the problems associated with bringing high-quality, technology-enriched instruction to traditionally underserved populations, such as the economically disadvantaged Hispanic families that comprised a large portion of the population served by the El Paso Partnership for Technology Integration through the Challenge 98 project.  Throughout the article, we consolidate research strands on equity in curriculum and instruction for high-poverty student populations, culturally relevant technology use, technology-enriched instruction for English language learners, and other related themes.  We first provide some context around the Challenge 98 project itself.  Then we turn to themes from the research literature, illustrated with examples from the Challenge 98 project.


Project Background and Context


Challenge 98 was a Technology Innovation Challenge Grant awarded to the El Paso Partnership for Technology Integration (the Partnership) in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Education.  The purpose of the Partnership was to help teachers integrate technology with challenging instructional content in order to accelerate student achievement.  The Partnership was a consortium of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), the El Paso area Region 19 Education Service Center (ESC), and the UTEP-based El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence (the Collaborative).  The Partnership directed Challenge 98 efforts over the past 5 years in 12 school districts (3 urban and 9 rural), with a total of over 100 participating schools.  The Challenge 98 proposal called for work with 85 urban and 15 rural schools, with a division of labor among the Partnership members: the UTEP College of Education trained Master’s degree candidates in all schools; the El Paso collaborative worked with Technology Teacher Leaders in the 85 urban schools, providing 120 hours of professional development over two years; and Region 19 ESC worked developing Technology Teacher Leaders in the 15 participating rural schools.


The Challenge 98 grant built on a legacy of successful technology-based educational innovations in the El Paso region, beginning with a $50,000 grant from Apple Computer in 1992 to support computer training workshops.  The emerging Partnership then won a $2.8 million grant from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to support field-based teacher preparation enhanced by technology, a $120,000 Apple Partners in Education grant to provide laptops and training classes for parents, and a $3.5 million Challenge 95 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to provide computers and connectivity for schools, 100 Master’s degrees in educational technology, and 12 parent centers that provided laptop computers for parent checkout and parent training.


Unlike projects that focused exclusively on infusion of computers or infrastructure development, Challenge 98 was conceived as a comprehensive effort to improve academic achievement for all students in the El Paso region.  This effort promoted an agenda of standards-based, K-16 systemic change, focusing on teachers as the primary agents impacting student success.  The project’s professional development activities focused on the importance of using technology as a tool to engage students in learning in the academic content areas.


Challenge 98 took place within a region that has a long history of cultural diversity and a growing population of Hispanic families.  Many of the families in the local school districts had roots and relatives in Mexico, and the region displayed strong bicultural influences in the local architecture, language, norms, and beliefs.  Bilingualism was valued and prevalent, and families were largely intact and extended.  However, the area was economically depressed and children often came to school with limited language skills in both Spanish and English and other effects of poverty.


Leveraging Cultural Strengths


Two important themes emerge from the research about technology-supported, culturally relevant instruction for Hispanic students.  First, inequities exist in the content and contextual relevance of today’s schools’ curriculum – and those inequities are not simply due to the lack of computers in labs and classrooms, but rather stem from the de facto marginalization of high-poverty and minority cultures in mainstream school curricula in the United States.  Second, a number of instructional strategies exist that have shown particular promise in increasing English language ability, engagement with school, and academic achievement for Hispanic students.


Challenge 98 teachers were aware that lack of access to technology was a pressing concern throughout the region, but that it was only one of the many facets of digital inequity.  Although most of the area’s schools were wired with LANs and Internet access, and the number of computers per student was increasing, changes in teaching practices had not kept pace with the increase in hardware, software, and connectivity.  Inequities still existed, not only in the level of technology available in the schools, but more importantly, in the way that technology was used to support teaching and learning. 


A growing body of research also indicated that “teachers tend to infuse technology into lessons much less with low-achieving students than with high achievers…difficulties often lead teachers of bilingual students to limit the use of technology into their classes too, according to advocates for students who are still learning English” (Technology Counts, 2001, p. 13).  Survey data revealed that “needy students are the most likely to lack Internet access and the most likely to use computers for simple tasks, such as repetitive drills” (Technology Counts, 2001, p. 14).  In a national audit on digital equity, the Children’s Partnership (1997) identified a lack of Internet content generated by ethnic communities themselves or organized around their unique cultural interests and practices as a content-related barrier to effective uses of technology with high poverty and language minority students.  Closing the digital divide, then, is more complex than providing students with computers: context, environment, people’s expectations, and other local issues also play major roles (Technology Counts, 2001, p. 16).


Many of the recommended practices to deal with these inequities are the same as those that are effective for all children.  Some, however, are more specific and compatible with the unique culture of these children and their families.  These include equitable opportunities that maximize student learning through technologically-enhanced, student-directed learning and student autonomy (Svedkauskaite & Reza-Hernandez, 2003); cultural awareness and a supportive multicultural environment (Sianjina, 2000); and contextually-relevant instruction in the academic and communication skills, strategies, and conventions that are required for success in advanced learning and the larger society (McGinty & Mendoza-Ruiz, 1998).  Padrón, Waxman, and Rivera (2002) synthesized the research on effective instructional practices for Hispanic students, and discovered that five approaches were particularly effective; namely, culturally-responsive teaching, cooperative learning, instructional conversations, cognitively guided instruction, and technology-enriched instruction.  These practices were observed being employed by Challenge 98 teachers in their classrooms as they implemented a relevant and challenging curriculum that drew upon and affirmed the cultural knowledge, interests, and competencies of their students.   


Culturally-responsive teaching, according to these authors, incorporates everyday concerns of students, including their family and community issues, into the curriculum.  For Hispanic students, teachers who are culturally responsive typically implement activities that scaffold familiar concepts, helping students to contextualize their learning and feel more comfortable and confident in their ability to learn (Peregoy & Boyle, 2001).  Lessons become more relevant and significant because they are more likely to be related to real-life situations.  Students have an easier time learning the knowledge and skills and transferring what they learned (Rivera & Zehler, 1991). 


Challenge 98 teachers drew on the rich, local, Hispanic cultural tradition in their classroom instruction.  Moreover, they drew upon the unique talents and insights of their students to create presentations and engage in classroom activities that valued their heritage – specifically, Internet sites from Spanish-speaking countries that validated the use of students’ own language, and culturally relevant practices with technology such as “Day of the Dead” PowerPoint presentations and videos, and bilingual research and presentations on César Chavez.  A good example of culturally-responsive teaching was observed at a high school in the Spanish I for Natives class.  At the beginning of the assignment on PowerPoint presentations on “Who am I?” the teacher gave the students guidelines and a tutorial on using PowerPoint to support oral presentations.  By writing about themselves, their personality and friends, family roots and heritage, favorite foods and favorite activities, the project enabled the students to communicate personally interesting and relevant information to their classmates.  Some students limited their presentations to bulleted text, while others used an assortment of photographs, sophisticated still graphics, and animated graphics.


Cooperative learning in which students are placed in small interdependent groups to accomplish specific tasks has been found to be particularly effective for Hispanic students who have “safer” opportunities to interact linguistically with others, improving group relations, communication skills, integrated reading, writing, listening, and speaking experiences, and ability to use both verbal and nonverbal cues (Padrón et. al., 2002).  Students learn both academic content and social skills, boosting their proficiency in English and in content areas. 


Some Challenge 98 teachers used cooperative learning with student conversations in Spanish regarding common assignments.  At a rural elementary school, a 2nd grade bilingual class of 16 students was working in pairs on their PowerPoint presentations.  Their assignment was to compare and contrast two books that they had been reading in class.  The activity was to culminate in a PowerPoint presentation that included book titles; number of slides; and content, which was to consist of two pictures, one animation, plot summaries, contrasts and comparisons, and a slide including student-generated questions.  Students chatted with their partners about the books and the presentations as they chose colors, searched for clipart, changed the spell checker to Spanish, entered text, and moved different elements around on the slides.  The teacher commented, “They will complete the PowerPoint, add photos, and present them to the 1st graders.  On Friday we will go to the lab and each student will create a Venn diagram using Kidspiration.  Using technology makes them more involved.  Their scores have gone from the 60s to the 80s.”


Another effective approach, discovered by Tharp, Estrada, Dalton, and Yamauchi (2000) and validated in many other studies, is the use of instructional conversations.  According to Tharp and colleagues, instructional conversation is a dialogue between teachers and students that generates understanding of particular academic content, most often initiated by students and guided by teachers.  The opportunity for extended discourse helps students to feel more comfortable expressing ideas, allows teachers to deepen understanding through inquiry and analysis, and helps individuals to practice verbal and thinking skills. 


Challenge 98 teachers engaged their students in extended discourse to encourage them to take ownership over their own learning.  Students at a middle school used this technique when interviewing community members, including a judge and a civil rights advocate, for creation of a film documentary on the death penalty.  The conversations comprised both scripted and unscripted elements as the students explored the reactions, perceptions, and arguments of their informants in depth.  The students captured these conversations on video and combined them with relevant footage and narrative summarizing their research on the topic.  One student described the powerful impact of changing her mind about the justifiability of the death penalty as a result of doing the project.  The students eventually traveled to the state capital of Austin to show the resulting video and present their work to a statewide technology conference.


Padrón and colleagues (2002) identified cognitively guided instruction as another culturally-responsive effective practice.  Cognitively guided instruction helps students acquire higher order thinking skills through direct teaching and modeling by the teacher.  For example, students learn ways to monitor and extend their own thinking and learning by practicing summarizing, self-questioning, clarifying, and predicting. 


At an El Paso area middle school, a mathematics teacher used this strategy to introduce students to Excel spreadsheets.  The objective of the lesson was to have students develop concepts such as “mean” and “range,” and enter simple formulas into cells.  The teacher began the lesson by asking the students to choose five test grades and calculate the average of the five grades, using pencil and paper.  He asked students questions to elicit prior knowledge and current understandings, sometimes calling on individuals and sometimes waiting for volunteers, and then to write the answer on the board.  Students chose five numeric grades and calculated the average, which the teacher then defined as the mean of the five grades.  After orienting the students to the spreadsheet and having them practice moving the cursor around, he repeated the same computation process using Excel instead of pencil and paper.  In answer to his constant questions, the students reviewed the process of adding the values and dividing by five. 


In a similar lesson, students at another school used Excel to calculate mean and range temperatures for U.S. cities of their choice, collecting the required data from the Internet.  As student chose a range of cities including Miami, New York City, and Phoenix, they discussed their personally relevant experiences and impressions.  By encouraging this talk and connecting students’ prior experiences to thinking about reasonable estimation of climate issues, the teacher modeled reasoning processes in mathematics and maintained an engaging dialogue with students.


Technology-enriched instruction was identified specifically by Padrón and colleagues (2002) as an effective pedagogical technique.  The researchers believed that technology is particularly useful for students who are struggling with learning English and other languages.  Bermudez & Palumbo (1994) documented the utility of multimedia for facilitating auditory skills through integration of sound and animation.  Students who read digitized books can request help with pronunciation for unknown words or translations of difficult reading passages.  Children with limited exposure to other cultures or experiences can connect to multiple places and people through the Internet and have richer and more diversified interactions.  In classrooms where students are using technology to investigate and ask questions, write about what they are learning, and carry out learning activities in an authentic context, students do not “learn” technology, rather technology provides the tools for authentic learning. 


Challenge 98 teachers used technology for differentiated instruction, access to quality content, and in some cases, student assessment – particularly through the rubrics associated with WebQuests.  They also used spell checking, self-paced learning, educational games, and automatic translation features in search engines to build literacy skills among their students.  They also used simple technologies to scaffold students as they learned to use more advanced technologies.  An example from a small rural school system in which few families owned computers, but in which nearly all households had televisions, involved a school technology lending program.  Early primary students were given Sony PlayStation game consoles and PlayStation-compatible electronic books in Spanish, English, and bilingual versions to take home and use in order to build English language proficiency.  At an urban elementary school, technology-enhanced learning was tailored to each student’s level.  A teacher said that technology gave students the opportunity to take ownership for their learning, and her low achieving students benefited most from implementing technology in the classroom.


Addressing Poverty


Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds often start school with fewer traditional academic readiness or skills and sometimes fall behind their more advantaged peers due to lower expectations and fewer available resources.  Besides providing access and culturally-relevant curriculum and instruction, other important strategies that address the needs of learners who are trying to address the challenges associated with poverty include overcoming language and literacy barriers, building the skills necessary for success in an increasingly technological society, raising student aspirations, and focusing on raising student achievement.  Challenge 98 teachers incorporated many strategies identified as effective in the research, primarily concentrating on improving students’ English language acquisition skills, raising students’ aspirations regarding college and careers, connecting academic learning with “real world” applications, and maintaining high expectations for student achievement.


A strategy that is particularly successful with English language learners is Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English, a sheltered methodology that emphasizes cognitively complex content, taught through problem solving and discovery learning in highly interactive classroom content that uses tangible objects and materials, manipulatives, visuals, graphic organizers, and planned opportunities for collaborative learning (Gulack & Silverstein, 1997). 


At an elementary school, a language arts lesson on apples was integrated into a thematic unit on Seeds of Life.  At the beginning of the unit, the class was introduced to Johnny Appleseed and apples by reading the story in Spanish and discussing Johnny Appleseed’s work in both Spanish and English.  Technology was involved in two of the class activities, namely: exploring a Web site about apples and nutrition, and using a Web site with interactive graphics.  This class engaged the students with the computer, focused on language arts activities about apples and nutrition, added a mathematics activity on fractions, and prepared the class for a forthcoming science activity.  Following this class, the students then rotated to the bilingual science classroom, in which they investigated apple seeds under a microscope. 


In addition to building English reading and writing proficiency, a key skill for students who aspire to be successful in today’s increasingly technological world is media literacy.  The Center for Media Literacy (http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/rr2def.php) recommends developing students’ ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media in a variety of forms including text, visuals, and multimedia, as well as build essential skills of inquiry and self-expression.  Sanyal and Schön (1999) suggest that the best way to introduce educational technology into traditionally underserved schools is to demonstrate to both teachers and administrators how technology may help them address some of the persistent basic problems faced by these schools. 


Challenge 98 revealed that empowering students – especially females – was equally important when technology-infused assignments were required.  At a high school, the speech class and the entrepreneurship class built workplace skills for males and females alike.  In observed classes, all students were treated equally with respect to using the mouse, creating pictorial representations using draw and paint programs, creating videos, giving technology-based presentations, and using technology for assignments.  Technology was seamlessly integrated into the curriculum to support student-directed design, knowledge-creation, and problem-solving activities, so it was no longer limited to male-oriented activities. 


Another challenge that many economically disadvantaged students face is low expectations for academic achievement and career choices.  Some effective strategies that deal with this issue focus on the student, while other strategies focus on organizational development.  Gandara, Larson, Mehan, and Rumberger (1998), in their study of effective dropout programs for Hispanic youth, found that success was associated with building social capital, establishing and supporting high expectations thereby raising aspirations, facilitating the formation of strong student-adult bonds, creating strong cohesive peer networks so students had a sense of membership, being sensitive to contextual issues, and providing enough time to reach important academic goals.  Similarly, Reyes, Scribner and Paredes Scribner (1999) emphasized the importance of nurturing school-community relationships, connecting to cultural beliefs and artifacts, implementing culturally responsive pedagogy, and conducting advocacy oriented assessments.


Teachers at a high school reported that student language acquisition and writing skills improved as their computer skills improved, and there were big changes among the ESL students.  Moreover, there were clear ties to real-world applications for local businesses and careers.  One teacher mentioned, “In my class, students had to look for franchises.  The father of one of my students asked the class to pick a franchise for him.  The class did a research project on different franchises and picked one for him.  The father promised he would provide an opportunity for students to work for him when his business opens.”  Another teacher reported that the parent community was excited about the increased use of real-world applications with technology that their children were learning.  She stated, “One parent said after seeing his daughter’s work from computer class, he hired her as an employee to manage the accounting for his own small business, using Excel.”


Teddlie and Stringfield (1993) listed a number of characteristics that were associated with effectiveness in low socioeconomic status schools, such as promoting high “present” educational expectations by ensuring that students believe they can perform well at their current grade level, increasing the external reward structure for academic achievement and making high-achieving students feel special, focusing on basic skills with other offerings after basic skills have been mastered, and carefully evaluating the effect of the local community on the school (p. 37).  Barr and Parrett (1995) also identified a number of features that promoted success for students in low socioeconomic status schools.  These included holding firm present academic expectations for their students; having teachers spend more time and assign more homework on reading and mathematics; having teachers push students academically and provide academic help for them; having principals visit classrooms frequently; providing teacher aides to assist teachers in their classrooms; and giving the principal greater authority over hiring staff, especially younger teachers.


At a middle school, teachers concentrated on raising students’ aspirations for pursuing higher education and worthwhile career goals.  A teacher commented, “Our mutual desire as a school is to close the gap and increase the options and success of Latino students.”  A parent concurred, saying: “The fairs at UTEP were really helpful.  There was information about many different careers and fields.  My children were so excited.  It felt like another world with so many new options and opportunities.”  Students were observed using the computers, scanners, and software such as PhotoShop to produce poems, business letters, and thank-you letters to various professionals who made career presentations to the class.  In one letter, a student wrote a thank-you letter to a professional photographer, sharing her interest in becoming a graphic designer, comparing similarities between graphic design and photography, and thanking the presenter for “inspiring and enlightening different aspects of related fields” to her.  Middle school students also researched salaries of different fields of interest, job responsibilities and various universities, financial aid resources, and other sites to facilitate college planning.


Challenge 98 addressed many of the challenges associated with poverty by providing access to resources and support, displaying high expectations for the achievement of all children, differentiating instruction to build on the assets children brought to school, and supporting a nurturing, well informed home environment to support learning.  At all times, the focus on improved student achievement was used to maintain the shared vision regarding appropriate educational applications of technology and a strong school-home connection.


There was increased parental interest in student learning as a result of the culturally relevant curriculum that pervaded the entire region.  A middle school teacher stated, “It started with, ‘Should I buy a home computer for my kid?’ And now they ask, ‘Which computer should I buy for my kid?’ Their perceptions have changed, and now there are no more excuses.  A parent will say to the student, ‘You say you have bad handwriting? Then do your homework on the computer.’”  Another middle school teacher commented, “There is a small minority of parents who are interested in using technology to access their students’ assignments and grades.  More parents are willing to consider sending their children to college.  Several are interested in seeking scholarships.”  A high school teacher concurred, saying: “I always have my kids save their projects and presentations.  I tell them, ‘Keep it, and go show it to your parents.’  I tell them to start their portfolios that way, and then they’ll have all of those presentations when they go to get a job or apply to enter the university.”




The Challenge 98 project incorporated many of the strategies identified as effective in the research, primarily concentrating on improving access to technology at school and at home, developing culturally-relevant curriculum and instruction, building students’ English language acquisition skills and media literacy, raising students’ aspirations regarding college and careers, connecting academic learning with “real world” applications, and maintaining high expectations for student achievement.  Challenge 98 was particularly effective in promoting a shared vision, a set of beliefs based on constructivist principles, professional development to promote and support effective practice, coaching and networking, and other systems-oriented strategies. 


Maintaining their focus on system coherence, the leaders of Challenge 98 recognized what Tye (2000) called the deep structure of schooling.  From the start, they avoided imposing external prescriptive recipes for change.  Instead, Challenge 98 developed infrastructures, strategies, and tactics that were situated in the regional educational context.  They understood the nature of schooling and the culture in which they were operating, and addressed the need for professional development, capacity building, and customization of all of the practices being advocated. 


Challenge 98 was unique in understanding and leveraging the strengths of the community in advancing the success of the program.  Through the university/school partnerships formed through UTEP and Region 19 ESC, the project addressed inequitable access to learning technology resources for all learners.  By leveraging cultural strengths, the project promoted culturally-relevant curriculum and instruction within its partner schools and districts.  By aligning teaching practices with best practices that serve children from economically disadvantaged families, including research-based practices for English language learners, and by providing technology tools to help further students’ postsecondary aspirations, the project helped students address challenges associated with poverty.  By targeting cohorts of inservice teachers who were not only familiar with, but were part of, the rich cultural heritage that characterized the El Paso region, Challenge 98 “grew its own local experts.”  As a result, the systemic reform that Challenge 98 sought to accomplish spread throughout the greater El Paso region.  Teacher work samples, instructional practices, and ideas for exemplary classroom activities were shared across the entire district via the Challenge 98 Web site, Technology Teacher Leaders Web site, and summer institutes.  Thus, when teachers moved from school to school or district to district within the region, they brought with them the same coherent vision and expectations that characterized the training they had received through Challenge 98, and they went on to build the enabling structures to make that vision a reality.


Challenge 98: The El Paso Partnership for Technology Integration was funded by the U.S. Department of Education under Technology Innovation Challenge Grant #$303A980088, CFDA#84.303A.




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