LEVERAGING CULTURAL CONTEXT
TO SUPPORT USES OF EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY
Shelley H. Billig
RMC Research Corporation,
LEVERAGING CULTURAL CONTEXT
TO SUPPORT USES OF EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY
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
The Challenge 98 grant built on a legacy of successful
technology-based educational innovations in the
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
In a similar lesson, students at another school used Excel to
calculate mean and range temperatures for
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.
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
Challenge 98: The El
Paso Partnership for Technology Integration was funded by the
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