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Technologies for Learning vs. Learning about Technology

Claudia Urrea


Computers are present in all aspects of modern society; from simple applications such as automatic doors and programmable air-conditioning systems in the home, to more complex uses in the medical field. Computers have changed many fields of study. However, computers have not influenced education in the ways predicted by researchers and early advocates of computers in education.

Studies on the impact of technology in education often report that teachers lack the capacity to carry out innovations, that the culture of the school is not supportive of technology adoption, or that the policies are not compatible with the vision of the use of technology (Blumenfeld, Fishman, Krajcik, Marx, & Soloway, 2000). Others report that teachers’ limited access to technology is the reason that computers have had a minimal effect on learning environments (Cuban, 1986; Sheingold, & Hadley, 1990; and Cuban, 2001).

Here I would like to introduce and defend a couple of arguments:

  • The focus should be on students’ learning;
  • The power of computers is in the hands of children, not just teachers or adults.

Students’ learning

First, education should be about students’ learning, rather than teachers’ teaching. This does not mean that teachers are not part of the students’ learning experience, but that the students’ learning should be the central part of the policies, and the strategies to promote the experience should be designed around the student. If the teachers don’t promote learning by engaging with students in powerful learning, the students’ learning experience is limited to what the teachers’ are teaching.

Second, teacher training driven policies, like other policies, can take time and become expensive to implement (Warwick, & Reimers, 1991; Navarro & Verdisco, 2000). Other issues such as compensation, benefits, etc can even affect these policies. There is no evidence, to my knowledge, of a national teacher training policy associated with the improvement of students’ outcomes. In fact, Navarro and Verdisco point out that “the equation for good quality teaching in education systems of massive scales throughout Latin America has yet to be solved,” as some of the innovations remain in pilot programs.

Though, they recommend that the discussion should be done around cost-effective analysis, rather than just cost, when one is making decisions about teachers’ training policies. Issues such as excessive cost, time of impact, lack of impact, and difficulty to scale, which become a matter of debate, and limit the initiatives that promote the use of technology in educational environments are also present in educational policies that promote teachers’ training. Unfortunately, people continue to promote its implementation.

Student-owned technology, more than ICT in education

In 1980, Papert described, “how children who had learned how to program a computer could use very concrete computer models to think about thinking and to learn about learning and in doing so, enhance their powers as psychologists and as epistemologists” (Papert, 1980). This vision of the role of the computer as a tool to design, create, and share with others is significantly different from the vision of the computer as a medium to transfer information, therefore our goals differ. An important element that was not largely present at the time was the personal computer, either with computer terminals or within the environment of computer labs.

The most recent model of computer use in education, the one-to-one model, forces us to rethink education not only because students use technology in powerful ways, but also because it alleviates the lack of teacher experience and preparation, a bottleneck that limits the impact of technology in education.

El Silencio, a rural school in Costa Rica

In order to defend a research-based approach that integrates both students’ leaning and student-owned technology (one to one model), I present the results of a research program done in a rural school in Costa Rica (Urrea, 2007).

The school is located in Microe, a small community in Costa Rica. El Silencio is a rural community of approximately 117 residents (45 families), located in Guanacaste, in the northwestern part of the Costa Rica. A total of 15 students from 12 families participated in the program: 3 in first grade, 3 in second grade, 5 in third grade, 1 in fourth grade, 2 in fifth grade, and 1 in sixth grade. 9 of those students were boys and 6 were girls. Every student from second to sixth grade received a laptop computer, and every student in first grade was assigned one of the desktop computers available at the school.


The work involved three important strategies:

  1. student-owned technology that is used at school, at home, and in the broader community;
  2. activities that are designed with sufficient scope to encourage appropriation of powerful ideas; and
  3. teacher engagement in activity design with simultaneous support from a knowledge network of colleagues and mentors.

I introduced the concept of “whole-project” learning, which strategically integrates these three elements into a learning approach that is fundamentally different from the existing methodologies of teaching and learning used in Costa Rica. For example, students worked on the topic of “my community” and engaged in the design and building a map of the community using a logo-based environment called Microworlds, and a physical model at scale. While creating the physical model, students learned and explored about the powerful idea of scaling.


During the period of September 2005 through May 2006, I spent a considerable amount of time working together with the teacher, and the students to implement the different elements of the program. One of the most important outcomes of the work was the appropriation of new ways of learning by the students in an environment where they owned computational technology; they engaged in rich activities of a scale and quality that allowed them to make connections to powerful ideas.

For example:

  • Students gained a level of fluency with the technology that put them in a better position to learn what might be otherwise impossible, or at least more difficult, to learn in a traditional academic way.
  • Academic performance improved as students finished their primary school education. More students also enrolled in secondary school, in a town nearby. As of today, the first student has graduated from secondary school and is entering medical school. He was the first student who presented the national exams with high scores, particularly in math and sciences.
  • The teacher reported perfect attendance during the two semesters (fall 2005 and spring 2006) of the program and increased enrollment during the second academic year of the program. According to the teacher, one of the reasons that two new families moved to the community was to find a better educational opportunity for their children.
  • Home learning (Papert, 2006) complemented the school activities. A considerable amount of learning happened at home, as the students designed and created their own logo-based projects based on their interests and ideas.
  • Finally, students developed more sophisticated verbal and written skills. This was evident as they reflected and talked about their projects and their personal experience as learners.

The evidence presented through this research program informs us about the potential of the one-to-one learning environment to provide opportunities for students to engage in individual and collaborative rich learning. It tells us that ubiquitous access to technology at school and at home makes it possible for students to access resources; collaborate with their peers, teachers, and parents; become fluent with the technology; and reflect about their own learning process.

I am convinced that innovation can happen at the level of the school and individuals, but additional strategies need to be in place in order for the educational system to change as well. We may follow Fullan’s recommendation to “develop our own individual capacities to learn and to keep on learning, and not to get the vicissitudes of change get us down” (Fullan, 1998). In addition, he points out, “This is also the route of system change.” If more individuals –perhaps at the school, project, or the region level, act as learners; if they connect with people who have similar goals and interests; if they also debate and exchange the different views and context, perhaps then, the system will learn to change.


Blumenfeld, P., Fishman, B. J., Krajcik, J., Marx, R. W., & Soloway, E. (2000). Creating usable innovations in systemic reform: Scaling up technology-embedded project-based science in urban schools. Educational Psychologist, 35(3), 149–164.

Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cuban, L. (2001). Oversold and underused: Computers in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fullan, M. 1998. “The Meaning of Educational Change: A Quarter of a Century of Learning” in Hargreaves, A. et al. (eds), International Handbook of Educational Change. Great Britain. Kluwer Academic Publishers. Pp. 214-228.

Navarro, J.C. & Verdisco, A. (2000) Teacher Training in Latin America: Innovations and Trends. Sustainable Development Department Technical Paper Series.Inter-American Development Bank, Publications, Education Unit, 1300 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20577

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas, Computers and Computers culture. New York: Basic Books. Pag. 23

Papert, S. (1996). The connected family: Bridging the digital generation gap. Marietta, GA: Longstreet Press.

Resnick, M., Maloney, J., Monroy-Hernandez, A., Rusk, N., Eastmond, E., Brennan, K., Millner, A., Rosenbaum, E., Silver, J., Silverman, B., & Kafai, Y. (2009). Scratch: Programming for All. Communications of the ACM, vol. 52, no. 11, pp. 60-67 (Nov. 2009).

Warwick, D. P. & Fernando, M. R. (1995). Teacher training: value added or money wasted? in Hope or Despair?: Learning in Pakistan’s Primary Schools. Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT, pp. 43-62

Sheingold, K., & Hadley, M. (1990). Accomplished teachers: Integrating computers into classroom practice. New York: Center for Technology in Education, Bank Street College of Education.

Slavin, Robert E. (2002). Evidence-Based Education Policies: Transforming Educational Practice and Research. Educational Researcher, Vol. 31, No. 7 (Oct., 2002), pp. 15-21

Urrea, C. (2007). One to one connections: Building a community learning culture. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, MIT.

25 Responses to “Technologies for Learning vs. Learning about Technology”

  1. As a teacher who has worked some with XOs, I think that most teachers are like me. We have used computers as tools for word processing and for research but not for learning or new ways of thinking. I am open to the idea of using computers in a new way, especially XOs that are designed for that purpose, but just having one in front of me or students isn't enough. We need models of how to do it. You mention the school in Costa Rica. These students had laptop computers. Were these computers typical PCs and the only difference was they had "Microworlds"? Would whole-project learning have been possible without the computers? Was the important combination to have both? It's great to hear about the student who is now going to medical school. It would be interesting to know what this student thinks the impact of whole-project learning and the computers had on him. Are there students who have not been as successful but had the same learning experience in 2005-06. What was the difference? I think the way to better learning and more successful students includes technology. But it is more than simply having the right machine with the right programs and giving it to the student. What are the other conditions that are necessary to produce the best outcomes? I think teachers need more information/ insights/ models to make the best use of the technology they have available.

    • @ rdyrussia, thanks for your comment!
      The students in Costa Rica had regular computers with a lot less tools than the XO. They had Microworlds, Encarta, Robotics and barely Internet (not reliable). Programming and doing projects was a big component of the research. They have incorporated now video editing.

      The important thing is not whether “whole learning” approach can happen with or without the technology. The importance of the approach is that it helped integrate the technology as a tool for real learning. The students could have never done the individual as well as collective projects, measure the community using a sensor in their bicycles to count revolutions, so they could find a scaling factor, or make decisions about the aspects of the community they wanted to study and research.. and I can go on and on. As a result the students are independent learners, and able to use the technology as a resource to learn about anything else.

      As of students… They have all use the technology in different ways. Some of them are more technical and use it because they love it (they may go into technical careers); others use it when they build projects, create movies, etc (like the one that is not going to Medical school). All of the students have successfully finished their primary education, and are not in secondary school.

      I don't think it is impossible to do… I agree with you, teachers need more resources (The learning activities I designed for the teacher helped him get started, but he knows does his own thing), but without kids using the technology to explore and appropriate, I think it is hard. In the school in Costa Rica, the teacher is not very technical. He uses the technology well for his own tasks, but he understands the potential. Lately, he got engaged and excited about video editing, which has been really important for him. The students learned how to program and they teach others how to do it… that has continued to be the way the culture and use of technology in this school… reason why I called my thesis, "One to One Connections: Building a Community Learning Culture".
      In summary, this is what I think you need:
      – Infrastructure and tech support (the less dependent you are on others, the better)
      – A network of support for teacher and students, especially those who like technology
      – Good examples of how to use technology to learn about other things, not just learn about technology
      – Teachers and students with their own technology

  2. Claudia, to me a core consideration here is whether the Costa Rica project would have had similar impacts without your presence there? From what little I know I highly doubt it.

    So in the absence of a global OCPS (One Claudia Per School) program (best combined with OBoDPD – One Bernie or Daniel Per District) the question is how to support the innovation that's happening on a micro-level and help it make an impact on a macro-level?

    This seems to be a tough nut to crack in a place like Austria which doesn't have the extra challenges of a country like Peru which include teachers working two jobs, a lack of infrastructure, teachers' education being often being limited, remote location of schools, etc.

    So with these challenges in mind one (playing devil's advocate;-) does have to ask whether the money currently being spent on one-to-one and other large-scale initiatives which are highly technology-centric wouldn't be better invested in creating that system of support for individual education innovators to lay the groundwork for subsequent efforts?

    P.S. I absolutely love the title of your article, I'm almost tempted to have it printed on a t-shirt! 🙂

    • Chrispoth, thanks for your comment! I gave part of the answer to your question in the previous response… but this is what I think.

      My presence, but also the learning activities I designed for the teacher helped him get started, but he does his own activities now. At the beginning I did a lot of coaching over the Internert, phone, etc. BUT (a big but) without kids using the technology to explore and appropriate, I think it would have been impossible to achieve. In the school in Costa Rica, the teacher is not very technical. He uses the technology well for his own tasks, but he understands the potential. Lately, he got engaged and excited about video editing, which has been really important for him. The students learned how to program and they teach others how to do it… that has continued to be the way the culture and use of technology in this school. I visited the school two years ago with a group of students from Harvard, and we were amazed at how that learning culture still there. It was impossible for us to know the students who worked with me, from the new students who had entered the school.

      About your question of creating a system of support… If you are talking about a community of people, I would say it is like the chicken and the egg, what comes first? I see a community of support around OLPC. Teachers, developers, researchers, volunteers come together around a very specific interest. It emerged, and of course, the infrastructure was there to support it. If you are talking about infrastructure, I agree with you, it has to be there. BUT in many places (Uruguay and La Rioja, Argentina), the infrastructure is arriving to the communities because of the program, and because people believe in the potential for learning.

      P.S. Welcome to use the tittle for a shirt.. send one this way! 😉

  3. Nimesh Dawulagala

    A sucessfull Case of implementing local langauge e Learning is Shilpa Sayura Project.
    A local language platform based on national carricullam and a community carricullam for MGDs and Vocational Learning, enables e Learning in government subsidised rural telecentres.

    more information and reseach papers http://www.shilpasayura.org/

    • Nimesh, thanks for sharing this link. I don't know the program. I noticed the promote the use of different kinds of technologies, as well as grassroots approach.

      As I said in my article, I think it is important for individuals to continue to do their projects and innovate, even if the system doesn't. I am convinced that changes coming from the top will have an effect.. it usually takes years for a policy to have an effect, and even then, it won't necessarily mean that it woud get to every one. Efforts are needed to come also from the bottom!

  4. Technologies for Learning vs. Learning about Technology Educational Technology Debate I enjoyed your article.Wonderful Topic.

  5. I liked the notion of whole project learning. I'd gently encourage taking it a little further. I've been working with a small bunch of schools in Australia which do serious knowledge production for their local community. http://chrisbigum.com/downloads/KPS_pv.pdf

    • Thanks Chris for your post. In which ways would you imagine the approach could be taken further? I am interested in your ideas!

      In Costa Rica we engage in projects for one week or two… and integrated the topics into the projects, which means that no math, science or Spanish classes happened. Community participation was also a big part of the work.

  6. Did you have a peek at the link? – there is a short paper there that roughly maps out the kind of work I am talking about. Happy to chat more about it – do you use IM of any sort?

  7. Claudia
    Muy interesante el artículo, me parece que justamente por lo que decís , necesitamos crear espacios a los ninos por todos lados en lo formal y en lo no formal para que puedan construir su propio aprendizaje Ahora
    la pregunta es, Claudia ocurriría lo mismo sin el seguimiento de un agente externo, sin el acompañamiento de personas que están con la mente abierta y creativa en forma constante .
    seguimos hablando ;

  8. Mary, gracias por leer el articulo! Creo que Paraguay esta haciendo precisamente mucho esfuerzo para impulsar lo informal… a través de las actividades de fin de semana, y con el apoyo e iniciativa de los formadores.

    Me parece que es posible hacer algunas cosas sin ese seguimiento y/o interacción de una comunidad, pero nunca de la misma magnitud. Primero, por la motivación y seguimiento que puede dar un adulto o mentor (o comunidad), no necesariamente con el conocimiento, pero con interés de aprender o de generar preguntas que ayuden a continuar una aprendizaje mas profundo. Y segundo, por que compartir lo aprendido con otros ayuda a profundizar los conocimientos. Me parece que este es el caso de los Scratcheros. Uno de los objetivos de Scratch a través de la pagina, es dar apoyo y crear una comunidad de interés, que permita esos dos aspectos que menciono.

    • Claudia. I´m sorry for the late answer. Just now I found a bit of time and the calm required to read your post. I am happy to know that we speak a common language (i.e.fluency with the technology; educational opportunity; personal experience as learners; complemented the school activities, etc.). I like your approach and even more I think it is necessary, an optimistic (but not blind and also critique) perspective. I think this is absolutely needed in our time. Nevertheless, let me confess you something, as far as I see we (as researchers) have failed evaluating of the impact of ICT in learning. Some of us state that technologies are great to empower learning, meanwhile others only support that ICT are not useful at all. What happened with the evaluation with ICT & education that we have such a wide spectrum of interpretations? It is simply a matter of trust, confidence, empathy, religion, political inclination? I’m sure that the answer is not easy. I still think that our approach is either naïve or at least incomplete. Otherwise I don´t understand why we have such a diversity of results. I’m not suggesting that we need to have a narrow minded method (straitjacket?) with worldwide standardized variables to assess the impact of ICT in education, but at least a more consistent framework of analysis to provide better (and more reliable) information to our decision & policy makers. At least to avoid the mistake already made. We may need to rethink the assessment-centred learning approach. As you may realize I’m still trying to find the the answer.
      Many thanks!
      Cristobal Cobo

  9. I have written my response to you, but I realized now that I never hit send. I send my answer to you now.

    Cristobal, thanks for your response! I do share with you the perception on the lack of agreement in the field of technology in education. In my article, I tried to be controversial by showing that other policies that have been implemented at the large scale have failed to show impact in students’ learning, but continue to be implemented. I didn’t suggest that we should not evaluate impact, quite the contrary; we need to be able to evaluate impact and understand how the new programs of technology and education (at scale) have an impact in different aspects of education and society. We have evaluated at the pilot level, but never had the opportunity to look at the scale.

    In my article I also tried to be very specific and concrete about the way I see technology in education. I don’t see technology as the end, but as the means to powerful learning. I mention this again to add to your comment… I think the process and the results are driven by the initial goals and vision, and that needs to be taken into account.

    I dare to say that the differences in vision are deeper than the lack of evaluation of impact, and are also material for further debate.

  10. Good one! nice and good site.


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