Technology as Facilitator of Quality Education: An Unfinished Model

Paper Presented at Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education, March, 1999

By Thomas J. Switzer, William P. Callahan, and Linda Quinn
College of Education, University of Northern Iowa

  • Few people would argue today that information technologies are having and will continue to have major impacts on how we in education view schooling, teaching, and learning. Opinions range from seeing technology as the driving force for all that will be good about education in the future to seeing information technology as a force that will destroy education as we now know it and drive us toward all of the negative aspects of consumerism.
    Like most complicated technological developments and their associated social changes, the truth of the impact of information technology on education is somewhere between these two extreme positions. Decision making is, of course, still the key to the impact that technology will have on education. One would hope that informed human beings would find a way to capitalize on the best of what information technology has to offer while preserving the core components of our educational system. This blending of the new with the old is most likely to serve us well in the future and provide us with a foundation for effective citizenship in a democratic society.
    Those people who fear the consequences of developments in information technology frequently do so not out of ignorance, but from the realization that these technologies present the possibilities for a fundamental paradigm shift in how we think about the nature of schooling, teaching, and learning. They question the consequences of such a paradigm shift. Unfortunately, those people who advocate the paradigm shift have not developed a persuasive rationale for that support. In their rush to support technology they have failed to show how the paradigm shift can actually promote the core values of American education that the critics feel might be lost by advances in information technology.
    If technology is indeed a facilitator of quality education, how will it be used? How can developments in information technology facilitate a new paradigm for education appropriate for the 21st century while enhancing student achievement in core areas deemed important to our democratic society? One model currently being developed at the University of Northern Iowa includes five major dimensions:

    1. Students at the center of their own learning

    2. Principles of good learning

    3. Aspects of information processing

    4. Standards from content disciplines

    5. Tenets of effective citizenship in a democratic society

Students at the Center of Their Own Learning

  • At the core of the model is students seeing themselves at the center of their own learning. This is more than just a student-centered classroom. Viewing students at the center of their own learning suggests a form of student responsibility for their own learning. In the rapidly changing, dynamic technological society of the 21st century, no attitude is more important than students seeing themselves as capable of learning and, indeed, capable of directing their own learning. This does not mean that students are free to study and learn anything they want in the process of their schooling. Students must learn the basic knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will allow them to increasingly become independent learners, and they must learn the core knowledge and values deemed important in a democratic society.


  • The second component of the model includes crafting classroom activities according to the best principles for promoting learning. Major strides have been made in recent years in what we know about promoting learning. Peter Ewell in a publication of the American Association for Higher Education draws the following conclusions about learning:

    1. The learner is not a "receptacle" of knowledge but rather creates his or her learning actively and uniquely.

    2. Learning is about making meaning for each individual learner by establishing and reworking patterns, relationships, and connections.

    3. Every student learns all the time, both with us and despite us.

    4. Direct experience decisively shapes individual understanding.

    5. Learning occurs best in a context of compelling "presenting problems."

    6. Beyond stimulation, learning requires reflection.

    7. Learning occurs best in a cultural context that provides both enjoyable interaction and substantial personal support.

  • These principles of learning can serve as an effective frame of reference for thinking about the construction of learning activities and for how we think about the organization of schools to promote student learning. This component of the model will evolve as we continue to find out more about promoting student learning.

Information Processing

  • As great amounts of information become available to each individual citizen, the ability of each person to intelligently process that information takes on increased importance. Developing the dispositions and skills necessary for informed information processing then becomes a necessary component of education in an information age. Although several information-processing models have been developed, the Pathways to Knowledge model developed by Marjorie L. Pappas and colleagues at Follett Software, is a well-conceived and well-documented model. The Pathways model consists of six stages:

    1. Appreciation

    2. Presearch

    3. Search

    4. Interpretation

    5. Communication

    6. Evaluation

  • It is not our purpose here to describe each stage of the Pathways model. A full description and the graphic representation of the model can be found in materials provided by Follett.

Content Standards

  • Providing the environment and experiences to promote student learning and creating the dispositions and skills for information processing say nothing about the substance of what students learn. The content of education is, of course, of extreme importance to the future of our society. Fortunately, in recent years, content standards have been developed for almost all of the discipline areas either by teams from the disciplines themselves or by agencies in various states. These content standards serve as a fourth dimension of our model.

    1. Economics

    2. Foreign language

    3. Science

    4. Math

    5. Physical education

    6. English

    7. Art

    8. American history

    9. World history

    10. Geography

    11. Civics

    12. Social studies


  • At the heart of our educational system is the preparation of students to lead productive lives consistent with the basic tenets of a democratic society. Unfortunately, most schools and classrooms are not organized to consciously promote democratic dispositions and skills. Basic tenets of democratic schools and classrooms include the following and serve as another component of the model:

    1. Self-reflection

    2. Tolerance

    3. Power sharing

    4. Critical thinking

    5. Decision making

    6. Responsibility for self

    7. Opinion formation

    8. Social responsibility

    9. Social connectiveness

    10. Meaning making

  • It is our contention that schools and classrooms should be consciously structured to promote these tenets of democracy. (The tenets of democracy are derived from those used by the Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking Project of the International Reading Association.)

An Interactive Model

  • The five components of the model might then be represented in the following form:

    1. Students at the center of their own learning

    2. Student experiences structured in accordance with the best principles of learning

    3. Direct efforts to develop the dispositions and skills of information processing

    4. Direct efforts for student learning of the content standards drafted by the disciplines, state policymakers, etc. 

    5. Schools and classrooms designed to foster the tenets of democracy

  • Graphically the model might be represented as a set of five concentric circles, with each circle containing one of the five model components. Each aspect of the model would be mutually reinforcing. For example, while focusing on activities to achieve the science standards, we would conduct the classroom according to the principles of learning while creating activities to promote democratic behaviors and engaging in activities to develop information-processing skills and dispositions.
    In fact, the circles in the model might rotate to bring into alignment the focus areas for a particular learning activity. Or if multiple areas are focused on in one learning activity, the appropriate areas could be shaded to show the emphasis of the activity. With the students at the center of their own learning and with principles of good learning as constant, a learning activity could use any of the components of the model as the departure point for instruction. For example, the development of a particular information-processing skill could be the focal point for instruction with democratic principles and content standards as a subset of that learning activity. Of course, only one of the components of the model could also be appropriate as a focal point for developing a learning experience for students. The power of the model is, of course, when its various components are brought into alignment so that the learning experience is achieving multiple objectives.

The Essential Role of Technology

  • Technology is the vehicle for implementation of the model described in this paper. The idea that students should be at the center of their own learning is, of course, not new. What is new is the structure around that student and the way in which that structure can be used. The multiple perspectives on a particular learning activity that can be achieved via this structure can only occur in the context of contemporary technology. It is only through contemporary technology that the thousands of various combinations can be achieved and used appropriately by the student. And it is only through contemporary technology that the resources necessary for student inquiry can be accessed.
    Let's look at the circular representation of the model once again. Unique to this model is the notion that each of the rings can move independently and in so doing create unique alignments of ideas or perspectives that allow the student to view a learning activity through a variety of "lenses." Additionally, the position of the rings in relation to one another is not permanent. The positions could be modified if one wanted to place an increased importance on one set of elements over another. Some activities might require that the content standards be closest to the student while during other activities it would be better for the student if elements of democracy were the closest. Under any circumstance it is essential to manipulate the position of the rings, and it is only through contemporary technology that such manipulation is possible.
    Assuming one can appropriately align the elements of the model, the next big question is what really happens inside the center circle. The essence of the center circle is a carefully crafted set of activities that encourage the student to use technology. Technology is used to help the student understand the activity from various perspectives and through the use of various tools. Here is where the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains of the student combine with databases, simulations and virtual travel, spreadsheets, quality software products and quality websites to create a unique world of experience and exploration that allows the student to truly think differently while maintaining the ability to appropriately exploit existing knowledge.
    Technology, when properly utilized, can then contribute to creating the conditions that optimize learning. Technology can also be used to develop information-processing skills and dispositions. Databases, simulations, and access to the Internet can provide rich experiences and information as students acquire the skills and knowledge represented by the content standards. Students can also practice the tenets of democracy while engaging in technology-mediated activities.
    A model such as the one proposed here might, then, provide a framework for thinking more holistically about the educational process. It incorporates the best of what we know about learning with activities designed to develop the dispositions and skills that students need to process the massive flow of information available to them. It provides for rich and appropriate content as defined by the disciplines themselves, and it would organize learning experiences and student activities to promote effective citizenship in a democratic society. In the model, technology is brought to bear on the components as an essential mechanism, an infrastructure if you will, to achieve the larger goals that we have set for our educational system.



  • Ewell, P. T. (1997, December). Organizing for learning: A new imperative. AAHE Bulletin, pp. 3-6.
    Mitchell, R. (1995, October). Front-end alignment: An introduction to the standards movement. AAHE Bulletin, pp. 7-11.
    Pappas, M. L., & Tepe, A.E. (1997). Pathways to knowledge (TM):Follett's information skills model (3rd ed.). McHenry, IL: Follett Software. Available: