Waking the Sleeping Giant: A Learning Community in Social Studies Methods and Technology

Stephen A. Rose and Henry F. Winterfeldt
Peter Martorella recently called the use of technology in the social studies classroom a “sleeping giant.”1 While he made mention of periodic unconfirmed reports of the giant’s awakening, this does not appear to be a widespread phenomenon. This same “giant” slept in the secondary social studies methods course at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. While stirring occasionally, there seemed no way to sustain its consciousness, given the pervasive lack of computer knowledge among the preservice teachers taking social studies methods.
Technology is unlikely to be used effectively in classrooms unless teachers have an adequate framework for combining it with instructional practices. In our college, preservice teachers are required to take a technology course. However, it has not generally been taken in conjunction with methods classes, but more often follows in the next semester. Thus, it has been up to individual students to integrate their knowledge of technology with methods for teaching social studies. Many students have not been able to make the leap.
Our social studies methods course did teach students to evaluate software and to make use of old videodiscs by using a multimedia authoring program. But this small amount of technology integration is insufficient for today’s classrooms. Our recognition of this fact moved us to create the social studies/technology learning community described in this article. We will explore why a technology-based learning community is a good idea; what are its necessary structures; what obstacles had to be overcome in devising one; and how the results of project evaluation generated future refinements.

Why This Learning Community?
To accomplish complex goals, organizations require team work. The reality of the workplace for most preservice teachers is that they will be working in teams, whether interdisciplinary middle school teams or single-discipline high school departments. In methods courses across the country, preservice teachers engage in cooperative learning, try out related teaching strategies, and develop instructional materials to support this approach. Unfortunately, the same kind of team work is not often modeled by faculty members, who treat each course as a separate entity. The development of a social studies/technology learning community is an attempt to model collaboration
and develop meaningful connections between courses.
Combining social studies methods with technology (our technology course is called Instructional Technology) was a response to the uneven computer skills displayed by our students during practice teaching. Educational policymakers believe that technology is the answer to many issues associated with quality in education. (Whether this is true is certainly debatable, but school policy is often based upon such perceptions.) Schools are buying truckloads of computers. Preservice teachers who do not know how to use technology in instruction will not fit in well with schools of the 21st century.
Another rationale for creating our learning community was to allow students taking both courses to focus their energies on long-term collaborative projects. Moreover, allocating one section of Instructional Technology to social studies preservice teachers enables instructors to offer in-depth explanations related specifically to social studies.
Finally, creating this learning community allows our instruction to become more authentic. Assignments are performance based, and students must demonstrate their understanding of how to teach social studies using technology. Previously, assignments in the technology course were perceived by some students as disconnected from their subject area, since a direct application was not necessarily evident.

Developing a Structure
Developing a learning community in social studies methods and technology required coordinating many elements. We needed to find instructors willing to work together and coordinate their schedules to allow for joint planning time. Syllabi, assignments, and timing of instructional segments had to be carefully arranged so that the courses built upon one another. Student schedules also required coordination for a specific section of the technology course to be allocated to the learning community. The result was six hours of weekly instructional time—three hours for social studies methods and three hours for instructional technology.
Within this community, students could choose either a disciplinary or an interdisciplinary team to work with during the semester. All major assignments in both courses were team efforts. A major semester-long project served as a “hub” to tie teams, courses, and learnings together. Each student team developed a 15-day resource and teaching unit about a significant historical or contemporary problem/issue based on interactive teaching methods, the use of technology, and reference to social studies standards. For each unit, teams developed comprehensive lesson plans for the first five days, while the remaining ten days of instruction were abstracted.
To accomplish their projects, each design team had to identify a problem/issue statement, unit goals, resources, and an abstract for all fifteen lessons by mid-semester. In the technology course, teams consulted with the instructor to identify what types of technology could best help with instruction.
One unit focused on the different factors that contributed to the North’s victory in the Civil War. To introduce the problem, this team used the slide show function of ClarisWorks to present data about railroad mileage and track-gauge, transportation networks, economic indicators, strength of armies, geographic factors, data on trade, and so forth. Slide shows were developed for both North and South. Then the team developed a research web page, with links to history-related websites, dealing with the quality of military leadership on each side. The counterpart to this in the technology course was learning how to scan and use other features of ClarisWorks, including Claris Homepage. Other teams developed curriculum web pages about topics related to discrimination.
While the unit project was the basic connective tissue for the two courses, other topics and assignments bound them together. For example, while working on the use of charts, graphs, and other forms of data organization in the methods course, students also learned how to use spreadsheets and the graphing capabilities of various computer programs.
Electronic communication (e-mail) was another integrated learning. Design teams in the methods course were required to plan five complete lessons that employed one of the following instructional strategies: case study, cooperative learning, introducing a problem or issue, teaching a concept, and value analysis. For each lesson, one team member assumed responsibility for authorship and the other two members served as evaluator/critic. After learning how to send e-mail and attached files in the technology course, teams used it to communicate about their work and to send draft lessons and critiques to the instructors.
Finally, teams were asked to review a videodisc and use its multimedia authoring features to design a presentation for teaching about an issue or problem.2 One team used repurposed images, speech, and music from the ABC Interactive Series Powers of the Supreme Court laserdisc to introduce the issue of freedom of expression in their unit.

Obstacles and Solutions
Several obstacles may present themselves before a learning community like this can become a reality. The instuctors must have some knowledge of, and skill in using, technology. Although no one person has to know it all, it is helpful to have each professor’s knowledge complement the other’s. Collaborators also need time to coordinate topics, procedures, and student assignments.
Time for advising and scheduling students is also critical. We were fortunate in having a very supportive college advisor and a centralized scheduling system, but even so, scheduling was not without its difficulties. Originally the learning community was to involve a course in “Reading in the Content Area,” but placing the same group of students into a three-course learning community could not be accomplished. Perhaps it will in the future.
Finally, successful collaboration between methods and technology courses requires sufficient infrastructure and resources. Our university provides each student with Internet access from any campus general access computer lab or residence hall. Students receive an e-mail account when they register for classes. Most computer labs have both Macintosh and Windows 95 computers. All of the computers are on the campus electronic network “backbone” and therefore are connected to the Internet. We work in a technology classroom and an adjacent modernized multimedia lab.
A future obstacle will be having enough technology and work space when other learning communities are brought on line. The work lab will not support more than two learning communities. Plans are being made to expand the space and add multimedia work stations by the fall of 1998.

Evaluation and Refinements
From our perspective, while the learning community was successful as a first time offering, several refinements need to be made. First, the successes. Student enthusiasm and motivation were strong, as evidenced by the number of hours the teams spent working together outside of class and in the computer lab. Methods, content, and technology were addressed in a holistic manner, and the design of collaborative unit projects enabled students to make direct application of what they were learning.
From our perspective, the “hub” teaching unit that combined technology with social studies methods was far and away superior to our previous unilateral assignments in separate courses. The problem-oriented teaching units designed by students were rich in information and purposeful about its use. Students developed both skill and confidence in their use of technology that far exceeded what had been possible in the methods course alone.
When we offer the learning community again in fall 1998, we plan to make a number of revisions. First, we need to take better account of the range of student computer skills. We misjudged how much time we would have to spend developing the basics. This tended to push back the more technical, and sometimes complicated, aspects of using computer technology, and resulted in an end-of-the-semester crunch. We have, for example, modified what we want to accomplish in the areas of multimedia and web page development.
Will the giant awaken in the social studies? This is anybody’s guess. We hope that our example of a learning community based on collaboration between social studies methods and technology courses may help to stir the giant.

1. Peter H. Martorella, “Technology and the Social Studies—or: Which Way to the Sleeping Giant?” Theory And Research in Social Education 25 (Fall 1997): 511-514.
2. This assignment was based on using the relevant information and criteria in Stephen A. Rose and Phyllis M. Fernlund’s “Using Technology For Powerful Social Studies Learning,” Social Education 61 (March 1997):160-166.

Stephen A. Rose is professor of education, and Henry F. Winterfeldt is associate professor of education, at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.