©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.
Howard D. Mehlinger
There, thats it, thought Amy Wallace, as she turned off her computer for the last time as a sixth grade world geography teacher. She had just said goodbye to Sally, her avatar, teaching assistant, and friend. Amy smiled as she thought how silly she would appear to some of her friends. But on this last day of school, June 15, 2015her last day of teaching following more than forty years of service as a teachershe could not imagine leaving without telling Sally how much she appreciated her help and how much she would miss her. She knew that Sally was not human, that she was merely a thinking machine, and that Sally would not miss her, but she could not imagine how anyone could teach today without Sally or an avatar similar to her.1
As Amy looked around her classroom for the last time, she mused about the changes that had occurred since she began teaching. At that time, the classroom furniture consisted of thirty tablet-armchairs for students and a teachers desk and chair. The tablet-armchairs were certainly an improvement over the desks she had used when she was an elementary school student: they could at least be moved about, allowing students to work in groups, and were efficiently designed for students to write in their notebooks. But they did not accommodate the use of small computers, and had began to disappear from classrooms around the turn of the century. Todays student furniture is designed to support the use of notebook computers and collaborative work by small groups of students.
Amy also remembered how cluttered the classrooms appeared when computers were first installed: wires everywhere. Today, with more powerful batteries and wireless networks, there is no need to string power and network wires to every students computer. And blackboards! What a quaint and dirty idea that was. She remembered the first SmartBoard she was given in 2002. It was a bit clunky: at first, it didnt completely replace the need for chalkboards; it stood alone and often in the way. Some time passed before Amy and her students became used to projecting their ideas electronically to the SmartBoard rather than writing their thoughts on the blackboard. But within a year or so, after the SmartBoards were anchored to the classroom walls, their electronic capacity and flexibility made the blackboard a relic.
Forty years: Much has changed and much has stayed the same, Amy thought. The children seem to have changed the least of all: the girls are still developing ahead of the boys; they form cliques, worry about how they look, and take fashion clues from media stars; the boys swagger, play rough, tease girls, and try to copy the feats of their favorite athletes. However, both boys and girls today are far more sophisticated in the use of technology than were my students forty years ago. Certainly, it was much easier then to intercept student notes, as compared to today when students share electronic messages through the micros they wear on their wrists. In fact, it is the technology that has prompted most of the changes I have experienced as a teacher.
Amy began teaching in the 1970s, shortly before the personal computer revolution hit the schools. She remembers when the use of computers was treated as a special subject within the curriculum, assigned to specially trained teachers. All students were expected to become computer literate, while a few were taught programming languages as part of their preparation for a career. Later, computer labs appeared in elementary schools. The labs were used principally for remedial purposes, drilling students in reading skills and math concepts, and to teach keyboarding skills. Sometimes, Amy was allowed to bring her geography class to the computer lab where another teacher would show her students how to use software relating to world geography. Later, after the computer lab was connected to the Internet, Amys students used their lab time to connect to websites such as Free Maps and GlobaLearn.
Until the late 1990s, Amy had been able to avoid learning how to use computers and other technology. She saw little advantage in acquiring computer skills; she did not own a computer, and when her students went to the computer lab, there was always a teacher there who could provide the instruction the students required. All of this changed in 1996, when the school gave Amy her own laptop computer and placed six desk-top computers in her classroom; her principal told her that his new goal was to integrate the use of computers across the curriculum. Amy recalled how frightened she was and what a challenge it seemed at the time. She felt totally stupid, trying to acquire skills that many of her sixth graders already possessed. She would never forget the stress, the extra demands on her time, and her frustration when the computers operated in unexpected ways. It seemed like such a burden then. Moreover, the technology did not seem to save time; rather, it ate up the little free time she had.
Looking back on that period now, Amy realizes she was a pioneer. The computers then were very complicated and hard to use. It was not until after 2005, when voice-activated computers and teacher-avatars became reliable and affordable, that the technology truly became a time-saving asset for teachers. Amys first avatar was pretty simple, but at least it could research sources, post student grades, and maintain simple records. Today, in 2015, her avatar is a full-time assistant. Sally helps assemble and print class materials, monitors students work, grades both short answer and essay exams, conducts literature reviews, makes appointments, sends electronic letters to parents, conducts diagnoses of learning problems and recommends remedies, correlates instruction with state and national standards, and produces records of individual student achievement on a weekly basiswith most of this accomplished by voice commands like those Amy might use with a human assistant. How did I ever accomplish all of these tasks and still teach before avatars were available? Amy wondered.
Technology has also dramatically changed my instruction in world geography, Amy thought. I can still remember those thick textbooks and bulky wall maps. Most of the information they contained was several years old by the time we purchased them and totally out-of-date by the time we were able to retire them and buy new editions. It is not surprising that students found geography boring; so much of the material was abstract, unrelated to the students interests, and designed to promote memorization of information about various parts of the world: the names of oceans, mountains, capital cities, major crops, and manufactured products. While I tried to organize my instruction according to constructivist approaches to learning, it was not easy with the instructional materials available to us then.
Amy thought of the visualization software students use enabling them to view the planet from many angleseven from its core and ocean floor. She smiled as she thought of how excited students became as they altered climate variables and looked at the effects on various parts of the world. She was sure that her sixth graders knew more than most adults about the potential impact of global warming on various parts of the globe. They also became minor experts in plate tectonics and the formation of the earths surface. She remembered the use her classes had made of geographic positioning satellites that enabled them to map any part of the earth, including their own neighborhoods. She thought of the worldwide weather data available each day that students employed to predict short and long-term weather effects on regions that they are studying. And she reflected on the thousands of websites available to her students as sources of geographic information.
Geography textbooks could not keep up with the times. Rather than textbooks, her students now purchase Geographic Information System (GIS) software that contains much more information than any textbook.2 The software is updated on the Web twice a year by the vendor.
I suppose the most exciting recent breakthrough has been the sensortium, thought Amy. Sensortiums create virtual environments for learning, much as video game designers have created virtual environments to support their games, and the United States military has designed simulations to train their personnel. Sensortiums are a rather recent addition to K-12 schools. They are large classrooms equipped with sophisticated computers and projection devices that allow students to have a virtual, three-dimensional experience. They resemble somewhat the planetariums that some schools acquired in the late 20th century, but unlike planetariums that depended upon fixed displays, sensortiums allow the students to interact with the environment. For example, in a program simulating the activity of the human circulation system, students feel as if they are part of the blood stream; they hear the sound of the heart and the rush of blood as it is forced through the heart chambers, and they can act as white corpuscles attacking disease germs.
Amys school district acquired a sensortium three years ago. It is a room that is reserved for special presentations and shared among all the schools in the district. Biology classes use it to study human anatomy; the chemistry classes use it to study chemical reactions; history classes reenact events of the past. Amy has used the sensortium to put students virtually into environments they would not otherwise experience: a tropical rain forest, a Moroccan market, a boat trip on the Yangtze River, and an exploration of a pyramid. For an hour the students are able to interact with whatever environment is currently supported by the sensortium.
However, it is the availability of high-speed, high-quality, and low-cost communication technology that has had the greatest impact on Amys world geography classes. In the last few years, Amy has begun the study of any region of the world by first making contact with the people who live there. Her first contact has usually been with another school and a sixth grade class. A decade ago she joined the Global Schools Network, a worldwide network of K-12 classrooms that supports joint projects and shares information among the schools. A substantial fraction of the teachers in the network are geography teachers who are eager to connect their classrooms to those in other parts of the world. Amy has never had a problem finding a local classroom, whether it be in London, Moscow, Katmandu, or Lusaka. Because Amys world geography course is focused more on cultural geography than physical geography, she wants her students to learn how people in other parts of the world live and interact with their environments. Amy has found that her students become more interested in the study of geography when it is approached through students of their own age.
Students pursue joint projects and share data about each countrys culture and environment. For example, students have measured identical plots of land, attempted to grow similar products, and shared the results with one another. Amys classes have also taken electronic field trips with students from other parts of the world. Amys students and those in the other country plan the field trip together, the students abroad send pictures and videos of what they see, and Amys students ask questions of students at the site. The dramatic drop in communication costs has made it possible for Amys class to take several electronic field trips each year.
Amy has organized her course so that the entire class focuses for at least two months on a single region of the world; smaller groups of her students then undertake investigations into specific aspects of the culture of the region. One group may examine education, another environmental issues, a third manufacturing, etc., using the Internet to obtain information and contact experts on the topic.
Amy has found that her students interest in geography is much greater today than when she began teaching forty years ago. Some of the students become very interested in the regions they study and sustain electronic keypals for many years after they have left her class. She has also learned of former students who have traveled as adults to the countries they studied, fulfilling a dream that was born in her class. These alumni have also become data sources for her classes.
While the technology has shaped the way Amy teaches world geography, it has also affected her conception of herself as a professional. When she began teaching, Amy thought that she had to be the content expert on all of the regions of the world they studied. As long as textbooks and maps were the primary sources of information available to her students, Amy was able to function as a credible expert and shape what her students learned.
However, the power of technology, in particular the resources that became available through the Internet, challenged her ability to sustain the expert role. Students were able to obtain information electronically that far exceeded that available through their textbooks. Furthermore, Amy could no longer keep easily abreast of what her students were learning, because some of their research took place at their home computers and because the students worked collaboratively both at school and away from school. Amy had to find a new role.
Amys solution was to focus the class on the resolution of problems confronting people around the world, and the impact geography had on the resolution of these problems. The role of students in her classes became one of investigating these problems and seeking solutions. In the process, the students had to acquire great amounts of information and to make sense of it. Their interpretations and solutions were aided by the perspectives they acquired from experts worldwide and from their communication with their overseas peers. Her students also had to learn how to work together to find solutions to the problems and to produce reports that contained their final results. Because Amy believes that student reports should be posted on the Internet so that others can read them, her students became conscious of the importance of performing high-quality work. It was embarrassing for them to receive negative comments on their reports from other sixth graders, particularly from students of the country they were studying.
Amys role gradually shifted from one of supplementing the textbook as a source of information to one of helping direct her students to good sources of data and assisting them in learning how to evaluate it. She also provided help to students in presenting their findings in persuasive and attractive ways. All in all, Amy found her new role to be more satisfying than the one she played earlier in her career.
The technology also slowly shaped Amys conception of what it means to be an educator in a global environment. Her participation as a member of the Global Schools Network aroused her interest in the ways teachers in other countries approach instruction. She began to borrow and adapt ideas from overseas colleagues, and ultimately became close friends with a few whom she has visited. Indeed, although she is formally retiring, she expects to remain active as a consultant to teachers and students in the Global Schools Network.
In reflecting on her forty-plus years as a teacher, Amy could see that much had changed, and technology had played a major role in those changes. She felt that she was treated more as a professional now than when she began. The technology had enabled her to become more productive; it had helped her to maintain closer contacts with parents; it had also made her teaching more interesting to students and more personally satisfying to her. Despite all of the stress it caused when it first entered her life, it seemed clearly worth it.
Its time to go, thought Amy. I shall miss Sally; now I need an avatar to help me plan my retirement.
1. This story about Amy Wallace is fiction, but it is not fantasy. Most of the technology described in the study is currently available; some items such as the voice-activated computer are available but not widely used, and a few objectssuch as avatarsare in development. The date 2015 may be too soon for these innovations to be affordable for schools, but they are possible. What is important is for teachers of all subjects to use effectively the technologies available to them today and to demand the technologies they will require in the future to perform their work as they believe it should be done.
2. Cheryl L. Mason and Marsha Alibrandi, Teaching Geography, in Joseph A. Braun, Jr. and C. Frederick Risinger, eds., Surfing Social Studies: The Internet Book (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1999); 41-48.
Howard Mehlinger is Professor Emeritus of Education and History at Indiana University.
This article was originally submitted to the Elementary department of Social Education, whose editor is Mary Haas.