Imagine you're a high-school student sitting in biology class. Would you rather listen to your teacher lecture about the scientific method? Or would you rather learn it firsthand by solving a murder?
Educational psychologist Susan M. Miller, PhD, of Temple University is betting on the latter. She and an engineer are creating a multimedia software program that allows students to do just that.
"Students like video games," says Miller, an assistant educational psychology professor and director of the university's instructional and learning technology program. "If you can tap into these gamelike qualities, it can be very motivating. The question is how we can adapt that way of thinking and make it educational."
As chalk and blackboards give way to computers, electronic smartboards, handheld devices, the Internet and other innovations, educational psychologists are working to ensure that such technologies truly enhance teaching and learning.
Like Miller, some concentrate on designing products that meet students' cognitive and developmental needs. Others focus on harnessing technology's potential to make teachers' jobs easier. Still others work at the organizational level.
Educational technology is becoming ever-more sophisticated, says Miller. First-generation classroom technology aimed to facilitate students' acquisition of basic concepts and skills, such as vocabulary or early math. Now, she says, the focus is shifting to technology that facilitates higher-order thinking, such as problem-solving or critical reasoning. And that makes psychologists' input more important than ever before.
Take the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project she's developing with colleague Brian P. Butz, PhD, an electrical engineering professor at Temple, and aided by high school biology teacher Robert Cooper.
The murder investigation and other scenarios in the biology software they're creating help students develop scientific reasoning skills, says Miller. In the murder investigation module, for example, students learn the skills scientists use to generate working hypotheses by identifying murder suspects. The students then sift through the evidence to solve the case, just like scientists do. The interactive program also tracks students' progress, individualizes instruction and helps the teacher become what educational psychologists call the "guide on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage." Plus, says Miller, the software's mix of text, graphics and video make using it fun.
"Often in school, you learn concept after concept after concept and memorize them for the test," says Miller. "This kind of software helps individuals connect these isolated facts and concepts and shows how they can be useful in everyday life."
Evaluating such products is another important role for educational psychologists, adds Miller, noting that schools sometimes follow fads rather than science in their technological choices. "Things that sound really good can be adopted or become popular because they're easy to use or intuitively appealing, but there may not be evidence for the effectiveness or efficacy of those approaches," she says.
In her recent evaluation of another of Butz' creations-an interactive, multimedia tutoring system for undergraduate engineers-Miller found that the technology helped students improve their understanding of difficult concepts. Students also enjoyed the experience.
Having psychologists involved in the design and evaluation of educational technology is especially important in the current climate, says Barbara Means, PhD, co-director of SRI International's Center for Technology and Learning in Menlo Park, Calif.
"Right now we have such an emphasis on content standards," says Means, co-author of "Using Technology Evaluation to Enhance Student Learning" (Teachers College, 2003). The push to make sure that all the required topics are covered can cause product developers to overlook the science of learning, she says. Psychologists can help developers ensure that an understanding of how students learn gets equal play with technical capabilities and content knowledge when it comes to formulating new programs.
Psychologists can also help product developers take into account teachers' own insights about how products might actually be used, says Means. Outside the laboratory, she explains, products may not be used the way they're designed to be.
As an example, Means cites the work she and her colleagues did with a company that had designed an online "adventure learning" product that encouraged students to explore a scientific mystery. Their evaluation revealed that teachers weren't making the most of this new teaching tool.
"Many teachers were just integrating it into the way they were used to teaching," says Means. "What was intended to be something that would lead students to very thoughtful, deep explorations of how you would amass evidence for arguments was being used as a vocabulary teaching tool."
Means and her colleagues helped the designers redesign the product's activities to encourage real thinking rather than "going through the motions."
Even when products are designed with teachers' needs in mind, schools don't always give teachers the support they need to make the most out of technological innovations, says Glenn E. Snelbecker, PhD, an educational psychology professor at Temple University.
"Often the focus is on the acquisition of technological resources rather than how they can have an impact on students' learning and achievement," says Snelbecker.
Instructional technology specialists like those trained in Temple's educational psychology program can help, says Snelbecker, noting that these professionals receive training not only in the ins and outs of hardware and software but also in how educators can use them most effectively. But many schools-at all levels-don't know about these specialists or don't think they're necessary. "Until we have those kind of specialists in place," he says, "we're not going to get as much value out of instructional technology resources as we could."
To help spread the word about how instructional technology specialists can help educators, Snelbecker and Miller hosted a two-day conference last year that brought together instructional technology faculty and K-12 teachers and administrators from across Pennsylvania. He, Miller and Robert Zheng, EdD, are also surveying research universities across the country to see how many offer training for these specialists.
Snelbecker is also taking matters into his own hands: He's developing a step-by-step guide that harried teachers can use to make classroom response systems less intimidating and time-consuming to use.
Meanwhile, other educational psychologists are helping develop technology to make teachers' jobs easier.
Margaret Honey, PhD, vice president of the Education Development Center in New York City and director of its Center for Children and Technology, works with a company called Wireless Generation to develop assessment tools that run on handheld computers. Teachers use the handhelds to capture data about students' reading and math skills and then transfer that information to a Web-based tool on their desktop computers to track progress over time.
Using handheld tools for diagnostic purposes offers several advantages, says Honey. The tools use a scripted protocol, so assessments are consistent. They tabulate results automatically, so scoring assessments takes less of a teacher's time. And they track the kind of mistakes particular students make, so teachers can customize their instruction.
"Because teachers have this information immediately at their disposal, they're more likely to put it to work," says Honey. "They're very attuned to what their students need, who needs a particular kind of intervention and so on." Honey's NSF-funded research suggests that using these handheld computers this way may boost student achievement.
The handhelds may also give a psychological boost to teachers in a testing-oriented climate.
"The advantage of this kind of diagnostic assessment...is that the teachers feel much more like they have control over the assessment process," says Honey. "The tools put assessment squarely back into the instructional context."
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.