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Changing learning contexts with technology: Design and innovation in creating new learning materials

Nicola Yelland
Jennifer Masters

Kelvin Grove Campus, Queensland University of Technology
The purpose of this paper is to present and discuss ways in which we developed a University based unit to assist pre service teachers to use technology to create individualised learning environments for young children. Such contexts are characterised by knowledge building and information exploration, which enable learners to use processes and develop skills fundamental to discovery based learning principles. This was the case both for the University students and the children who they were preparing to teach.

We have developed a number of courses at the University level which, while the students enrolled in them attend classes on campus also contain on line resources. We share an example of one unit here. The courses provide a context in which students can share their work, based in technological environments, with others - both at the production stage for constructive feedback, and when completed in order to share their ideas with other professionals. They also provide the opportunity for the students to become involved in the design and implementation process. When the University students completed their project we arranged for a class from a nearby primary school to come in to test drive the final products so that the students were able to see how real children would react to them. Our desire was to enable the University students, many of whom had no prior experience with computers except for word processing, web access, or the use of CDROMS which had an educational content, to use information and communication technologies (ICT) in a personal way that was relevant to the needs of the children that they were teaching in a school based curriculum context.


A number of government initiatives have been implemented in order to get computers in schools and to coax teachers into using them. It would seem that education for the information age is recognized as important to governments across the world. The United Kingdom has established a National Grid for Learning (NGfL) which will connect education facilities to homes and services such as libraries and museums and all Local Education Authorities are required to develop plans for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in order to receive funding. The stated priorities of the NGfL are connecting schools with minimum access charges, the development of curricula which will be available on the Grid and supporting the development of ICT in all schools. In Queensland, the Primary computer program ($20 million, 1993 to 1996) provided funds so that year 6 and 7 classes throughout the state could have one computer for 10 students and more recently this has extended "down" to the lower grades so that they may enjoy the same children to computer ratios. In the plan, money was to be set aside for both software purchase and professional development, but in reality many schools spent their allocation on hardware and had to rely on other funds to support the purchases of essential software and professional development opportunities were rare for staff. Since this time numerous other official documents such as the Schooling 2001 Project have reaffirmed government commitment to the use of technology in schools. Yet one only has to walk into a classroom today to see that while technological advances in society have been stunning over the past two decades, the developments in school have been somewhat lagging.

Papert (1996) was scathing in his condemnation of policy and practice in terms of computers in schools:

The cyberostriches who make school policy are determined to use computers but can only imagine using them in the framework of the school system, as they know it: children following a predetermined curriculum mapped out year by year and lesson by lesson. This is quite perverse: new technology being used to strengthen a poor method of education that was invented only because there were no computers when school was designed. (p.25)
In a similar vein Hawkins (1993) suggested that the discussions about the promise of technologies to improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools has been too narrowly focussed on isolated learning with machines. Hawkins recommended that a new approach characterised by a deliberate emphasis on designing and using technology to improve the organization of schooling and learning opportunities in them, was needed. It was evident that early courses related to the use of technology in classrooms tended to focus on the machines rather than how to use them to support teaching and learning. This was often achieved under the banner of 'computer literacy' when, what teachers really needed was support and ideas of the best ways to incorporate technology into their curriculum and activities that might promote new ways of thinking as well as to enhance existing tasks via technological applications. Contemporary research (e.g. Resnick, 1987; Scardamalia & Berieter, 1992) has revealed that effective education is characterised by providing contexts in which children can engage with materials and ideas in collaborative and individual learning activities in which they are afforded the opportunity to use artefacts of the culture in an atmosphere of challenge, inquiry, decision making and experimentation. In essence two basic conditions have been extrapolated from the large body of work. These include knowledge about when students learn most effectively, that is:

Preparing teachers for the 21st Century

It has been noted that teachers lack confidence in using technology and identify experience with computers as a high priority in their professional development (Hargraves, Comer and Galton, 1996). Many teachers can use a small range of applications (Murray & Collison, 1995) but are reluctant to go beyond that phase of development. In the United Kingdom the inspectorate have confirmed that teachers lack confidence and knowledge about the variety of applications that are available (Goldstein, 1997). They did however recognize that there were many incidences of valuable and innovative work being carried out by some teachers. These were often related to effective use of graphics packages, yet they were viewed as occurring in isolation. At the present time there are many demands on a teacher's time and the use of the various manifestations of technology rates poorly alongside basic proficiency in literacy and numeracy and the development of skill and knowledge in the core areas of the curriculum. A basic problem remains that technology, and computers in particular, are regarded more as just another thing to cover, than as a device that can enhance exploration and learning. A change of mindset is needed to address this problem.

Teachers have identified both benefits and disadvantages regarding the use of computers in schools (Bliss. Chandra and Cox, 1986). In considering the advantages, those that were mentioned most frequently included the computer being:

Disadvantages included: In our undergraduate program we help to prepare elementary and early childhood teachers in a four-year Bachelor of Education Program. Students attend classes on campus on a full time basis and enroll in a large number of core courses. To some extent electives and choice of majors are limited and defined by demand.

In all of the core units that may be offered to these students, such as MDB385: Information Technology in Educational Contexts, MDB383: Using Information Technologies in the Curriculum and EAB 347: Early mathematical explorations and a number of curriculum and discipline electives, the use of technology is integrated into the content. These courses have on line resource pages that contain lecture content and notes, information about assessment, additional information related to readings and activities associated with them. The web sites also have e-mail discussion lists and are able to be linked to resources that assist in the preparation of assignments.

Examples from practice

Early childhood and primary teachers are known for their creative production of resources that engage young children's imagination and provide a context for exploration of ideas in new and dynamic ways. While the most common use of computers with young children involves commercially produced software, basically in a limited way to reinforce traditional curricula, the potential of computers to provide exciting and relevant learning environments, that are local in nature, and easily developed by teachers, is largely ignored.

In the Elective unit EAB 422: Technology and the Young Child, which we team teach, we promote the practice of teachers building resources for learning, using technology, that are relevant to their own context but can be used on a wider scale. Subsequently, a major assessment item is the development of a multi media resource for learning that will be used by children in the elementary years of schooling Our purpose was to use utility software, such as HTML, Powerpoint and the Multimedia application, Microworlds. The resources that were developed were cognizant of key learning areas and were designed to help children work collaboratively on meaningful tasks that were based in a problem solving approach. In doing this, we considered the following issues:

The most recent implementation of this unit produced some excellent resources. The students, who were from the third and fourth year of the early childhood teacher education program, used this opportunity to develop effective curriculum teaching and learning stimuli using computer based experiences.

The following extract from the course outline indicates what the students were required to achieve.

Create a multimedia teaching resource suitable for use with children in the age range three to 8 years. This should be submitted on a 3.5 floppy disk. Provide one page of implementation notes that indicates to a teacher audience: It is anticipated that your resource will act as one or more of the following: This task addresses objectives 3, 5, 6 of the course.
The format of the task was deliberately left open for individual interpretation by the students so that they could respond in a variety of different ways. Some chose to focus on a theme and then integrate a number of curriculum activities into the resource. Others focused on a stimulus item, such as a book, and then provided information and extension tasks that would engage the learner in specific knowledge and skill building activities. Another approach was to consider a generic activity, such as journal writing, and then create a context for the children to participate in activities in the genre related to a stimulus or theme.

Creating web based applications

Felix Around the World

Letters from Felix is a children's book by Annette Langen that tells of the adventures of a lost rabbit who sends home letters to his owner from locations around the world. Two students, Amanda and Melina, built their resource, a web page, around the theme of the book using Netscape composer. They not only developed their own activity pages but also set up links to museums in the locations that were identified and mentioned in the letters that formed part of the story. Their focus was both to encourage children to develop the genre of letter writing, participate in activities related to their program in mathematics and social studies, and also to engage in collaborative problem solving using technology. Additionally, they could also use research centers, that is museums around the world, in virtual contexts to compliment local visits and investigations (

In another example, Erin created a web page that told of her family's interesting history as caretakers of a city landmark, the Indoorpilly Bridge. Erin, used this as a stimulus to a unit of work that was concerned with a Studies of Society and the Environment unit. She told the story of her family as a catalyst to the children's own investigations of their own families which she then planned to document via the use of ICT to post on the Intranet. The way in which Erin shared her personal history with the group that she was teaching initiated some interesting discussions and was the stimulus for the young children to collect their own memorabillia and stories from their own families.


Pirate Stew

Colleen and Gaynor used Powerpoint (Figure 1) to record a visit by Colleen's (practicum) pre-school to a drama production of Pirate Stew. The resource provided a context in which the children could record and recall their visit to the production. While on the excursion the students took photographs and later scanned them and created graphics files. These were then integrated into the Powerpoint presentation in order to re-tell the story. The text used in the slides was the "Queensland Cursive Font", an electronic version of the hand-writing taught in schools in the State. Additionally, Colleen retold the sequence of events and used the recording as an audio file attached to each slide and she even sang the accompanying songs. The Powerpoint presentation was then loaded on to the pre-school computer, so that the children could revisit the event during class times.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A slide from the "Pirate Stew" Powerpoint presentation


Happy Birthday, Jane

This resource was an interactive multi-media presentation developed in the "Microworlds" application. Catriona took the popular theme of birthdays and developed a number of mathematical activities which included sorting, counting and patterning as well as those associated with number and spatial concepts. Microworlds has a Logo programming interface, a drawing center, writing capability and the option to incorporate both graphics and sound into the resource. Catriona utilized these functions effectively to produce an appropriate resource. The scope of this project is revealed in the curriculum web reproduced in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Birthday activities in the "Happy Birthday Jane" resource


Sarah and Tammie used Microworlds in the context of a Science theme to present the life cycle of the silkworm. In accordance with the aims of the University assignment, they made their resource interactive so children could use the environment to record and present information about their own silkworm projects. The multimedia functions of Microworlds were particularly useful in this instance. Buttons were use to navigate through the pages of the resource and by attaching custom designed shapes to the "turtles" on the page, the students could provide objects on the page that the children could move around according to the requirements of the various tasks. For example they could be sequenced to create the life cycle or form the basis of a classification task.


Teachers have to be particularly discriminating in their choice, and use of, computer applications and ensure that the primary goal of using the resource is engagement and learning, via active exploration and the deployment of problem-solving processes. Selecting software to incorporate and use in educational contexts is not an easy task. There are a bewildering array of titles that make wild promises about being able to engage children to learn a multitude of concepts and skills. We have attempted to show how this can be achieved with reference to a few specific examples, that have incorporated the use of utility software. We have highlighted applications that are conducive to meaningful engagement with ideas, via the use of technology, and suggested some ways in which educational contexts can be organized in order to achieve mastery over the machine, while motivated by the task and the magic of the moment. The students enrolled in the course all indicated that their confidence and competence with technology had increased significantly as a result of their participation in it. Not only this, but many indicated that they had developed new strategies and skills, which they felt that they could use across the curriculum so that they were able to integrate computer based learning contexts with traditional materials, in new and dynamic ways. Since all the computer based applications were trialled with children they were modified as necessary to suit the needs of the children they were designed for. In this way all projects were effective in meeting the educational objectives stated and all the students were in a position of having a positive experiences with regards to learning with technology. In the immediate future the challenge will be to provide opportunities for children to extend exploration in technological environments in more dynamic and interactive ways.


Bliss, J., Chandra, P. & Cox, M. (1986). The introduction of computers into a school. Computer Education, 10, 1.

Clements, D.H., Nastasi, B.K. & Swaminathan, S. (1993). Young children and computers: crossroads and directions from research. Young Children, 48(2), 56-64.

Goldstein, G. (1997). IT in English schools: A commentary on inspection findings 1996-1996. London: OFSTED/NCET.

Hargraves, L., Comber, C. & Galton, M. (1996). The national curriculum: Can small schools deliver? Confidence and competence levels of teachers in small rural primary schools. British Educational Research Journal, 22(1), 89-99.

Hawkins, J. (1993). Technology and the organization of schooling. Technology in Education, 36(3), 30-35.

Murray, D. & Collison, J. (1995). Students IT capability within a school based primary IT course. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 11(3), 170-181.

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

Resnick, L. (1987). Education and learning to think. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. (1991). Higher level of agency for children in knowledge building. A challenge for the design of new knowledge media. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 1(1), 51-68.

Contact details: Dr Nicola Yelland, School of Early Childhood, QUT, Kelvin Grove Campus, Victoria Park Rd, Kelvin Grove, Queensland. Phone (07) 3864 3171 Fax (07) 3864 3989 Email

Please cite as: Yelland, N. and Masters, J. (2001). Changing learning contexts with technology: Design and innovation in creating new learning materials. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 742-748. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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