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Creating computer supported learning environments: A three year study

Paul Newhouse
Edith Cowan University

There has been tremendous debate over the past 20 years concerning the role computers should play in classrooms. My own position its that I firmly believe that computers have an important role to play in classrooms and that the 1990s will see the long prophesied impact of computers on classroom learning finally unfold. However, I am a strong advocate for the necessary role of the teacher and student peer interaction in classroom learning. As a result I am interested in the ways in which computers can support learning environments, not control or dominate them in the way that is sometimes envisaged.

This paper reports on a three year funded study concerned with the implementation of computer supported learning environments in secondary classrooms. In particular the study focused on developing such environments for a new upper secondary mathematics course for lower ability students in Western Australia and on computer rich learning environments. The mathematics course involved the use of mathematical modelling (Herrington, 1988) in the solution of real life problem situations. The syllabus for this course made it clear that it was intended that the students make substantial use of computer software.


After many years of having computers available in schools there has still been very little impact on learning associated with classrooms (Kissane, 1989; Olive, 1992). It has become clear that a key reason for this discrepancy is that the successful use of computers in learning is dependent more on the implementation strategy incorporated by the teacher than the actual hardware and software used, or even the association of the software to the task (Van Den Akker et. al., 1992). Further, it is clear that the concept of classroom environment is central to any study of the implementation of computer applications in the classroom (DeCorte, 1990). Fraser and Walberg (1991) describe a classroom environment as the 'social psychological contexts or determinants of learning' within the classroom.

If it is assumed that the environment in which the intended learning takes place is important and that learners need support, then the way in which computers can be used in relation to these contexts becomes significant. The technology should be used to enhance learning environments that are already known to be effective. Experienced educators know what they want to achieve and need the tools to allow them to provide students with the appropriate experiences. Computers are but one tool to which they might turn.

A new direction in mathematics education is the use of mathematical modelling to develop mathematical skills and concepts (Herrington, 1988). While this approach has a solid educational rationale it has been slow to evolve in our schooling system. A major reason for this situation is that it requires a fundamental change for both teachers and students and, in this respect, both teachers and students can benefit from technological support. The computer is needed to allow the development of an appropriate functional environment (Riel, 1989). A computer application may facilitate part of a modelling experience such as being an investigative or computational tool or used to check and present solutions (Herrington, 1988). Ideal applications address tasks which may inhibit students' overall progress or reduce their motivation.

Overview of study and findings

The overall aim of the study was to determine groups the features of, and appropriateness of, various implementation strategies or models for computer supported learning environments, especially those involved in group work support (Newhouse, 1992; Newhouse, 1993). There were four main components to the study: classroom action research, a state wide survey of teachers involved in the new courses, case studies of 11 of those teachers and their classes and an investigation of a computer rich classroom environment.

The study made use of a variety of qualitative and quantitative data sources. As well as questionnaires, standard instruments and interviews, many lessons were observed, anecdotal records were kept and informal discussion recorded. A classroom environment instrument was developed called the NCEI (New Classroom Environment Instrument) (Table 1) which is based on the Classroom Environment Scale developed by Rudolph Moos (Fraser and Walberg, 1991) with the addition of a Group Work measure from John Woods (thesis in preparation).

AFFAffiliationOOOrder and Organisation
TSTeacher SupportTCTeacher Control
GWGroup WorkINNInnovation
TOTask Orientation*[Maximum score of 24 on each measure]
* This measure was included only in earlier forms of the instrument.

Table 1: Measures for New Classroom Environment Instrument.

The study used the definition of three main types of implementation models: Whole class, One to one, and Group work support (Newhouse & Oliver, 1989). A particular model adopted was then classified using one of these types and specific parameters associated with the strategy such as: Location, Task Direction, Required Student/Computer Ratio, Access and Operating Instructions.

Initial classroom case study

During 1991 and 1992 the study investigated three classes involved with mathematical modelling and taught by the same teacher. In 1991 the researcher worked closely with the teacher to investigate the potential for computer support in these types of classes. In 1992 the researcher removed a large amount of the support previously made available to the teacher. In 1992 two other classes at the school were involved in a small investigation requiring comparisons between teachers and between content

A successful learning environment

This component of the study clearly showed that computer supported learning environments are appropriate to secondary mathematics classes using mathematical modelling. Successful learning environments were set up within which were implemented some computer supported activities. The analysis considered the whole approach to each modelling problem/project and the extent to which the computer application supported each which is supported by Olive (1992).

In 1991 students completed six major projects, five of which incorporated some computer use (1 to 3 Macintosh microcomputers). In general it appears that, as may be expected, enjoyment and perception of learning are reciprocally related with the exceptions of the Orienteering and Basketball Competition projects (Table 2). However, all students said that they enjoyed the five computer supported projects and only one student felt that very little mathematics had been learned from any of the projects. Students found the orienteering application to be the most useful and interesting (Table 3). This software was designed for the study to allow students to test or check their orienteering course directions.


MeanOrder MeanOrder

Reticulation (C)4.052.32
Subdivision of School (C) 3.242.63
Orienteering (C) 2.922.11
Basketball Competition 4.564.15
Fitness Testing (C) 3.1733.54
Playing Games (C) 2.315.06

[n = 22] (C) implies that the project made use of a computer application

Table 2: Mean student ranking of projects in 1991

All of the computer applications were successfully implemented and contributed in a small but significant way to the success of the student projects. Overall the study asserted that student computer literacy is not a critical factor in the success of such implementations and that to provide significant support for mathematical modelling it is only necessary to provide a small amount of reasonable quality hardware.

While in 1992 the main teacher continued to use the computers with his year 11 class, copying what had been done the previous year, he instigated very little computer use with the year 12 class and added little for the year 11 class. The teacher would be rated as a computer literate, experienced and enthusiastic teacher by most educators. He was disappointed that he had not made as much use of computer applications in the second year as he had the previous year or would have liked to. He largely put this down to his own lack of organisation and lack of time to think about new applications. The reduced support was also likely to be a factor since he felt the most important factors in successful implementations were: being organised, having computers available, knowing the software and having experience at teaching the course.

Student perception of outcomes were consistent with the previous year (Table 3) with preference for two computer applications used with the Buying a Car and Survey of School, projects, similar to the Orienteering application. These two projects made use of specifically designed computer software which offered computational and presentation tools to the students.


MeanOrder MeanOrder

Survey of School (C) 3.953.83
SimCity (C) 2.414.26
Build a Bridge 3.434.15
Build a House 3.843.94
Sharemarket Game 4.162.42
Buying a Car (C) 2.621.81

[n = 14] (C) implies that the project made use of a computer application

Table 3: Mean student ranking of projects in Year 12

Comparison of classes

In 1992, the students in the year 12 modelling class had experienced two years of mathematics in which successful implementation of computer supported projects had occurred. The study therefore considered the preferred and actual learning environments associated with this class and compared them with those of a number of other classes. The data appears to show a close match between the classroom environment preferred by students in the main class and the perceived actual classroom environment (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Actual and preferred environments for Year 12 modelling class

The study compared the main class (B) with another modelling class (C) which had a different teacher and did not use computers. From the graph in Figure 2 it appears that the perceived actual environment for the class involving computers was lower on the measures of Competition, Teacher Control but higher on Innovation. This is consistent with a more student centred learning environment which incorporates group work. The computer using class did indeed complete more group work than the other class.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Actual environments for Year 12 modelling classes

The main class was then compared with a Calculus class which had the same teacher and was not using computers. The data showed that the two classes had a similar preferred environment on most measures. However, there was a poor match between the preferred and actual environments for this Calculus class (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3: Actual and preferred environments for Year 12 calculus class

The fact that for one class there was a good match between measures of preferred and actual environment and with the other class there was not may in part be explained by the difference in the approach of the teacher to the classes, part of which is the use or non use of computers. The teacher had a much more 'conservative' teacher centred approach to the calculus class and thus it is not surprising that students perceived this classroom to be not high enough on Involvement, Affiliation, Teacher Support, Order and Organisation and Innovation. The same teacher set up two different learning environments, one matching the students' preferences much better than the other.

State wide survey of teachers

During 1992 a questionnaire was sent to all schools in the state addressed to teachers of the Maths in Practice course. There were 193 teachers who returned the survey of which 191 were useable. These teachers represented 107 schools in the state.

Generally it could be said that the teachers did not dislike teaching the unit and were more likely to see the unit as valuable than not. They tended not to be pleased with the standard of work produced by students. Most of the teachers encouraged students to help each other and preferred students to take responsibility for their own learning. Classroom activities organised by these teachers tended to be mainly projects, often conducted as group work exercises.

Only 43% of the teachers made use of computers at times in their modelling classes. Of those who did not, 59% were looking for a computer laboratory implementation and nearly half of them were not confident in using computers (Table 4). Those teachers who did use computers considered themselves to be computer literate and tended to locate suitable software to go with a certain project and then insist on each student using the software on that project.

Reason for not using computers % of non-
computer users

Difficult to get access to a computer laboratory 59
I am not confident in using a computer 46
It is difficult to get access to one computer 40
There is no useful software available 28
My students don't know how to use computers 24
Using a computer takes too much time and effort 19
Computer is not relevant to what the students do 12
Computer is not suitable for me to use 4
Computer is not suitable for the students to use 3

Table 4: Why MiP teachers don't use computers

There can be no doubt from the data that almost all teachers had access to enough hardware to implement some computer applications but not necessarily using a one to one, laboratory type of model. It is likely that little more than four percent of teachers could implement the one to one laboratory model (Table 5). Over 60% of the teachers who did use computers were in a situation where the only means of providing access is by a roster system and/or group work. This in fact fits the classroom learning model many of them stated that they want to pursue.

No%Potential computer access strategies

0 - 439Rostered groups or individuals
5 - 924Unlimited groups or rostered individuals
10 - 1933Unlimited pairs or rostered individuals
20 - 284Unlimited individuals

Table 5: Number of computers usually used with the class [n=80]

Seventy-six percent of teachers used IBM and compatibles (69% with mice), most likely running under MS DOS, with 24% using Macintosh computers and 16% Archimedes. The type of operating system available may be a major obstacle to implementing a range of computer applications in this unit. It is not surprising that by far the most used pieces of software are spreadsheets and word processors while there is a relative lack of use of simulations, statistics packages, databases, graphics and graphing packages (Table 6).

Software Type%

Word Processor56
Statistics Package15
Drill and Practice4
Percentage of teachers using computers with their classes [n = 80]

Table 6: Type of software used

It appears that this group of teachers wanted to implement the new course as intended and wanted to make use of computer applications but were finding it difficult to give their students adequate access to computers. This would suggest that these teachers are at the point where they are ready to move from the traditional static role of teachers to a more dynamic one which may 'reform the curriculum and transform their classrooms' (Olive, 1992). A lack of computer literacy and implementation experience are clearly crucial obstacles to be overcome.

Investigation of a sample

Data were collected from students and teachers from a sample of eleven classes taking the year eleven Mathematics in Practice unit. Unfortunately due to the reluctance of many schools and teachers to participate the final sample is not in any way a representative sample and therefore they must be considered as 11 case studies.

On average about half of the students had a computer at home. Most of the students encountered little or no use of computers in their other subject areas unless they studied computing or one or two of the business units. In most classes almost all students thought computers were useful and would like to use them more. Few teachers regarded themselves as computer literate but wanted to use computers at some stage. In a number of cases teachers talked about how they could use computers in the classroom as if they did so regularly. However, when specifically asked about the class in question they admitted that there had been no computer use to that date. Each class was classified by one of eight implementation models (Table 7).

of use
Location of
of computers
Model of


BModerateClassroom 6One to one rostered (TC)::
CModerateClassroom 6One to one rostered (TC)


FSomeLab 1/1One to one (SC)
GRegularLab 1/1Group work support (SC)

ISomeLab 1/2Group work support (TC)

KOnceLab 1/1Group work support (TC)
L*RegularClassroom 2Group work support (SC)

* This class was involved in the first two components of the project.
** For laboratories this is given as approximate ratio of computers to students.
:: TC = teacher control, SC = student control
[Regular = every week, Moderate = every month, Some = a few times a year]

Table 7: Use of computers by the mathematics modelling classes.

There were four classes which merit immediate attention and comparison, those classes which used computers relatively regularly (B, G, I, L). It would seem that the students in Class L (the main class used in the first phase of the project) have different expectations of their mathematics classroom, when compared with students from the other three classrooms, and perceive the classroom environment to be close to ideal (Figure 4). The students in classes B and G had similar expectations to each other and Class L but on a number of measures perceived their classroom environments to be less than desirable. The teachers in all three of these classes, B, G, and L, allowed students a reasonable degree of freedom both in terms of the selection of activities and behaviour patterns extending to the use of computers in classes G and L.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Classroom environment data from four of the classes

The more laissez faire environment provided in the three classes discussed above can be contrasted with the environment provided for students in Class I where there was a greater degree of control and uniformity, which was reflected in their use of computers in a laboratory. Students in this class tended to all do the same activities. be directed by the teacher at all times, and only use the computers when directed to do so. When using the computers all students did the same activities and went through the same processes, often at the same time. Students in this class clearly perceived their classroom environment to be less than desirable on four of the eight measures.

Computer rich classroom environments

The study finally investigated a number of classes in which all students had access to portable computers both at school and at home. At the beginning of 1993 all students in two year 7 classes were allocated Macintosh PowerBook computers. During the second semester a similar exercise was completed with four year 8 classes at the school. Each student in the school had a Duo Macintosh for their own personal use.

The data indicated that students in both year 7 classes were similar in what they would prefer for a learning environment but that there were a number of significant differences between the classes in their perceptions of the actual learning environment created (figure 5). This would largely reflect the different teaching styles of the teachers, the social organisation of the particular classes and perhaps the differing use of the PowerBooks.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Comparison of perceived environments for two year 7 classes.

In Class 1 the data indicated that the students would prefer more affiliation, teacher support and innovation and less competition and task orientation. Observations of this classroom indicated that tasks involving the PowerBooks were very structured and teacher controlled. The PowerBooks were used frequently and successfully but for a restricted range of activities. All students were usually required to do the same actions but as individuals.

In Class 2 the data indicated that the students would prefer more Order and Organisation but were reasonably happy on all other measures. Observations of this classroom indicated that tasks involving the PowerBooks tended to be fairly unstructured and student directed. Often students were required to 'find out for themselves' and approach the teacher for assistance when required. The class did not act as a whole group very often but rather worked individually or in groups.


Findings have highlighted a number of significant concerns in the development of computer supported learning environments particularly for lower ability students in mathematical modelling classes. Clearly the teacher and teacher characteristics are the most significant determinants in whether classrooms will involve computer use and the type of classroom learning environments which are developed. Teachers have difficulty making use of computers in their classrooms and require more personal support, even very experienced and competent teachers, and therefore there are very few examples currently available to investigate. This study supported the assertion by Van Den Akker et. al. (1992) that the interaction between teacher and courseware and the design of support materials are crucial to the successful implementation of computer supported learning.

This study found differences between learning environments partly attributable to the teacher's use of computer supported group work projects. This is consistent with other research literature which has found the classroom environment is heavily dependent on the teacher (Van Den Akker et. al., 1992 : Olive, 1992). Teachers can create a varying number of types of environments but to better match the preferred environment of their students teachers need to be given a degree of freedom and supporting resources. For the mathematical modelling classes References the new course permitted the freedom for some teachers and the use of computers provided some of the resources to allow those teachers to set up such an appropriate environment. In the words of Olive (1992) the teacher could be in a position to 'take charge of technology and use it to transform his own teaching environment'.

The study supported the proposition that the environment which is perceived by students to be most desirable was relatively open ended, student centred and more laissez fair than controlled. In the mathematics classes there were clear differences between the students' perceptions of the learning environments despite the fact that the intentions and aspirations of these teachers for their classes were not significantly different from those of the main teacher. A major factor which may have contributed to these differences in perceptions was the way in which computer support was made available. In very few classes was any computer support available and when it was it tended to be a special exercise, artificially imposed and not integrated with general classroom activities. The preferred environment was one in which computer use was optional, associated with major activities in the course, available when and where it was needed and focussed on tool applications.

This study sought to contribute to the ongoing debate concerning the relationship between computer use and the classroom environment (eg. Olson, 1988; Van Den Akker et. al., 1992). In the study by Riel (1989) it was found that while classroom organisation was not changed by computer use the patterns of interaction between students and students and teacher were changed. In contrast this study's findings seem to indicate that teachers may in fact alter the classroom organisation and that computer use may be part of the motivation and/or support to do so. However, it certainly would appear that patterns of interaction are different when computers are introduced into the classroom environment, particularly between teacher and students. This study found that successful computer supported learning environments tended to be student centred and involve a high degree of student-student interaction.


DeCorte, E. (1990). Learning with new information technologies in schools: Perspectives from the psychology of learning and instruction. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 6, 69-87.

Fraser, B. J. and Walberg, H. J. (1991). Educational Environments. Pergamon Press: Oxford.

Herrington, A. J. (1988). Using a computer to develop mathematical processes. Paper presented at the Australian Computers in Education Conference, Sept 1988.

Kissane, B. V. (1989). The computer: The next tool for high school mathematics? Login, 3(4), 6-14.

Newhouse, P. (1992). Mathematical modelling using computers: Not just for the 'clever'! Paper presented at the Australian Computers in Education Conference, July 1992.

Newhouse, P. (1993). Are Australian classrooms ready for computers? Paper presented at the Australian Computers in Education Conference, July 1993.

Newhouse, P. and Oliver, R. (1989). Teachers Use Computers. Napier Publications: Perth. Australia.

Olive, J. (1992). Technology and school mathematics. International Journal of Educational Research, 17, 503-515.

Olson, J. (1988). Schoolworlds-Microworlds. Pergamon Press: Oxford, England.

Riel, M. (1989). The impact of computers in classrooms. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, Winter 1989, 180-189.

Van Den Akker, J., Keursten, P and Plomp, T. (1992). The integration of computer use in education. International Journal of Educational Research, 17, 65-76.

Author: Paul Newhouse, Computer Education, Edith Cowan University, 2 Bradford St, Mt Lawley, Western Australia 6050. Ph: (09) 370 6469; fax: (09) 370 2910; email:

Please cite as: Newhouse, P. (1994). Creating computer supported learning environments: A three year study. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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