Moursund's IT in Education Home Page

Free Materials

Recommendations for Research and Development in Information Technology in Education

Recommendations for Research and Development in Information Technology in Education. Reprinted with permission from Learning and Leading with Technology (c) 2000-2001, ISTE (the International Society for Technology in Education. 800.336.5191 (U.S. & Canada) or 541.302.3777,, Reprint permission does not constitute an endorsement by ISTE of the product, training, or course.


This document was developed by the ISTE Research Committee during February 2001. The purpose of this document was to help convince educational leaders in President Bush's administration to continue an orderly program of educational research, especially in the area of IT in education. David Moursund was the lead author for this document.


Federal interest in information technology (IT) in education has a very long history. During the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, federally-funded research and development produced comprehensive programs of computer-assisted instruction in a wide variety of subject (e.g., the PLATO system at the University of Illinois), innovative software for teaching students how to use computers as analytic tools (e.g., LOGO), and training teachers how to incorporate this new technology into their instruction. The past decade has seen even more involvement of both state and federal governments in funding IT in education (cf., and

Despite these research activities, funding for IT-oriented research and development (R&D) has not kept pace with the rapid improvements in IT capabilities or the rapid proliferation of IT facilities in schools (as detailed in the March 1997 Report to the President on the use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States; ). Moreover, funding for developing teacher expertise in using IT has not been adequate, given the enormous increase in the number of teachers who attempt to use IT in their teaching. Thus, despite increased federal and state investments, there are huge gaps between the potential of IT to improve student learning and teacher professional work and what is actually being accomplished.

Several recent reports (Report of the Web-based Education Commission to the President and Congress of the United States, December, 2000 ([]; the U.S. Department of Education's Report on e-Learning: The National Educational Technology Plan, Dec. 2000 []; and the recent special issue on children and computer technology of the Packard Foundation journal, The Future of Children, []) all contain a similar message: Our educational system can be significantly improved by appropriate use of the newest electronic information and communication technologies. But this can only be accomplished through investing in R&D to develop effective instructional programs grounded in research on cognitive processes, student motivation, classroom implementation, and the capabilities provided by these emerging technologies.

Applied research and theoretical research are both needed, and curriculum development needs to be tied to this research. The R&D needs to take into consideration the continued exponential rate of improvement of computer speed, computer storage capacity, and bandwidth of connectivity. It needs to take into consideration continued progress in artificial intelligence, for example, voice input systems, language translation systems, intelligent computer-assisted instruction systems, and expert systems that can solve or help solve an increasingly wide range of problems. It needs to take into consideration the progress occurring in brain research, and educational tools that are beginning to emerge from this research (e.g.,

The R&D should include a significant emphasis on needs of undeserved students and students with special needs. The R&D also needs to take into consideration that people (for example, students and educators) and institutions (such as schools) do not and cannot change as rapidly as IT has been changing. There needs to be a close connection between the R&D, educators, and students. Too often, educators and students are left out of the R&D loop. We need to conduct large-scale experiments in which we try out our "state of the art" research-based knowledge of uses of IT in education. This means that we need to develop research environments and research studies that encompass entire schools and that are extended over a substantial period of years.

There are literally dozens of uses of IT in education where the current R&D base is completely inadequate in comparison to the payoff that is likely to accrue from additional investments. Rather than trying to provide a comprehensive agenda for needed research, the intent of this paper is instead to highlight, through examples, seven critical ways in which federal R&D investment in IT in education can powerfully affect the outcomes of our existing commitments to educating the next generation of Americans.

#1: Enhancing Student Learning of the Existing Curriculum

Although IT can help students more efficiently learn the "traditional" curriculum content and to make use of what they are learning, we simply do not have adequate research on how to appropriately blend traditional teaching methods with use of the power of IT as an aid to student learning.

First, by far the most common way that students use computers for schoolwork, both at home and at work, is through the computer application of word processing. Writing is a standard component of the curriculum, and word processors have been available for more than two decades. Yet relatively little consideration has gone into how writing instruction and writing assignments need to change in order to take account of not only word processing, but computer-based information resources such as the World Wide Web. What traditional practices in writing assignments need to be changed to most appropriately respond to the different technological environment which students find themselves in? What opportunities does this IT-rich environment provide for improving student writing (e.g., multiple revisions of work; collaborative rather than individual writing) and how are those to be accomplished? What dangers need to be avoided (e.g., plagiarism), and how should writing assignments be structured and evaluated to best circumvent new problems that the IT-rich environment produces? As with other examples, R&D investment should include both development-oriented work piloting particular instructional practices and evaluative work examining the consequences when those practices are successfully implemented.

Second, IT provides powerful tools for storing, categorizing, analyzing, and retrieving information of all types. The Internet provides good examples. Cellular telephones can now be used to access the Web and to send email messages. We do not have adequate research on how these IT aids to students should be integrated into the everyday curriculum or how student learning in such environments should be assessed.

For still another example, consider the following question. If students can be routinely taught to solve a given type of problem by using a computer or calculator, a problem that we are currently teaching students to solve "by hand," what changes (if any) should we make in this component of the current curriculum? This question is applicable to every academic discipline in our schools. We do not have adequate R&D in providing answers to this profound educational question.

As a final example, consider computer-assisted instruction. Progress in this area, aided by progress in artificial intelligence, has produced some quite powerful aids to student learning. One of the goals in such systems is for the computer system to incorporate a good model of the teaching and learning process for the topics being covered, and for the computer system to "learn" individual characteristics of the learner, and to take these into consideration in the instructional process. However, we have a great need for more R&D in intelligent computer-assisted instruction systems.

#2 Student Learning of IT Skills

The field of computer and information science has been growing rapidly for more than 50 years. For more than 40 years, our K-12 schools have experimented with teaching computer and information science content, with varying levels of success. One of the most important ideas in computer and information science is the idea of a "procedure" that can be carried out by a computer and/or other automated equipment. What do we want students to learn about the development (creation, testing, and debugging) of such procedures? What do we want them to learn about procedural thinking, representing and solving problems that make use of procedures that can be carried out by a computer and/or other automated equipment?

Specific examples are provided by spreadsheets and databases. Students of widely varying grade levels and abilities can learn to develop spreadsheets and databases that represent problems that they are learning to solve and areas that they are studying. With these spreadsheet and database "models," they can pose and answer "what if?" types of questions and engage in other higher-order thinking activities. With the graphing facilities in spreadsheet programs, students can graphically represent the results of their modeling and problem-solving efforts.

Another good source of examples comes from learning to read and write in an interactive hypermedia environment. This includes learning to develop interactive Web documents that communicate effectively. We lack adequate R&D to support this newly emerging component of our school curriculum.

Still another example is provided by students making extensive use of IT as they carry out project-based learning and problem-based learning activities. Often there are multiple goals in such project work, such as learning within a specific content area, learning to work cooperatively in groups, and learning IT as an aid to doing projects and communicating the findings.

#3 Modifications to the Traditional Curriculum

There is a growing disparity between the content of the traditional curriculum and the knowledge and skills that students need to have to become productive citizens and participants in the 21st century world economy. It is not just that the problem-solving methods that students are learning in school and the problem-solving methods used by people on the job differ, but in an adult world with increasingly more diverse and more powerful IT systems, graduating students need a whole different set of intellectual and practical competencies than the ones historically given priority in "comprehensive" schooling. We lack adequate research on how to educate students for adult life in a world with steadily increasing access to powerful IT systems and where IT access and skills convert into valuable resources for employment and citizenship.

A good example is provided by computer simulations in the sciences and the social sciences. The 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to two "computational chemists." This type of use of computer simulations in the sciences has been common for several decades. We are all aware of economic forecasts based on computer modeling. Computer simulation (development and use of computer models) is now a standard tool in the sciences, social sciences, business, and engineering. For the most part, however, this new way of "knowing and using" knowledge in various subject matter areas has not been incorporated into our K-12 educational system. We need extensive R&D in this area.

#4 Schoolwide Reform and Restructuring

IT is a powerful component of many schoolwide reform and restructuring programs. For example, IT facilitates new arrangements for learning by people of all ages through community learning networks. IT facilitates interaction between school and home, school and workplace, school and informal institutions of learning such as museums, and so on. IT can help improve communication among educators, facilitating sharing of expertise. IT can help break down school walls that many people see as a barrier to learning. We do not have adequate research on effective uses of IT in overall programs of school renewal and school reform. In addition, we need more research on roles of IT in informal learning, such as children using computers at home.

Our current educational system is often called a "factory model" of education. IT can help to broaden the range of educational opportunities available to students. With the aid of distance learning, for example, a student might well take additional courses during the academic year and/or the summer. Such coursework might be in areas, and at an academic level, very specifically suited to the interests and needs of the student. This would help to break the lockstep design of our current educationally system. We need more research on how to make use of distance learning as a component of renewal and restructuring of our educational system.

#5 Assessment and Accountability

IT brings new challenges as well as new tools to assessment and accountability. For example, suppose that we want to determine a student's level of knowledge and skills in using the Web as an aid to researching various topics. Clearly, we need a "hands-on" type of assessment. It is possible to develop such assessment tools so that they track the movements of the student from site to site on the Web, and the amounts of time spent on various sites.

Other examples can be given from any discipline in which IT is a significant aid to solving the problems and carrying out the tasks in the discipline. For example, to assess student use of spreadsheets to do higher order thinking, we need to have a student develop a spreadsheet model for a problem, pose "what if?" types of questions, and answer the questions. This needs to be done in a hands on mode.

Or, consider student writing. If a student is skilled at using a word processor, then how well does a paper and pencil writing test measure the student's writing abilities, versus a test in which the student writes using a word processor? And, suppose that the test involves doing research on a topic and then writing about the topic? Must the student do the research using only print materials, or can the student access the Web and other electronic resources? How does the combination of access to word processing facilities and electronic sources of information affect the quality of a student's writing?

We need more R&D in all aspects of assessment and accountability related to integration of IT into the curriculum. At the current time, we have relatively little research on the interaction of the medium used in learning and the medium used in assessment. Our current emphasis on paper and pencil assessment instruments does not provide a good measure of what a student can do using the contemporary IT tools that adults use on the job. Moreover, the emphasis on paper and pencil tests tends to cause teachers to de-emphasize students learning to make effective use of IT as an aid to solving the types of problems and accomplishing the types of tasks that students are studying in school.

#6 Pushing the Envelope

IT is providing powerful new ways to think about education. Moreover, the continued rapid pace of change of IT has led to the acceptance of students needing to learn to be independent, self-sufficient, lifelong learners.

The Web is making available "anytime, anywhere, any-topic" interactive instruction that can support both formal and informal lifelong learning. The highly interactive nature of IT makes it possible to provide students powerful aids to ongoing self-assessment as well as individualized aids to learning. We do not have adequate research on how to develop IT-based interactive instructional materials that will meet the individual needs of learners. We do not have adequate research on how to help students learn to learn in such environments, and on how to appropriately blend these new aids to learning with traditional aids to learning. And, we do not have adequate research on how to access student progress in learning to be an independent, self sufficient, lifelong learner.

IT is a powerful aid to helping to solve the problems and accomplish the tasks faced by adults in work, home, and other settings. People and machines work together, each contributing unique knowledge, skills, and capabilities. Our current educational system provides relatively little focus on helping students learn to work effectively with powerful IT facilities. We need more R&D on an effective curriculum to prepare our children for adult life in environments that provide routine and easy access to IT.

#7 Research Methodologies

Educational researchers have developed a number of different methodologies. These have been refined over the years, and continue to undergo significant change based on "research on research" and the development of new tools. IT provides powerful new tools for educational research and for research on IT in education. IT is also an integral component of the new tools that are being used in brain research and other components of the neural and cognitive sciences. For example, we can now use instruments that measure brain wave activity and eye-tracking instruments as we study students using IT to help carry out research and solve complex problems.

The underlying goal of educational research is to improve the quality of formal and informal education being received by learners of all age levels, and in both formal and informal educational settings. We are beginning to have research tools and methodologies that can track what is going on inside the mind of a learner. Already, such research has led to significant gains in helping students with different types of dyslexia and other serious learning challenges. Continued R&D in the neural and cognitive sciences is essential to long term progress in improving our educational system.

Final Remarks and Conclusion

There are many areas of needed R& D that have not been mentioned in the above discussion, and new topics continue to emerge.

Consider the growing use of Internet access built into cell telephones and other easily portable, handheld devices. We lack adequate research on potential impacts on education. Consider continuing progress in artificial intelligence, such as voice input systems and language translation systems. These developments have significant educational implications, and we do not have enough research to make informed decisions on their educational uses. As children make more and more use of IT, they are at risk of certain types of repetitive use injuries to their wrists and back. They are at risk for eye strain, and of increased obesity. More R&D is needed in these areas.

IT is an important new component of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in all disciplines and at all levels of education. In addition, IT provides powerful new tools for conducting research on these various components of education. ISTE supports a strong agenda of research on both IT in education and IT as an aid to educational research.

Top of Page