Learning Science at a Distance: Using Interactive Television to Work with Schools

Article excerpt

In the 1980's the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell pioneered the use of a two-way television network linking it to public school districts in northeastern Massachusetts. In the thirteen years of the network's existence we have paid close attention to the teaching and learning of students at near (the college) and far (the schools) sites as we have attempted to serve as a model for the demonstration of unique uses for interactive television.

Nationally, interactive television networks have been established primarily for course sharing between high schools, to counteract teacher shortages in subjects such as physics and mathematics. This is particularly true of rural areas of the United States (Greenwood & McDevitt, 1988; Robinson, Collins & West, 1985). Additionally, interactive television networks give schools the opportunity to enroll their students in undergraduate courses at local universities and colleges. However, early in the development of television for instructional purposes, it was realized that exclusive use of traditional classroom models failed to exploit the potential of the medium (Carey, 1978). Interactive television provides a means of developing new strategies and opportunities for students to learn.

At the University of Massachusetts Lowell, credit bearing courses for high school students are still regularly aired, as well as graduate courses for teachers who can participate by staying at their school site. In addition, the interactive television system is used -to give schools access to the resources of the university and to provide our own graduate students with a window into elementary and secondary classrooms. We have offered more than 'televised lectures' and have attempted to maximize interactivity between participating sites (Greenwood & McDevitt, 1988). This paper will describe some of the unique ways in which we have used the interactive television network to enhance students' learning in science.

Team Teaching in Elementary Science

One of the first uses of the system was to help elementary teachers to develop a better understanding of how to teach science. The primary objective of elementary teachers is often "coverage" of science topics emphasizing the learning of answers more than exploration of questions (Martens, 1992). This situation has arisen because generally K-6 teachers do not possess adequate conceptual understanding of science to enable them to approach it as inquiry (Shymansky, Yore & Good, 1991). Additionally, research shows that although many teachers attend science institutes and workshops and report their enjoyment of engaging in hands-on science instruction, they fail to significantly change their classroom teaching practices (Baird, Ellis & Kuerbis, 1989).

With these findings in mind, we used the interactive television network to teach elementary science to fourth grade students and their teachers in order to model appropriate science instruction and to allow teachers to see its effects on student learning. As the science methods instructor at the College of Education, I led these interactive lessons. We invited a class of students from a non-networked school, to the college, to participate in the science lessons. Thus, there was a class directly in front of me (the near site) and several miles away in another school district (the far site). The lesson was planned jointly between myself and the classroom teachers so that we understood the purpose and nature of the activities to be performed. Prior to the broadcast, science equipment for the lessons was delivered to the far site school.

At the beginning of the lesson, I introduced the inquiry to all the children using the overhead camera to give them a good view of the materials to be employed. As students began working on their tasks the classroom teachers at both near and far sites assisted and observed them. …