Design Experiments: A New Kind of Research

Technology & Learning, March 1991 | Go to article overview

Design Experiments: A New Kind of Research


In a middle school in Rochester, New York, 30 eighth-graders spend one day each week exploring the city of Rochester from scientific, mathematical, historical, cultural, and literary perspectives. Working in groups, these students conduct original research on topics ranging from weather to industry to theater to employment. They learn to use a variety of strategies in their work, including library research, telephone and face-to-face interviews, field observations, and experimentation. Later, they develop a HyperCard exhibit for the Rochester Museum and Science Center, an exhibit that includes text, audio, graphics, maps, and music.

In a Boston area school, fifth-and sixth-graders who are studying the seasons collect shadow data during the year and record them in a computerized database. Later they exchange their information over an electronic network with students in New York and Japan, and try to make sense of the differences. They also use a simulation program called SunLab to study the relationship between the earth and the sun in many different parts of the world at different times of the year.

What do these two examples have in common? They are both design experiments in a school-based research program conducted by the Center for Technology in Education--a program that goes significantly beyond previous research on technology in schools. Each design experiment in our study incorporates a number of high-quality interactive technologies that are feasible for school use today. Each involves the close collaboration of researchers and teachers. And each is taking place over a period of several years. There are now design experiments in New York City; Boston; Providence, RI; and Rochester, NY.

Analyzing the Learning Environment

Over the past decade several innovative research and demonstration projects have explored the use of interactive technologies in schools. However, much of the research has tended to look at the consequences and effectiveness of particular prototypes or products. Does the product get used? Can students and teachers understand it? Does it fit in with or alter the curriculum? What do students learn from using it?

We are attempting to produce school-based research that goes beyond particular pieces of technology or technology-supported curricula--research that actually analyzes technology-integrated learning environments.

To conduct such an analysis, we must be able to work over a period of time in schools and classrooms where technologies k are incorporated into teaching and learning. We must also be able to look across these classrooms, schools, and technologies in order to compare them. We want to know: What constitutes an effective technology-infused environment for students? How do different uses of technology for teaching and learning in classrooms influence how teaching and learning take place in a classroom? With a broader view, we can investigate how different constellations of technology, instructional purposes, classroom activities, and organization combine to create an effective learning environment for students.

What Is a Design?

In our design experiment research, the design is a plan, or blueprint, for how to integrate technology into the classroom structure, instructional goals, and learning activities. The plan, however, is not static. As plans are implemented, classrooms are closely observed. If a particular aspect of the design isn't working, it is changed. The entire process is then documented as the design evolves and is revised.

For example, in the Boston school mentioned above, students who were trying to make sense of the shadow data from Tokyo and New York generally worked on their data in groups. Each group had a leader, a student whose job it was to report the group's views to the whole class. …

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