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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue C ::: September 1997

Technology Melts Classroom Walls

by Susan Cowles

" My kids just gave me a telescope - how can I find out where to look for that new comet?"

"How do 10 women share one shower, one sink, and one toilet in the living quarters at Palmer Station, Antarctica?"

"It says here that the distance from the Sun to Mars is 1.5 AU - what's an AU?"

These questions, asked by Philip, Reyene, and Lizzette, reflect the way adult learners in multilevel literacy programs are using technology. Multilevel classes have learners on a continuum of skills in reading, writing, and math. These learners have multiple interests, varying levels of knowledge about the world, and numerous roles in life. Philip s question reflects an interest that has developed from interaction with his children. Reyene s question about Antarctica was one of a range of questions sent via e-mail to Dr. Polly Penhale, the National Science Foundation Program Manager for Antarctic Biology and Medicine. Learners asked Dr. Penhale about the cost of operating Palmer Station, the weather, atmospheric pollution, scientific investigations, job opportunities with Antarctic support services, the availability of fresh food, her survival training exercises, and the difficulty of living in such confined quarters. Lizzette s question was a specific one about scientific terminology; she was preparing for the GED (General Educational Development) science exam.

By gaining access to Internet-based resources, these students are finding answers to their questions, expanding learning beyond the boundary of the classroom, and using reading, writing, and math skills in real-world settings. These three learners are part of a multilevel Adult Basic Skills class in a welfare reform program at Linn-Benton Community College (LBCC). Thanks to recently-acquired Internet access, supportive technical assistance from LBCC, and a fellowship awarded to me by the National Institute for Literacy, the learners and I have been exploring the uses of Internet-based resources and related technology in multilevel adult literacy curricula. The results have been very informative: as we learn skills in context, dissolve the boundaries of the classroom walls, and use the technology, the multilevel class ceases to be an issue - it just disappears.

Three Observations

Three observations have shaped my approach to teaching in adult literacy classes, which are always multilevel in some sense. These observations are shared by many instructors, based on teaching experience, and supported by research. First, I believe that any skill is learned best when imbedded in content - especially when that content is of interest to the learner and has meaning in the context of that learner s life. For example, by filling out an order form from a mail-order catalog company, a student can learn skills of following written instructions, filling out forms, and doing various math operations. The specific task can be varied to suit the skill levels and interests of the learner: one person might order a single item, like a hat, while another might take on the very challenging task of measuring windows and ordering curtains of the correct size (who among us has not been challenged by that task?).

Second, I believe that learning occurs when it is active, not passive: when the activity encourages action, challenges, and interaction with others, rather than isolated drill in workbooks. For example, an understanding of Newton s Laws of Motion is helpful for those learners studying science and preparing for the GED exam. These Newtonian principles are more easily understood by active participation in a series of experiments with balloons, straws, and fishing line, designed to simulate rockets. When teams of learners experiment with these same rockets and payloads (paper clips), this activity is easily translated to the context of actual ongoing space exploration projects. It also provides the opportunity for using a variety of math and writing skills.

Third, it has been my experience that technology broadens the opportunity for teaching in context, and for learning in an active way. I use technology in many forms: calculators, word processing programs, educational software, and Internet-based resources. For the purposes of this article, I ll limit the discussion of technology to the use of the Internet, because this resource can so quickly allow instructors and learners to take advantage of the moment, to turn the static into the active, and to make meaning out of the vast amount of information available to us. Participation in electronic field trips is an excellent way to involve multilevel classes in activities using Internet-based technology. These trips epitomize learning in context, using significant, real-world content and a variety of activities. The electronic field trip is also a good starting point for instructors and learners who are new to Internet use. The projects, national and international in scope, usually involve a combination of an Internet web site, the use of electronic mail to correspond with experts literally in the field, live television broadcasts that teleport learners to places of interest, print materials, and an electronic discussion conference for instructors involved in the project. The Web site contains activities, teacher s guides with background information, links to related sites, and suggested learner activities that can be printed directly from the Web site. Print versions of the teachers guide and learner activities are also usually available. The suggested activities are hands-on, involving reading, writing, math, geography, history, science, and general problem-solving skills. The projects follow the national standards in science, math, and language arts education. The materials are generally written for the middle school skill level, but they are easily adaptable to adult learners. The activities are definitely multilevel.

Two Trips

Learners in our program have participated in two such electronic field trips this year. Both are productions of Passport to Knowledge, supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Atmospheric and Space Administration, and the Public Broadcasting System. I have used each field trip differently to meet learner and program goals. In an electronic trip to Antarctica, Live from Antarctica 2, our focus was on communication skills within the context of scientific explorations. Learners worked as individuals within a classroom and as a group, depending upon the task. For example, learners wrote to Dr. Penhale individually, to practice writing skills. However, teams of learners used problem-solving strategies and communication skills to determine what to do to survive in a given emergency situation in Antarctica. Because learners enter and exit our class at various times, the same people were not always there for all activities. However, the beauty of the electronic field trip is that investigations can be short or long-term, and background information exists for those who have not been in class for all the activities.

In our current trip to Mars, we are concentrating on experiments illustrating scientific principles and the gathering of data from remote sites. By now, most of the world knows about the Mars Pathfinder and its rover, Sojourner. Thanks to Live from Mars, it has been possible for learners to participate in the project from its launch date in late 1996, learning physics, technology, math, and aspects of the solar system. We have used activities in the teacher s guide to accomplish this. Once again, the learners worked individually or in groups, depending upon the task. We have six computers in the classroom, so the 20 students work in pairs or take turns when it is necessary to be on-line. Groups of students have done balloon experiments to learn principles of rocketry. Teams also simulated the challenges of landing the Pathfinder on Mars by designing, building, and testing our own interplanetary landers with fragile payloads of raw eggs. We ve found a context for learning a lot of math, and science. Learners also write about everything they do. Learners are participating in this project with the skills and levels of understanding that they bring to the class. Once again, the classroom walls have melted; this time we ve had the chance to be solar system explorers.


This, to me, is what literacy is all about - access. It is access to information, to enjoyment, to education, and, above all, to opportunity. Such access is a goal of adult learners as they participate in literacy programs. However, technology now provides opportunities for adult learners to gain immediate access to information. In this way, the teaching of skills is done in the context and content of interest to specific adults. With Internet-based resources, it is easy to reach students at many levels - to individualize instruction while keeping it in the context of the group and program goals. One student might look at photos of glaciers, penguins, and historic structures in Antarctica. Another might visit the web site at the Cambridge University Antarctic Research Center and take its rather technical Trip through the Ozone Hole - both students are learning science, practicing reading, and having their experience base expanded. At whatever skill level they currently occupy, they have access to information and the opportunity to learn exciting things.

And as for the questions asked by Philip, Reyene, and Lizzette? Well, using what we knew about searching the Internet, we found information about the Hale-Bopp comet long before such information appeared in the popular press. We found photographs taken by amateur and professional astronomers, information about the composition of comets, and diagrams of the comet s apparent journey across our skies. Philip used his telescope, reported back to the group, and encouraged the rest of us to check out the comet. Some of us printed out star charts so we could help our kids find the comet; others got up early to see the comet in the morning skies. By the time the rest of the region was reading about the comet in the newspaper, the learners had become experts, and had shared their favorite comet web sites with the rest of the community college via e-mail.

Reyene used electronic mail to send her question to Dr. Polly Penhale, the National Science Foundation representative at Palmer Station. Dr. Penhale told us "...the bathroom situation...well, it is crowded. All of us have to take navy showers'. This is a water conservation measure, similar to what navy personnel do on ships. Making water is expensive and time consuming so the idea is to have a two-minute shower. Turn on the water and get wet. Turn off the water and soap up. Turn on the water and rinse off. That tends to get people in and out of the bathroom faster."

And, learning together, Lizzette and I discovered what AU stands for in the context of the solar system. No, it s not an angstrom unit, nor is it the abbreviation for gold. Lizzette and I used a glossary on one of the Live from Mars website links to find that an AU, or astronomical unit, is the mean distance between the Earth and Sun, approximately 150 million kilometers, or 93 million miles. This is a very long distance - we learned that if we traveled at 160 kph (100 mph), it would take more than 100 years to go 1 AU. The distance from Saturn to the Sun is 9.54 AU - think of all the great math problems one could pose with that information.

This year has been an enjoyable adventure of experimentation with Internet-based resources in this multilevel class. Regardless of our initial and varied levels of technical expertise with computers and websites, we've increased our technological literacy, learned wonderful things, practiced important skills, and had fun in the process. Multilevel? No, multi-learning!

Web Sites

The following web sites were used in Susan Cowles' Technology class. Click on to any site below and you'll be connected.

1. Live from Antarctica 2

2. Live from Mars

3. Schedules/lists of electronic field trips

4. The JASON Project

About the Author

Susan Cowles teaches basic skills to adults at Linn-Benton Community College, Albany, Oregon. She is the northwest regional representative for the Adult Numeracy Practitioners Network, and has been named a Literacy Leader Fellow, 1996-1997, by the National Institute for Literacy. Her interests include the mathematics teaching reform movement, the use of technology in teaching and learning, and the use of content-based basic skills instruction.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL