5P92
A Critical Analysis of Recent Studies of
Computers in Education
by
Brent Phillips
June 14, 1997
 

There has been a marked increase in the attention given to the role of computers in education over the past decade. Having transformed from obscure, room-sized number-crunching machines into ubiquitous essentials of modern living, computers have also moved to the forefront of the classroom.  Computing, it has been hypothesized, is in fact a “fifth language” resulting from an evolutionary synthesis of speech, mathematics, writing, and science (Logan, 1995), and as such, is transforming the way people live and learn. It is doubtful that children in today’s society can conceive of a world without computers.  Educators today are in many ways learning with, and from, their students.  The paradigm shift from an industrial age to an information age is providing this opportunity.
 

Given the magnitude of change technology has inflicted upon society, it is paramount that all students develop strong computer skills in addition to other subject areas in elementary school curricula. If we believe this to be true, then it should be agreed upon that assessment and evaluation of how students and teachers are accomplishing these skills should be monitored so that we can ensure that our children are receiving the best possible education and are performing to their potential.  Assuming this position, I will endeavour to review and critically analyze the methods that current researchers are using to gain insight and understanding about how our students and teachers are acquiring computer skills and knowledge.  I will begin this analysis with a review of five recent research papers that have been been written on the subject of computers in education and attempt to detail the methods and the underlying assumptions of the research.  Following these reviews I will identify key themes which are evident throughout the research, and tie together these commonalities by outlining how qualitative analysis may have been able to provide a greater understanding in the area of computer use in education.
 
 

REVIEW OF CURRENT RESEARCH
 

The Computer Attitude Scale (CAS) was developed by Loyd and Loyd (as cited in Kluever et al., 1994) as a measure to assess teachers’ attitudes toward computer use. It is important to realize that the specific purpose for the creation of this measure was to assess one profession’s attitudes toward computers. The CAS was introduced with no claims of generalizability whatsoever.  It has 40 items which subjects respond to on 6-point Likert-type scales with values ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”. Nested within those 40 items are four factors which have been identified as computer anxiety, computer efficiency, computer liking, and computer usefulness.
 

Kluever et al. (1994) had 265 teachers complete the CAS twice (pre-test/post-test) over a ninth month period and found that, “the CAS is a reliable instrument concerning the attitudes and impressions of teachers about the educational applications of computers” (p.258-259). Yes, it gives a quick and easy profile of the participant who completes the scale, but what does one do with the information after it is scored? There is no mention of how this data can be used to solve any of the problems that it uncovers.  A more in depth interview or discussion with a teacher after the CAS score is tabulated would be necessary to talk about any anxiety or inadequate skills that surfaced from the test. Why not just talk to the person? The quantitative nature and “quick and easy” feel of the CAS seems seductive to use to reveal information about individuals’ attitudes toward computers, but it does not reveal specifics. Computers mean different things to different people, and the categories, or factors, identified by the CAS are very broad. Why are people anxious about computers? Why do they feel that the computer is not at all useful? Why don’t they like computers? Why do they feel that computers make more work, not less? Researchers should be looking at more detailed explanations given by teachers in answer to these questions. Kluever et al. (1994) suggest that the CAS can be used as a screening tool to identify potential avenues or emphases for regarding teachers’ attitudes toward computers, but that does not get at the cause of these attitudes. By using a more qualitative approach to this issue, researchers might be able to find out the roots of negative attitudes so that modifications can occur before negative attitudes are formed. Conversely, those with positive attitudes could explain what caused their interest in or success with computers early on in their experiences.  Commonalities could be extracted from these dialogues so that identifiable themes and experiences could be identified and implemented as the groundwork for building more positive attitudes from the start, rather than having to deal with negative attitudes that have been given the chance to become established.
 

The development of the CAS has provided those that pursued the study of computer attitudes through a quantitative approach a tool with which they can  generate scores that can be analyzed “mathematically”.  This measure is a reflection  of the feelings of the respondent at the time of participation. It does delve into why they feel the way they do.  It does not account for past experiences the respondent may have had with computers.  Some recent studies have looked into the role that past experience plays in shaping computer attitudes. One hypothesis that has been postulated questions whether greater home use of computers will lead to better attitudes toward computers, and subsequently, more success in information technology.  Shashaani (1994) conducted a quantitative study which examined gender-differences in computer experience and its influence on computer attitudes in 1 730 secondary school students. She concluded that home computer use was not related to computer attitudes. Shashaani also found that the boys’ positive attitudes led to greater computer class participation, computer usage, and presumably greater learning.  More experience on the computer, better computer attitude. Better attitude, more success.  In her discussion, Shashaani (1994) acknowledges indirectly that the quantitative design she has completed does not give a satisfactory answer as to the cause of the girls’ negative computer attitudes. She questions, “whether the lack of computer interest and lower self-confidence in using computers among female students have led them to avoid involvement in computing, or is it the lack of computer experience which underlies negative attitudes toward computers?” (p.360). An interview-based research design may have provided the directionality she is seeking. This is a classic example of how large-scale statistics can demonstrate what is happening, but it can not explain why.   Shashaani outlines that there are numerous research studies which have shown that there are persistent gender-differences in the area of computers. Research of the type that she has conducted does nothing to further a solution to this problem, it merely confirms that it exists.
 

Related to studies that examine computer experience and attitude are studies that deal with self-efficacy and computer use. Self-efficacy is defined as, “as the belief in one’s ability to execute successfully a certain course of behaviour” (Bandura, 1997, as cited in Busch, 1995). How you judge potential success at a task will affect your choice as to whether or not to participate in that activity.  Self-efficacy also influences effort and persistence in a task.  This is an interesting quality to examine, since learning how to use a computer requires time, persistence, and commitment.  Busch (1995), in a study that examined 147 college students’ scores on the CAS after taking an introductory computer course on spreadsheet and word processing software, found that task difficulty helped shape self-efficacy and attitudes regarding the completion of computer tasks. He did not find a significant gender effect when the tasks were simple, but one was present if the task was more complex. Girls’ attitudes became more negative when task difficulty increased, while the boys did not show as great a drop in attitude scores.  This is an important consideration for children’s and teachers’ critical initial experiences with the complex world of computers. It is important to understand how attitudes toward computers are shaped, so that ways of helping to eliminate these gender-differences can be explored. One interesting finding in this study was that encouragement to successfully complete the task was a more important variable in predicting computer attitudes than personal expectations. Teachers can make a difference in helping all students gain better computer skills by providing a positive and nurturing environment in which students can grow.
 In order for students to obtain the maximum benefit that the computers in their classrooms have to offer toward their educations, they need competent, effective teachers to provide an environment conducive to successful learning, and administrations that also have positive attitudes toward information technology. It is important not only to look at students’ computer attitudes, but also teachers’ computer attitudes.  Research also shows that teachers’ attitudes toward, and perceptions about, the role of technology in education affect their teaching of technology skills (Gardner, Dukes, & Discenza, 1993, as cited in Yaghi, 1996). Gardner et al. discovered that badly-trained teachers developed negative attitudes toward computers, and then modelled those negative attitudes to the students. Teachers who were comfortable with technology were found to model more positive attitudes toward computers. In order for technology to realize maximum benefit in the classroom it needs to be used. Woodrow (1992, as cited in 'Yaghi, 1996) found that teacher training on computer skills made a significant difference in how teachers viewed the role of computers in the classroom.  More training on computers led to more positive experiences for the teachers, which resulted in more positive attitudes toward, and greater utility of, the computers. It is important that  teachers possess the knowledge, skills, and attitude toward technology that will help students achieve this goal.
 

An investigation that was a hybrid quantitative/qualitative design looked at two specific classrooms and the patterns of use of the computers in them. Kinnear (1995) monitored computer use in four primary classrooms (ranging from grade 1 to grade 7) over a nine-month period and recorded observations on her experiences in addition to surveying students quantitatively using structured questionnaires. She found that there was a significant gender effect in computer attitudes. Girls were less positive about the usefulness of computers, and boys and teachers perceived that girls were less interested in computers.  Once again, emerging themes based upon specific questionnaires were evident: girls using computers less, teachers believing boys to be better at computers than girls, and girls reducing their expectations and positive computer attitudes.  Fortunately, Kinnear provides some interesting observations which give us a more detailed representation of what actually happened in the classroom.  Through interview and observation, Kinnear is able to conclude that two patterns of computer use emerged in the classrooms here the computers were introduced. First,  the teachers ended up using the computers primarily as unstructured, non-classtime machines. Regardless of original intent, the teachers observed decreased the amount of structured, lesson-based use of the computers and let the computer’s use be minimized to “free time” rewards.  Possibly as a result of the first pattern, the second pattern emerged: boys used the computer much more frequently than the girls. During free time the boys monopolized the computer, thus gaining more experience and greater learning. The girls became observers.  The teachers then reported that the boys were more interested in, and capable with, the computers based on their assessment of the situations they saw daily - namely, boys on the computer because there was no guaranteed “schedule” for equitable access to the technology.
 

This study is a much more acceptable account of the state of computer attitudes in the classroom. We were able to see by the author’s observations one possible way that computer attitudes are formed. Because of the dynamics of the classroom, certain patterns of computer use emerged. The researcher was able to observe and explain what was happening. Because we are aware of how the computer use degenerated in both classrooms, we can use this information as a lens through which we view the results of the answers that were given to the surveys completed by the teachers and the students. We do not have to take the questionnaire answers at face value, we have other, richer, information on which we can base our understanding.
 

THEMES IN THE RESEARCH
 

While this paper has only touched on five research papers related to the issue of computers in education, some definable issues have emerged.
 

One issue that has surfaced is the lack of depth of understanding provided by quantitative assessments of computer attitudes. I have attempted to show throughout the reviews of recent research into this area that quantitative analysis has not provided sufficient depth of understanding as to why attitudes are the way they are.  Most of the research detailed attitudes at one point in time. Research should be conducted that probes further into the reasons why negative attitudes have formed.   A qualitative approach could provide this data.
 

Another issue present throughout the research is gender and computing. The significant gender-effects supported in different studies illustrate the need to investigate some potential cause(s) of these differences. Case studies could provide data on initial experiences common to individuals who have the same attitudes toward computers. Perhaps there is a link between early experience and later development of self-efficacy with or attitudes toward computers.
 

A third issue with regards to the study of computer attitudes is the entire emphasis on the utility of computers, the science of computers, and the mathematics of computers.  Computing should be seen as a social event, rather than a mathematical or scientific activity. Computers are part of our everyday lives, and almost everyone probably uses some form of information technology without apprehension. There has to be a way of transferring that way of thinking into the classroom at an early age so that computers are seen as integrated pieces of life, rather than ominous machines that need to be “mastered”.
 

A final issue that seems to appear when the data is analyzed is that level of experience with technology affects the computer attitude.  The more an individual has positive experiences and success with computers, the more positive his attitude will become. It seems to be, in fact, a greater predictor than age.
 
 

CONCLUSION
 

Quantitative research has demonstrated the need for a qualitative analysis of computer attitudes. A broad cross-section of individuals with varying stages of computer experience, from children to adults, should be interviewed to gain some insight into their superficial displays and reported attitudes.  In conjunction with this data gathering, an effort should also be made to observe new computer users in the home, at school, or at work to possibly discover common themes present in all initial computer users. Once this information is obtained,  a more accurate model of computer attitude generation can be constructed and more specific strategies for improving computer attitudes can be implemented.
 
 
 

REFERENCES

Busch, T. (1995). Gender differences in self-efficacy and attitudes towards computers. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 12(2), 147-158.
 

Kinnear, A. (1995). Introduction of microcomputers: A case study of patterns of use and children’s perceptions. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 13(1),  27-40.
 

Kluever, R. C., Lam, T. C. M., Hoffman, E. R., Green, K. E., & Swearingen, D. L. (1994). The computer attitude scale: Assessing changes in teachers’ attitudes toward computers. Journal of Educational computing Research, 11(3),  251-261.
 

Logan, R. K. 1(1995). The Fifth Language. Toronto, Canada: Stoddart.
 

Shashaani, L. (1994). Gender-differences in computer experience and its influence on computer attitudes. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 11(4), 347-367.
 

‘Yaghi, H. (1996). The role of the computer in the school as perceived by computer using teachers and school administrators. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 15(2), 137-155.