A conceptual model for integration

Technology and social studies: A conceptual model for integration

Fairey, Chad


The purpose of this paper is to develop a comprehensive rationale for integrating technology with social studies instruction. Five traditional principals of powerful teaching and learning in the social studies are utilized as a conceptual framework to examine the research literature in social studies. Explanations and instructional integration issues are provided for each of the five principles. Results from this comprehensive rationale mesh the literature of technology with the realities of promoting student understanding and civic empowerment.


Despite rising incidences of computer use in social studies classrooms, there is an absence of a clear rationale for why teachers should integrate instructional technology. Many educators have taken for granted an assumption that technology can play a pivotal role in making content relevant to the goals, objectives, and strategies of instruction. Some educators have taken for granted the assumption that technology skills are necessary for students in order that they can become active and productive citizens in the next millennium. Other educators have taken for granted the assumption that civic duty and competencies are heightened by mastery of technology.

Teachers’ infrequent use of technology in social studies classrooms, in our opinion, is due in large measure to the vague, general, and unresearched assumptions that currently exist in educational circles. Our paper builds on a report submitted to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in 1992. This report, titled “A Vision of Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies: Building Understanding and Civic Efficacy,” identified five principles of teaching and learning in the social studies. The report asserted that social studies teaching and learning is powerful when it is 1) meaningful, 2) integrative, 3) value-based, 4) challenging, and 5) active.

We have chosen powerful teaching and learning as a conceptual base for developing a comprehensive rationale for integrating technology with social studies. Our objective was to examine the research literature related to social studies and technology and then correlate those findings and conclusions with the five principles of powerful teaching and learning. A conceptual model of this sort should be useful for helping teachers and researchers to develop a plan for the integration of technology in the social studies, and for moving the social studies toward the unrealized potential of technology.

Technology and Theme#1-Meaningful Teaching and Learning

If meaningful social studies are useful both in and outside of the classroom, and if the twenty-first century is to be characterized by the need for technological literacy among its students, then the computer should be a great vehicle for the promotion of powerful social studies learning. The goals of providing relevant content, developing that content, and instilling the methodologies of social scientists should drive our use of technology in social studies. If technology helps meet these criteria, then it should have a place in the social studies curriculum.

Research has shown that using technology boosts student motivation (Berson, 1996; Ehman & Glenn 1991). Increased student motivation can be parlayed into a perceived relevance in lives of students. This hook may lead to more student involvement in the learning process. The wide proliferation of software, simulations, and CD-ROM packages allow teachers (and students) to choose content that is particularly relevant. The portability of these technologies allows students to use them interchangeably in the classroom.

With the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, technology has become more relevant and important (Braun, 1997; Harp, 1996; Johnson & Rector, 1997; Rose & Fernlung, 1997). Connecting to the internet will provide classrooms with more information, but “realizing the benefits of this gold mine of information depends on the willingness and ability of the teacher to introduce Internet-based projects that connect to the real world, build skills, and are fun to do” (Maskin, 1996). The Internet is replete with thousands of highly specialized, content-rich web sites and resources. But, the mere presence of content does not make it relevant to students. Braun (1997) indicated that social studies curriculum must use the interactive nature of the Internet (and technology) to intimately engage students in the content. Through electronic mail, discussion groups, search engines, and on-line research, students can investigate personally relevant issues and topics of interest. Multimedia, computer-based presentation software, and HTML-authoring tools also allow students to interpret, construct meaning, and present data in a meaningful way to their peers and instructors.

By fostering critical thinking, developing research and analytical skills, and encouraging processes of inquiry and investigation technology can be used as a productive tool. Digital archives like the Library of Congress’ American Memory project, the National Archives’ Digital Classroom, and the Virginia Center for Digital History’s Valley of the Shadow provide a wealth of primary source materials for use in the history classroom. Several researchers contend that unprecedented access to these materials is drastically changing the methods for teaching and learning history (Harp, 1996; Tally, 1996: Yeager & Morris, 1995). By reading, interpreting, collecting, organizing, presenting, and writing about primary source records, students are able to stand, if just for a moment, in the shoes of the historian.

Yaeger and Morris (1995) suggest that the computer could help students develop skills such as deductive thinking, problem solving, investigation, creative thinking and interpretation. Computers possess the ability to process, compile, store, and organize information. Because of these capabilities computers can serve as a “historical tool” for students (Harp, 1996; Yeager and Morris, 1994). Through the use of databases, students can track historical trends, synthesize information, analyze data, and draw historical conclusions based on evidence (Fontana et al., 1993; Jennings, 1994; Ramos & Wheeler, 1989; Vockell, 1992). By using powerful search engines, students can sort through databases of primary source materials to draw equally powerful conclusions (Harp, 1996; Tally, 1996).

The standard “textbook” version of content is being written out of the curriculum and is being supplanted by a version of content derived from student research, investigation, and interpretation (Harp, 1996). In this paradigm knowledge ceases to be scripture handed down from omnipotent scholars. That is, it embraces its new authors, the students. Technology has done much to facilitate this change by empowering students and encouraging them to draw their own interpretations (Adams, 1995): Clark, 1995; Jennings, 1995). By gaining research and analytical skills, students can work with economic statistics, geographic information, and political data to develop critical history and social science skills (Adams, 1995; Ehman et al., 1992; Elder & White, 1989; Fontana et al., 1993; Hannah, 1985; Jennings, 1995; Unia, 1990; Weiner, 1994).

Technology and Theme #2-Integrative Teaching and Learning

Social studies teaching and learning must be integrative if it is to be truly powerful. First, it must interweave a variety of content, generalizations, and concepts into an interdisciplinary context. Rose and Fernlund (1997) suggested resources available on the Internet have considerable potential for this type of integrative learning. Paralleling historical web sites containing primary source documents are art and humanities web sites replete with literature, poetry, paintings, music, dramatic recreations, scripts, lyrics, fiction, fashion, and other resources. These resources can be integrated into social studies lessons through an interdisciplinary methodology. Multimedia presentation software and HTML-authoring software allow students to present interdisciplinary content components in a coherent and cohesive fashion. Entry and exit between disciplines are governed by the students, but are woven into a singular, interdisciplinary presentation that results in powerful learning for students (Adams, 1995; Boyer & Semrau, 1995; Brown, 1995; Nix, 1995; Ramos & Wheeler, 1989). This approach encourages students to take ownership over their own learning and recognize the relationships inherent within the content. This integrative learning approach is one in which an interdisciplinary curriculum can truly flourish because students weave only those components which are relevant (and thus make sense) into their projects and presentations. Too often, interdisciplinary curricula result in frustration. It can be as if one is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole-i.e., using math to understand the Declaration of Independence. Nix (1995) suggested Internet and constructivist multimedial projects ensure that students will choose appropriate content, or the right peg for the right hole.

Just as technology can help provide a meaningful social studies curriculum that is relevant, it can also provide an integrative curriculum that finds echoes in the lives of students. Ideally, integrative curriculums place what is familiar to students into historical, geographical, and cultural perspectives. Further, it is most integrative when it is linked with civic action. White (1991) suggested that technology can create informed, engaged, citizens, and that a critical analysis of social problems within multiple perspectives can translate solutions into civic action. The use of databases, telecommunication, simulations, and interactive media con foster the problem-solving skills necessary to investigate social issues across time and space. The storage capabilities of CD-ROMs and the Internet provide a wealth of integrative content. Data manipulation software and mapping utilities allow students to observe pertinent patterns governing a content issue. Electronic mail and the Wold Wide Web, for example, can provide intimate connections required in achieving integration with student lives.

There are, however, very few moments when students are dealing with “only” content. For example, when searching for content related information on the Internet, students are utilizing powerful cognitive skills that require them to reflect on the meaning of search terms and the significance of search parameters in relation to content. For this reason, projects should be ground in “real-world” problems; for example, developing a proposal for political reform. The Internet, which is perpetually and constantly updated and revised, offers a great deal of “here– and-now” relevance that directly correlates with student interest and content relevance. If technology-based projects are grounded in rich content, then learning becomes truly integrative to include the lives of students.

Technology and Theme #3-Values-Based Teaching and Learning

Social studies teaching and learning is powerful when it is valued based, and when it considers the ethical and moral dimensions of topics. By serving as an interface between the student and an ever-expanding universe of information, technology can make students aware of the complexities and dilemmas involved in social, political, cultural, and economic issues (Diem, 1989, Glenn 1990). Not bound by the limitations of the conventional textbooks, and unencumbered by the mission of providing a singular, glossy narrative of the past and contemporary issues, software and the Internet can offer a world of issues to students that are multi-faceted, diverse, and starkly human. In addition to expanding the realm of “traditional” content that is available to students, technology can become a new content component itself. Technology can be examined within the canvas of the human experience, and students can apply conventional social studies skills to analysis of technology’s role in human society (Gooler, 1995). Equity issues, the effects of technology on cultural unity and diversity, the political and economic considerations of technology, and the presence of technology in society can present a fuller and more complete perspective of the world.

Social studies instruction draws much of its power from a cross-cultural perspective. This perspective is better illuminated and more poignant when students are allowed intimate and personal contact with that culture. Electronic mail can be used as a vehicle to create cross– cultural activities and direct and purposeful experiences (Barr, 1994). Unlike written correspondence, electronic mail creates the personal connection between cultures instantaneously. As a result, students can have a prolonged and interactive conversation with students of other cultures, in which they can converse about relevant social and cultural issues. Electronic mail, by virtue of its speed, allows students of different classrooms, cities, and countries to share values, ideas, and perspectives.

Conferencing, whether tele- or video-, is the logical extension of this sort of communication. Each is tinkering toward the same goal of developing mutual respect for cultural diversity in order to enhance students sense of citizenship (Sembor, 1997). Attempts to increase tolerance and respect for other cultures have been frustrated by geographic and cultural distance. Electronic mail is one avenue for bridging this chasm. Galvin (1989) offered audio teleconferencing as a more effective method of accomplishing the same goal, while Sembor (1997) suggested that videoconferencing might be more effective.

The social studies classroom would be one that is rich with information. The value based social studies classroom allows students to reflect on this information. Glenn (1990) stressed the relationship between the analysis of this information and civic education. In addition to developing the requisite skills for analyzing information, students must also reflect on the nature of that information: for example, where it was obtained, who is responsible for providing it, and how it will it be used. One of the crucial outcomes Glenn identified as part of this reflection is confidence. Specifically, confidences in the ability to access information, interpret it, and make decisions.

When constructing multimedia projects, student values become intertwined with content (Brown, 1995; Nix, 1995). In addition to composing a presentation based on curricular goals and available information, the construction of multimedia presentations can foster reflection in students. Nix (1995) suggested that students could experience expressive learning when using technology. Through expressive learning students can reflect on how their own values and perspective can be (and whether it should be) stamped upon the content which they seek to present. The proper use of the Internet can bestow confidence upon students and foster reflection on how information is obtained, interpreted, and used.

Technology’s role in value based education is immense. It provides an arena in which values may be considered and provides a platform from which those reflections may manifest themselves in civic action. Electronic mail, teleconferencing, and videoconferencing can all foster this understanding. Diem (1989) suggested that interactive television is also effective in accomplishing this goal, especially when approaching global education. In brief, technology becomes powerful, and can only truly be value based when, it allows the reflective development of content to manifest itself in civic action.

Technology and Theme #4-Challenging Teaching and Learning

As social studies instruction experiences a paradigm shift from teacher– centered to student-centered learning a greater emphasis should be placed on creating classrooms flourishing with cooperative learning and collaborative projects. Cameron White (1991) suggested that environments that encourage questioning promote active learning. Many technology-based projects are ideally suited for making social studies more challenging and action oriented. Learning experiences that are challenging and result in powerful learning employ critical thinking strategies (Brown, 1995; Butler & Clouse, 1994; Jennings, 1994; Nellis, 1994; Rose & Fernlund, 1997; Stevens, 1993; Vockell, 1992). Too often, technology projects become glorified worksheet assignments, with students working individually on assignments that require little more than rote memorization or simple operational thinking. If technology is used to its fullest interactive potential, and if students are given assignments that challenge them to work together productively and creatively, then powerful learning can result.

Multimedia and web-authoring software allows for a great deal of collaboration among students, and provides a platform for them to advance their own ideas, thoughts, and findings (Brown, 195; Ramos & Wheeler, 1989). Glenn (1990) suggested that this aspect of technology is one of the most crucial in social studies. Further, subject matter that encourages the examination of controversial issues can provide a rich environment to actualize civic behaviors.

Rose & Fernlund (1997) identified the Internet as a perfect source for identifying challenging content on a variety of topics and perspectives. Moreover, the teacher must guide students in critically assessing the validity, authority, and foundation of information used to complete Internet projects (Boyer & Semrau, 1995; Maskin, 1996). Clearly, teacher guidance is a prerequisite for challenging student projects in order to help students avoid irrelevant and disjointed content information.

Technology and Theme #5-Active Teaching and Learning

Active learning is increasingly seen as requisite for powerful social studies. As one classroom teacher summarized, “I am no longer a provider and controllerof information. I must teach these students the skills they need to use information. I have to rethink how and what I teach” (Glenn, 1990). Technology is playing a major role in defining this transformation, and offers several opportunities to shift the teacher’s role in the classroom. Advocates of integrating technology into social studies suggest that it will change the role of the teacher. If information is changing, the tools are changing, the students are changing, and the society is changing, then surely teachers must also change.

Ehman and Glenn (1991) reported that research has done little to indicate the influence of interactive technologies on the teacher’s role. Weigand (1985) found that teachers maintained a high level of control and directiveness during most computer-based activities, regardless of their nature. Maskin (1996) found that a “gatekeeper syndrome,” the desire to maintain traditional instructional roles and control access to information, is the largest impediment to unleashing the power of technology in social studies.

Research on integrating technology in social studies suggests the importance of the role of the teacher in promoting active learning (Boyer and Semrau, 1995: Brown, 1995; Ferguson, 1989; Fontana, et at 1993; Jennings, 1994; Lewis, 1995; Nix, 1995; Teague & Teague, 1995; White, 1996; Wilson, 1997). However, the power of technology will hardly be realized if change is limited to the role of the teacher, in addition, the role of the student must change as well. Boyer and Semrau (1995) posit that constructivism and technology are ideal partners, and that through the marriage of the two, social studies students can construct knowledge that is derived from personal context and embedded in authentic experience.

Students can design projects based upon social studies content (Stevens, 1993; Vlahakis, 1988). Students can create virtual tours (Lewis, 1995; Coady, 1994; Wilson, 1997), interactive projects (Fontana et al., 1993), and multimedia presentations (Boyer & Semrau, 1995; Brown, 1995; Nix, 1995). Through the use of these media, students can build their knowledge base and learn how to question, research, evaluate, critically discuss, and interpret meaning from the body of knowledge. Using technology to present content requires that students put their own “stamp” on it.

Ehman and Glen (1991) identified two ways in which students can use technology. As a teacher’s assistant technology can be used to promote students’ knowledge and skills through the use of drill-and-practice software, tutorial programs, and simulations. As learning tools, technology can be used to foster critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This can be done through student use of databases, spreadsheets, and electronic networks to access remote data bases for analysis.

Yet, these skills are not detached from reality; they are most effectively used when they translate into some form of civic action. “Good technology-based products provide opportunities for students to play active roles in authentic activities” (Rose & Fernlund). Projects can contribute to student’s awareness of their own responsibility to become informed citizens and to participate in local decision making. These projects include simulations (Teague & Teague, 1995), historical field trips (Wilson, 1997), and multimedia projects (Coady, 1994; Lewis, 1995; Nix, 1995).


This review of the literature used a widely accepted framework for teaching and learning in the social studies to rationalize integrating technology with social studies. On a practical level, by utilizing a tested model for teaching and learning, this research provided a recognizable rationale for teachers and researchers to use in examining the interface of technology with social studies instruction. Powerful teaching and learning that integrates technology has the potential to move social studies education beyond meaningless facts, inadequate connections, superficial coverage of content, and passive knowledge construction. Technology and the social studies has the power to become a “dynamic and forceful agent for change in the social studies curriculum” (Martorella, 1997), but only if the academic subject matter is enriched by a clear and comprehensive rationale for integrating technology with social studies.


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Chad Fairey, Fairfax County, Virginia Public Schools John K. Lee, University of Virginia Clifford Bennett, University of Virginia

Chad Fairey is a middle school social studies teacher and technology specialist in the Fairfax County, Virginia Public Schools. The recipient of the 1998 Outstanding Master of Education Student Award at the University of Virginia, Chad is a frequent presenter at state and national conferences on topics dealing with instructional technology.

John K. Lee is an Assistant Professor of Education at Georgia State University. A former middle and high school teacher in Georgia and Virgia, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in May, 2000. His academic research areas are instructional technology and historical cognitive development.

Clifford Bennett T. Bennett is Professor of Education and Chairman of the Department of specialized Instructional Programs at Cleveland State University. He previously taught history and government in the Cleveland and Shaker Height, Ohio city schools as well as served as program coordinator of social studies education at the University of Virginia. He is the chair of the African American Educators of Social Studies-SIG, and a member of the NCSS technology advisory committee. His research areas are multicultural education, instructional technology, and historical and sociocultural studies.

Copyright University of Northern Iowa Winter 2000

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