Educational Technology & Society 2(4) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

Computers in FE biology – a study of how teachers’ classroom practice can be affected by different types of software

Jane Barnard
Institute of Educational Technology
The Open University
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA
United Kingdom


The research described in this paper aimed to examine how the use of educational technology could affect teachers’ classroom practice and vice versa. The research involved nine classroom observations of teachers using computers with their students. The teachers’ commentaries on their observed sessions were analysed using a framework from Brown and McIntyre (1993). The analysis revealed that when the computer activity was used as a pedagogical vehicle, then the activity needed to fit in with the teachers’ classroom practice in order for them to see it as valuable. By contrast, when the computer activity was seen as valuable in its own right, then the teachers were prepared to alter their classroom practice considerably in order to incorporate it. The findings suggest that the Brown and McIntyre (1993) framework could provide a useful means of tracking the embedding of innovations into classrooms.

Keywords: Teachers, Classroom practice, Innovations, Computers, Methodology


Concerns about the under-utilisation of technology in education are common across all educational sectors and many industrialised nations (e.g. Higginson, 1996; Blunkett, 1998). Many factors have been identified as contributing to this under-utilisation, including teachers’ resourcing levels (e.g. Sherwood, 1993), the influence of their computer-using colleagues (e.g. Downes, 1993; Becker, 1994) and their beliefs about teaching, learning and the role of computers (e.g. Veen, 1993; Watson, 1993). Recently there has been an increased focus on the nature of the classroom as a barrier to the uptake of innovations (e.g. Cooper and McIntyre, 1996; Cuban, 1986) and case studies which have involved detailed classroom observations suggest that if we are to understand the circumstances which can affect the embedding of educational technologies, then an understanding of classroom practice is absolutely essential (e.g. Kerr, 1991; Brown and McIntyre, 1993).

The research described in this paper involved a number of classroom observations of teachers using computers, and was part of a broader study into the factors affecting teachers' use of educational technology. The study focused on biology teachers in further education (FE), and involved a survey of 68 teachers, and two sets of interviews with 20 teachers. The classroom observations involved six individuals, three of whom were observed once and three of whom were observed twice. The aim of these observations was twofold: the first aim was to explore how the technology affected the teachers’ classroom practice and vice versa; the second aim was to see how far this interaction could be formalised using a framework which had been developed by Brown and McIntyre (1993). This paper describes the framework, outlines how it was used and explores the implications of the findings.

Brown and McIntyre's (1993) framework

Brown and McIntyre's study aimed to examine how teachers organised their thoughts about their usual classroom practice; it involved a number of classroom observations and a series of follow-up interviews with 16 school teachers. The study findings suggested that while they were teaching, the teachers referred extensively to two short-term goals. The first goal involved setting up and maintaining Normal Desirable States of Pupil Activity (NDS), that is, steady states of activity which the teacher saw as appropriate for specific stages in the class. The second goal related to pupils' Progress, and involved considerations about covering work, creating products, and pupils' cognitive or affective learning or development. Brown and McIntyre noted that the teachers appeared to use only a limited number of NDS or Progress goals to monitor or evaluate their lessons, but that they seemed "to have a very large repertoire of Actions directed towards the attainment of these goals" (p. 68). The teachers also talked extensively about a number of Conditions; these impinged on their teaching and influenced their actions and the standards they expected within the NDS and types of Progress. The Conditions related to the lesson content (e.g. how demanding it was), the material conditions (e.g. equipment available), the characteristics of the teachers themselves (e.g. their states of mind), time (e.g. the amount of time available in the lesson) and, the Condition referred to most extensively, pupils' characteristics (e.g. whether they were interested or bored, or whether they were normally disruptive or attentive).

Brown and McIntyre suggested that the NDS underpins the flexibility and effectiveness of an experienced teacher. They noted:

"[many educational innovations are] concerned with pupils' ways of working in classrooms, such as the nature of their talk, their practical activities, the sources of information they use, the ways they collaborate, the questions they seek to answer … such innovations seek, in our terms, to define new 'normal desirable states of pupil activity’" (p. 116).

They emphasised the difficulty that could be caused if the new NDS were incompatible with the teacher’s existing NDSs and noted that the innovation would have to prove itself far superior to established practices in order to justify the large scale shifts the teacher would need to make in order to incorporate it.

It is important to stress that this framework is still under development, and does not imply that all classroom innovations are inherently problematic. For example, subsequent work by Cooper and McIntyre (1996) used the framework to study incorporation of the National Curriculum (NC) in English and history departments. Their studies suggested that in this case the innovation had proved generally positive, with the NC being "an effective stimulus for collaborative planning and for the sharing of ideas among teachers" (p. 160). But they also stressed that this may have been because the changes it required were not so deep-seated in that "adoption of the NC did not in itself directly require changes in classroom practice [but rather] extensions of existing repertoires" (p. 161).

Observations of biology teachers using CAL

Four male and two female teachers took part in this study; they are referred to here as Andrew, Jim, Pam, Mark, Maria and Bill. They were all observed and videotaped for an hour while using computers with their students. Andrew, Mark and Pam were also observed a second time. The videotape was replayed to the teacher as soon as possible after the class. During this session the teacher was asked to talk about what was happening in the class, focusing on any aspects with which they were particularly pleased or which they found problematic. These follow-up sessions were recorded, transcribed and analysed in terms of the four key concepts from the Brown and McIntyre (1993) framework, that is, NDS, Progress, Teachers' Actions and Conditions.

The nine observations involved A-level, Access and GNVQ classes and the software included CD-ROMs, tutorial packages, experimental interfacing, data analysis programs, the Internet and programming applications. In four cases the observation involved the teacher using software they had not used in the classroom before. In seven of the observations the teacher only had access to one computer (this appeared not unusual for FE biology classes); the two exceptions involved Mark's classes, where he had two computers for his first observation, and 15 for his second.

The six teachers demonstrated a considerable variety in the way in which they talked about their observed sessions: some spoke extensively about their students' characteristics, backgrounds and aspirations; others talked more about the activities they had set-up; some concentrated heavily on the technical side of using computers; and one focused strongly on the context within which his lessons operated. The Conditions which Brown and McIntyre (1993) had identified formed a significant part of these teachers’ accounts. However, it became clear that the teachers had, in addition, a focus on the technical or procedural issues surrounding the use of the computer, which did not fit easily into the Brown and McIntyre (1993) framework. This focus emerged particularly strongly when the procedures were complex. It also became clear that the teachers’ focus shifted according to the type of software they used, as described later.

The four main concepts which made up the Brown and McIntyre framework, NDS, Progress, Conditions and Teachers Actions were all fairly easy to identify and accounted for large sections of the transcripts. However, there are two points worth mentioning here. The first is that the teachers talked far less about their own Actions in these observations than in Brown and McIntyre’s observations. This appeared to relate to the different occurrence of groupwork. Collaborative groupwork featured strongly in the observations described here, either because there was only one computer, and therefore the students had to work together, or because the students were mature, and were used to working collaboratively. Under these circumstances there was a considerable amount of activity going on in the classroom which was not immediately influenced by what the teacher did. By contrast, Brown and McIntyre (1993) noted that true groupwork was very rare amongst the schoolchildren in their study.

The second point is that there appeared to be a lesser degree of teacher flexibility in these observations than in Brown and McIntyre's observations. This could relate both to the need to cover large syllabuses in a short time, and to the more frequent occurrence of groupwork in the observations described here. Cooper and McIntyre's (1996) study on the implementation of the NC found that where there was a high level of factual content to cover, the teachers were less able to engage in reactive teaching. They also found that when the teachers had extensively pre-planned the lessons they "tended to be less willing to depart from their planned lesson contents than those whose planning was less detailed" (p. 130). The rotating group work and computer integration described in this paper were likely to have required such pre-planning, and, additionally, when students are working on a number of structured activities it would seem much more difficult for the teacher to respond to, and alter, specific features of the session than it would if the class were working as a single group.

NDS and Progress

The main focus of the analysis was on the NDSs evident in the teachers’ follow-up interviews. The aim was to see how far it was possible to explain the teachers' overall experience of using software in the classrooms with reference to the degree of conflict or agreement between the teachers NDSs and the NDSs implicit in the program. There were some initial concerns about how the programs’ NDSs could be established, but ultimately the way in which the teachers talked about their interpretation of the programs gave a good sense of this.

It seemed that if mismatched NDSs could explain teachers' problems in incorporating software, then it should be possible to see some evidence of NDS agreement where the teachers felt happy about the programs’ use. In practice this proved to be largely the case. Of the nine observations there were only two (both with the same person, Pam) where the teacher expressed clear reservations about her implementation of the software; in both cases there was evidence of conflicting NDSs, although this was far clearer in the first case, for reasons discussed later. In another three cases there was clear NDS agreement, and the teachers were very comfortable with the way in which the software was embedded in their teaching session. In the remainder of the cases the situation was more problematic.

It became apparent that it was possible to distinguish the conflicting or agreeing NDSs in sessions where the computer activity was relatively constrained, that is, it was used for a limited time and was not absolutely central to the class. It was also clear that in these circumstances the activity was being used as a pedagogical vehicle, for example to increase the students’ understanding of animal movement or pollution assessment. By contrast, it was far more difficult to distinguish NDSs where the computer activity was used extensively and was absolutely pivotal to the class activities. Under these circumstances the computer activity was not being used as a pedagogical vehicle, but was seen as important in its own right; for example, the aim of the sessions were, variously, that students should learn how to use the Internet, or experimental monitoring, or programming designed for model construction.

The following two sections briefly illustrate the differences which were observed when, firstly, observing sessions with constrained computer activities and, secondly, observing sessions with pivotal computer activities.

a) Constrained computer activities

The computer activities were constrained in Maria and Bill's observations, and Andrew and Pam’s first observations. In three of these classes there was NDS agreement between the computer activity and the teachers’ other activities, and in one (Pam’s) there was disagreement. This section describes the NDS agreement and disagreement using Andrew and Pam’s classes as illustration.

Andrew was running a session on cell division and using a program he had not used before. He had set up three different activities and the students were working in three groups, spending approximately 20 minutes on each activity. One of the activities, which he often used, involved the students working with bioviewers (modified microscopes) and looking at microscopic photographs showing the different stages of cell division. The bioviewers were accompanied by explanatory texts, which referred to each photograph and were interspersed with questions. His aim was that the students should examine the photographs and read through the text in order to reinforce material they had already covered. While doing this they should be answering the questions and referring to him or other group members if there were any problems. Andrew noted that the activity gave the students a chance to see the stages of cell division "as they really appear", to pick up additional information, to reinforce understanding, "and it gives them an opportunity to ask questions as well".

The computer activity was very similar. It involved students using a short tutorial program which had animations of cell division, accompanied by explanatory text and questions. Andrew wanted the students to look at the animations, and then go through and read each section. There were some questions on it which weren't working properly. But ideally that's what I would have liked them to have done, gone through it, self testing as a group .. They've seen [cell division] as diagrams of different sections, but [the computer is] giving them a view of it as a continuous process.

Both activities therefore shared the same features and involved the students working in the same ways, that is, looking at different representations of cell division, reading through associated text, answering questions and checking their understanding of previously covered material with both the teacher and each other. In this way there was agreement between what emerged as one of Andrew's usual NDSs and the NDS of the computer program, and his overall summary of the class was that the activities "worked OK [and] all slotted together to give a much broader and a much more realistic view of cell division".

Pam’s first observed session, which involved a second year A-level class on movement, showed NDS disagreement. During her follow-up session Pam talked about this class with a very strong focus on student characteristics; this was reflected in her NDSs and a number of affective Progress goals. She had organised four different activities to which the students rotated while working in four collaborative groups. One of these involved an exercise where the students had to use a model of a human skeleton in order to answer questions on a worksheet. The students who were carrying out this exercise were working in a collaborative group of four, looking at and moving the skeleton, comparing its movements with their own, and drawing in previously covered theory in order to label diagrams and answer a series of questions on the worksheet Pam had given them. She explained:

"it's not a look-at-it-and-name-it exercise, it's a think-about-it exercise ... I wanted them to actually interact with that skeleton, I want them to know all the bones, feel the bones, see the bones, know where holes are, think about the significance.. I know it works, and I know they learn well from it ... So at the end of the lesson everybody had completed the skeleton and felt confident they could answer a question on it, ... So I felt good about the skeleton, they felt good about the skeleton."

At one stage Pam noted about group working with the skeleton: "noisy, isn't it! ... But they were enjoying themselves … I prefer noisy committed students than silent".

Pam's NDS emerged quite clearly in the way she talked about the class. It involved the students working to a definite pace through a structured activity, being highly focussed and engaged, interacting both intellectually with each other and her, and physically with the skeleton, enjoying themselves and feeling competent and confident about their grasp of the material; the other non-computer activities revealed similar goals.

The computer activity involved using a CD-ROM on animal movement. It was the only activity in which the students were not following a clear sequence which involved them thinking about specific questions, discussing the answers with their colleagues and working at definite pace. Pam intended that when working with the computer the students should be looking at the animations and video of muscle action and insect movement, checking what they were seeing against theory they had already covered and generally exploring the material in the CD-ROM. Her perception of the NDS of the program was that it was designed to let the user explore at their own pace, and although she was very enthusiastic about the visual quality, she felt that it had failed to engage the students, e.g.:

"Maybe they thought that it was an unimportant activity, do you know what I mean? It wasn't the experiment, it wasn't the skeleton - although the skeleton they were interacting with quite beautifully, and nobody was prompting them with the skeleton. But when they were working with the computer, I don't know, maybe (pause) there would need to be questions on it to make them interact, and that is actually against the whole spirit of the CD-ROM, isn't it? So, you know, difficult, very difficult. I'd be interested to see how somebody else uses it."

b) Pivotal computer activities

The computer activities were pivotal in Andrew and Pam’s second sessions, and both of Mark’s sessions. Here the teachers focussed less on their NDSs, and this will be illustrated with reference to Pam and Mark’s second sessions.

During her second session Pam aimed to develop a range of practical skills including drawing, making microscopic measurements using graticules, and using the Internet to find information. She still was concerned with student engagement and interaction, but less so than in her first session, and she had a far more marked stress on Progress goals than previously.

Pam had divided the class into three groups. Her intention was that each group should spend about 30 minutes on the Internet. The Internet session was, like the CD-ROM session in her first observation, primarily exploratory, and it appeared to be, again, mismatched with her usual NDSs. However, although she was not particularly pleased with the session, and although she made it clear that she would like to find some more focussed way of introducing the students to the Internet, the mismatched NDSs did not appear to be the main focus of her displeasure. Relatively little of what she said came under the category of the NDS, and instead she seemed to rely primarily on Progress criteria both in outlining why she set the activity up and in evaluating its success, e.g.:

"I was keeping an eye on what they were doing, if I saw a lull I would come across ... I still can't see anything printing out. I'm aware that their time is coming to an end and they've not got much in their hand, that's a negative experience because they've spent quite a long time, longer than I intended, and it was going nowhere."

Pam also focussed much more on time constraints, material conditions (i.e. resources) and technical difficulties than she had in her first session.

It may be that teachers focus more on Progress than NDS when they feel that their Progress goals are not being fulfilled, as was the case here. It may also be that when the activity is seen as inherently important, rather than as a pedagogical vehicle, then the activity becomes a Progress goal in its own right. Under these circumstances the teachers may focus more on how to get to the end point (i.e. the Progress) than on the nature of the journey there (i.e. the NDS), particularly if they need to negotiate technical difficulties in order to get there.

Mark’s second observation reinforced these suggestions, and involved a marked focus on Progress, material conditions, time and technical aspects. It was unusual in the context of the nine observations, being part of an "enrichment programme" he ran on control technology, which was designed to supplement more standard science A-levels. During the follow-up session Mark focussed strongly on the mechanics of getting to various end points; these involved the students designing, building and programming models that ranged from conveyer belts to flying birds. This focus on Progress goals was shown, for example, in his answer to the following question:

"Were there parts of the class which you thought were particularly successful?

Some of them yes. [Over] the last few weeks there have been some very impressive ones where [for example, one student produced a] conveyor belt, he loaded it up with little bricks and he's got a track with 3 carriages and he can load 3 bricks into each carriage."

Mark's focus on Progress encompassed a number of technical aspects, e.g.:

"Trying to get 2 gears to work together is really quite difficult because they have to mesh together or you use a chain drive between them and you've got to get your distances right. The motors are not that powerful and if the shaft is not square it puts too much pressure on the thing and the whole thing jams."

and, as in Pam’s second observation, a focus on material conditions and time:

"It got too rushed at the end - we should have finished it by now and we haven't and it's now after their examinations, their 1st year external examinations. We spent too long planning it. When we first started this we were over in B block up in a room, we only moved over to there half term so we lost the first six weeks - it was very disorganised."

During the observation most of Mark’s energy was directed at helping the students to cope with technical difficulties, and the complexity of the procedures involved appeared to govern the NDSs of the class. However, he seemed happy to tolerate this, almost as though the end point justified the means. This perspective was common amongst the observations in which the computer was pivotal to the class. They all showed evidence of an increased focus on Progress, technical aspects, material conditions and time, and in all cases the teachers appeared to feel that the subordination of their NDSs was tolerable because the procedure was valuable.


Overall, the NDS and Progress concepts seemed to provide useful reference points to describe teachers' experiences of using computers in classrooms. Considerations of NDS were particularly useful in the cases where the program was relatively constrained and not the main focus of the class. Under these circumstances it was possible to identify three cases where there was clear NDS agreement and the teacher was happy with the computer activity, and one case in which there was clear NDS disagreement, and the teacher was not happy with the computer activity. These observations suggest that software developers might benefit from greater awareness of teachers’ classroom practice and greater consideration of the details about how their software would actually be used as part of a teaching session.

The situation became more problematic where the computer activity was more pivotal to the class. Here the teachers focussed less on their NDS goals and more on the Progress goals, particularly when the computer activity was also technically difficult. They also focussed more on material conditions and time, and less on student characteristics, as follows.

Constrained/simple Pivotal/complex
Material conditions

Within this small group of observations it seemed as though, the more complex the process became, the more it dictated the NDS, and the less the teachers focussed on their own NDSs. However, this seemed to be tolerated when the activity was inextricably tied to a useful Progress goal.

Any conclusions drawn here needed to be tempered by the fact that the observations were fairly limited in their scope, but it appeared that when the application was perceived as having a high degree of usefulness the teachers were prepared to make considerable adjustments to their normal classroom practice in order to use it. The obvious conclusion from this is that the development of valuable software will provide great motivation to teachers in the development of their own skills in using technology in the classroom. However, it is debatable whether it is desirable to encourage extensive embedding of these types of technically difficult procedures, considering that they tended to shift the teachers’ focus away from a concentration on their students as individuals, and on NDSs, which often included important aspects of groupwork and motivation.

The teachers’ willingness to use ‘valuable’ software, even when it conflicted with their usual classroom practice, was pretty much in line with Cooper and McIntyre's (1996) finding that there was minimal "classroom resistance" to the incorporation of the NC. However, Cooper and McIntyre also noted that the implementation of the NC was legally binding, resulting in schools responding to it on a corporate level. This then appeared to allow for "collaborative planning and … sharing of ideas" (p. 160). This contrasts strongly with the observations described here, where the teachers appeared to be carrying out significant classroom experimentation in relative isolation, and there certainly appears to be a need for educational establishments to provide the support necessary to allow teachers to collaborate effectively in such experimentation.

Finally, Brown and McIntyre’s (1993) framework provided a useful means of structuring the rich data which emerged from the observations and in allowing comparisons of the influence of different types of software. Although the framework was developed using observations in schools, it transferred well to the FE context; and although it was developed without specific reference to the use of computers, it seemed as though it could provide a valuable means of tracking the incorporation of computer technology in classrooms.


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