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Integration of Cultural Diversity and Technology: Learning by Design

Judy Lambert and Tony Sanchez

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Using principles from both the technological pedagogical content knowledge design approach (TPCK) and Chisholm’s six-element framework (1998), a technology expert and several teachers designed a middle school videoconferencing project that proved effective in deepening students’ understanding and appreciation for culturally sensitive behavior. The use of technology provided students with added engagement and an authentic experience for applying their understanding of cultural sensitivity. By the explicit act of design, teachers learned that achieving instructional goals is the real purpose for employing technology. This account illustrates that teachers can learn to integrate technology effectively when they participate in the design of a project that centers on a curriculum-based instructional problem. Videoconferencing technology can be particularly useful when helping students internalize and apply an abstract concept such as cultural diversity.


Technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPCK) is an emergent form of knowledge that goes beyond the three individual components of content, pedagogy, and technology (Koehler & Mishra, 2005). Content is the subject matter to be learned; pedagogy is the collection of practices, processes, strategies, procedures, and methods of teaching and learning; and technology encompasses modern (e.g., computers or Internet) and traditional (e.g., overhead or book) classroom tools. TPCK is different from the knowledge of disciplinary experts, technology experts, and teachers across disciplines; it is the connections and interactions among content, pedagogy, and technology. Designing a solution to a problem becomes an event where learning happens, a method that lends itself to inquiry, reflection, creativity, dialogue, and deep understanding. This process which Mishra and Koehler (2006) call Learning Technology by Design situates learning in authentic contexts by engaging teachers in real-world problems centered on subject matter content and instructional goals instead of on technology and skills instruction. By weaving together technology, content, and pedagogy, it allows teachers to apply their knowledge of technology in real-world practice. Many educators currently perceive technology as an object not as a process; it is frequently considered a thing as opposed to a method of learning about a thing (Mehlinger & Powers, 2002). Such confusion has distracted some educators from the primary goal, which is making technological teaching “more available, effective, and interesting” (Mehlinger & Powers, 2002, p. 10). The Learning Technology by Design approach can move teachers beyond thinking about specific technology skills to focusing on the teaching and learning goals they want to achieve

By implementing a Learning Technology by Design approach, a school-based technology expert assisted several fifth-grade teachers in designing a videoconferencing project that produced unexpected and exciting results for students and teachers alike.  Though the project was implemented with fifth-grade students, the principles that guided teachers’ choice of media, activities, and curriculum goals as well as the rationale for integrating cultural diversity and technology are critical and applicable at the middle school level. Students at this age are no longer exclusively looking to their own families to define personal identities; they are refocusing their identities in relation to others in the society (NMSA, 2006), and technology has been found to have positive effects on student attitudes and self-concept, especially in students of low abilities (Silvin-Kachala & Bialo, 2000). Eighth grade is often when students either decide to drop out of school or begin preparing seriously to pursue higher education (NMSA, 2006). Technology integrated into a challenging curriculum can help prevent boredom in school and serve as a tool to help all students develop intellectually in ways not always possible in the regular curriculum.

In order to combine two sensitive issues in which teachers lacked sufficient experience (cultural diversity and technology), the technology expert provided teachers with Chisholm’s (1998) six-element framework for using technology to support cultural diversity in the classroom. These elements became the reinforcement and guidance teachers needed to plan and carry out an innovative and challenging project. This article describes Chisholm’s elements, project design, and application of these principles. Narratives are included to illustrate participants’ reactions to the project, and conclusions are offered on the learning outcomes and Learning Technology by Design approach. Authors also provide helpful resources to assist teachers in planning a similar project.

Chisholm’s Six Element Framework for Integrating Technology

Chisholm (1998) asserted that integrating technology in the classroom is important for several reasons: (1) the preparation of children for a technological society; (2) the assurance of equal opportunities and participation in society, and; (3) the empowerment of human capabilities within all children, especially those of a minority who are currently marginalized. The first element of Chisholm’s framework, cultural awareness, requires cognitive and affective understanding and acceptance of diverse cultural histories, traditions, values, patterns of discourse, and individual and cultural learning styles. When using technology, teachers can design supportive instructional strategies for second-language learners that include adaptation of materials, pairing of students, teacher demonstrations, visual clues, and simplification of language. Chisholm’s element two, cultural relevance, is not merely the addition of holidays or special events for diverse cultures; rather, it involves connecting cultural backgrounds to everyday activities. Relevant instruction provides links to the student’s world and in doing so validates the learner’s personal experiences, perceptions, and emotions. This helps the student organize new concepts within existing schema and promotes motivation.

A culturally supportive environment is Chisholm’s third element (1998). This type of environment allows all voices and opinions to be heard and valued. It challenges exploration, discovery, and higher-level thinking, and it welcomes students’ families as part of the learning environment as valuable resources for collaboration and support. Fourth, equitable access entails providing adequate equipment for all students and also requires that teachers be competent in adapting to the equipment and learning strategies necessary to support diverse learners. This means all children are provided opportunities for higher-level thinking and productivity rather than just drill and practice. Children need assistance in acquiring the skills and knowledge to gather information and to discern its value and relevance.

Instructional flexibility, the fifth element, provides multiple modes of instructional delivery and assessment measures to reach a variety of intelligences and learning styles (Chisholm, 1998). Students are given choices in programs, media, partners, and demonstration of learning so that their learning is culturally compatible and supportive of personal learning preferences. The last element, instructional integration, refers to the extent that technology is integrated into classroom learning. Again, integration goes beyond drilling for practice to using technology for creativity, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking.

The Pinballs Videoconference Project

stock photo classroom Background and Purpose of Study

Three fifth-grade North Carolina (NC) teachers (one social studies and math teacher, one language arts and science teacher, and one art teacher), a student teacher, a school counselor, a media specialist, and a school-based technology expert designed a collaboration focusing on social studies and language arts. The instructional problem teachers wanted to solve through the project was, “How can we help students internalize the concept of cultural diversity?” Not only did teachers want their students to understand the concept of cultural diversity, but they wanted them to apply this concept through a real-world experience. From a standards-based perspective, teachers wanted their students to identify and appreciate the differences between cultures and learn how people in different cultures share many of the same values and characteristics. Their goal was to broaden students’ frames of reference and help students develop greater appreciation for individual and ethnic differences.

The class was studying a unit on the United States (US) so teachers decided a partner class within the US would best support the unit of study. However, two criteria in choosing a partner class were that the partner class needed to be in a different region (either of NC, the Southeast, or the US) and in a substantially different environmental setting (i.e., urban vs. rural). The class was studying a unit on the United States (US) so teachers decided a partner class within the US would best support the unit of study. However, two criteria in choosing a partner class were that the partner class needed to be in a different region (either of NC, the Southeast, or the US) and in a substantially different environmental setting (i.e., urban vs. rural). With these significant differences, this project would provide middle school students with a developmentally appropriate experience in cultural diversity and help them build needed skills to relate to people in larger environmental contexts later in life. For young children, the understanding of culture begins within their immediate family and early social groups, such as preschool classmates. As children reach middle school, cultural understanding branches out to others in the local community, region, or nation. In the section of this article that follows, students’ questions illustrate their current misperceptions of people and how the project enabled them to develop greater understanding of cultural diversity within a national context. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS, 2001) explains the development of cultural understanding in children and the importance of providing early experiences for them even among people within close proximity:   

Culture helps us to understand ourselves as both individuals and members of various groups. Human cultures exhibit both similarities and differences. We all, for example, have systems of beliefs, knowledge, values, and traditions. Each system also is unique. In a democratic and multicultural society, students need to understand multiple perspectives that derive from different cultural vantage points. This understanding will allow them to relate to people in our nation and throughout the world…

During the early years of school, the exploration of the concepts of likenesses and differences in school subjects such as language arts, mathematics, science, music, and art makes the study of culture appropriate. Socially, the young learner is beginning to interact with other students, some of whom are like the student and some different; naturally, he or she wants to know more about others. In the middle grades, students begin to explore and ask questions about the nature of culture and specific aspects of culture, such as language and beliefs, and the influence of those aspects on human behavior…

During the middle school years, students relate their personal experiences to happenings in other environmental contexts. Appropriate experiences will encourage increasingly abstract thought as students use data and apply skills in analyzing human behavior in relation to its physical and cultural environment. In the middle grades, issues of personal identity are refocused as the individual begins to explain self in relation to others in the society and culture (See

During the US unit study, the class was reading The Pinballs, a story about three foster children by Newberry Award winning author Betsy Byars (1993). Literature and social studies provided the context for sharing activities and conversations with the partner class. Main activities included email exchanges between keypals (i.e., penpal exchange through email correspondence), digital photos and drawings (art), book sequels, and a culminating videoconference. After NC teachers met several times and agreed on a tentative plan, one of the teachers posted a message on the online guest book of the author’s website ( asking for a partner class. A fifth-grade class from a Midwestern, urban town in Illinois (IL) responded with an interest in the project. Through email, NC and IL teachers discussed their school contexts, project plans, technical issues, curriculum standards, characteristics of classes and students, and goals for a project. A final agenda, detailed plans for each activity, and monthly timelines were established. Students, paired with keypals, exchanged emails four times over a four-month period about personal interests, hobbies, and family life. Students discussed their town, climate, economy, history, people, and thoughts about the foster children in the book. They wrote and exchanged three sequels to the book, each time voting on the best sequel from each class. At the end of the four-month period, a videoconference was scheduled for students to meet their keypals and discuss issues in the book.

Email and videoconferencing technologies were deemed most effective for accomplishing project goals because they would provide students with opportunities to interact with a partner class and the context to apply what they learned about cultural diversity. First email would allow students to communicate more regularly than through “snail mail” and with no postage expenses. Students might be more comfortable and motivated to practice their writing if done in a more conversational and personal medium, and email conversations could be printed and used in other ways such as in language arts activities. Moreover, writing to keypals would provide students with a real audience and purpose for sharing about themselves and class topics, and through their sharing, students could conceivably build friendships with peers at a distance that might help break down prejudices. Second, videoconferencing technology, an interactive video-based communication medium, was chosen to allow students to see and hear each other simultaneously. It would have the ability to engage and involve students in active learning, give them a visual connection to their keypals, allow practice in speaking and presenting, and provide a medium to discuss multiple perspectives of project-related issue.


In the NC fifth-grade class, 24 students participated in the project (13 girls and 11 boys). Their middle school serves approximately 500 students in grades four through eight and is the only middle school in this small town with a population of 5,000. Generations of the students’ families have worked at the local cotton mill that manufactures and sells denim fabric around the world. The town, which is situated in a largely agricultural area, was constructed in 1905 to house the mill workers and is in close proximity of a local river.

In a block schedule of two teachers, students attended language arts and math classes in the morning and social studies and science classes in the afternoon. Three of the student participants had mild learning disabilities and five students had low reading levels, all of whom visited resource classrooms for several hours each day. Activities were completed either in a school computer lab using 30 Macintosh computers with Internet access or by using the mobile cart of 25 computers rolled into the classroom. The videoconference was held in the media center using low-end webcams projected from the computer onto a large screen.

In a self-contained classroom, the Illinois class also had 24 students (10 girls and 14 boys), 9 with learning disabilities and 8 with low reading levels. Approximately 1,500 students in grades K-6 attend their “intermediate” school. Located in the Midwestern region of the US on the Mississippi River, the town of 48,000 people is significantly larger than the NC town. The IL town has a variety of industry, a colder climate, and lots of available recreation. The town is considered an unofficial “micropolis.” When combined with two other nearby counties as one market, the population exceeds 100,000.

The class completed activities using PC computers in a school computer lab, one computer in the classroom, or a reserved mobile cart with six computers. Alpha Smarts, low-cost keyboard devices that allow document printing and transfer to a computer, were used by students to type emails and book sequels (see The classroom computer projected onto a television monitor was used to conduct the videoconference in IL.

For the NC students who had not ventured far beyond their largely low-income, rural mill town, the IL students seemed as different as students living in another country. From the perspective of all students, IL and NC were distant, almost nonexistent places on a US map. Students in both classes believed the differences of these “foreigners” would far outweigh the similarities in dress, favorite music, fun activities, appearance, and language. An email from one of the teachers vividly illustrates students’ initial perceptions: “The questions raised by my kids were interesting (and amusing) when we talked about your class. Do they have an accent? How do they talk? What do they look like? Do they look like us? It was neat because they were beginning to get excited about the project!”

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 10, Issue 1, 2007
ISSN 1097-9778
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