197). There have also been a number of software applications developed specifically for use in the classroom that can provide at-risk students with the opportunity to catch up with their peers, but here again it is important to recognize that at-risk students may lack the same level of computer expertise as their peers and steps must be taken to ensure that they have been provided with the initial training necessary to use these tools effectively.
One approach that has shown significant promise in teaching at-risk students how to use computer technology effectively and in improving their academic performance is the Constructionist Alternative Learning Laboratory in the Maine Youth Center, a state facility for at-risk students who have been court-ordered to attend the program. Some educators might shake their heads and suggest that there was little that could be done with young people who had reached the point in their academic careers where they were adjudicated as being at-risk and were placed in a special learning environment, but the laboratory has proven that the use of technology can help these young learners in a number of ways. For instance, a typical day at the laboratory is described by Stager (2000) thusly: "A group of kids are programming their own video game while others are making a digital film. Across the room a robotic bird feeder designed to photograph a bird when it comes to eat is being built out of LEGO. This is not a gifted and talented class or a special event. This beehive of activity represents a normal day in the Constructionist Learning Laboratory" (p. 37). According to the corporate Web site for LEGO, the LEGO Digital Designer ". . . lets you build with LEGO bricks on your computer" (LEGO digital designer, 2009, p. 1). A representative screenshot from the LEGO digital designer program is shown in Figure 1 below.
The Constructionist Alternative Learning Laboratory has used this application in particular to good effect with its at-risk students. For instance, Stager (2000) reports that, "Students in the lab use rich computational media like LEGO's programmable RCX brick to construct fantastic inventions. In fact, building with LEGO is the focus of many activities at the youth center. The LEGO bricks, gears, motors, sensors and programmable bricks create an improvisational medium where [students] can explore powerful ideas in math, science and computer science by building something 'real'" (p. 37). Indeed, Stager cites the use of LEGO by students with little or no previous computer expertise in developing an impressive array of engineering feats, including robots, machines that play musical instruments or write the students' names, and those that are capable of pulling far more than their own weight. Rather than using a standardized testing approach to document academic performance, the Constructionist Alternative Learning Laboratory has adopted a portfolio approach. In this regard, Stager reports that students in the lab ". . . use various media to document their learning processes and to archive their finished product in an attempt to demonstrate their knowledge and reflect on their learning" (p. 37). Moreover, the use of technology in this at-risk classroom setting has even made learning fun and enjoyable for many of these students in ways that were not otherwise possible. As Stager points out, "In this experiment, technology is a ubiquitous part of the lives of kids and should be reflected in their learning experiences. Young people have a casual relationship with technology and can even be quite playful with it" (2000, p. 37).
As an example of how learning with technology can be fun for at-risk students, Stager cites the tradition of building digital gingerbread houses using the LEGO digital design application by students each Christmas: "Each child built a house of graham crackers, icing, cookies, candy and a small computer tucked away inside. Their houses had twinkling lights, programmed carols performed by the LEGO brick, doorbells and spinning trees made of Hershey Kisses. What could be better than combining computers and icing?" (2000, p. 37). Despite the pervasiveness of technology in the laboratory, it is not the only learning tool used and traditional educational methods are also used to good effect. For instance, Stager notes that, "The lab does not obsess over the use of computers by students. Kids read books, write plays, produce videos and publish newsletters" (2000, p. 37).
Section 3: Summary, Discussion, Conclusions, and Recommendations
The research showed that all students, including those deemed at-risk, in the public schools in the United States are entitled to a free education that provides them with the education they need to become contributing members of society. The research also showed that students can be categorized as being at risk for a wide variety of reasons, and while many students may suffer from learning disabilities or antisocial personalities that adversely affect their ability to learn in traditional classroom settings, many other are so labeled by virtue of problems at home over which these young learners may have little control. Yet other students may be labeled as being at risk simply by virtue of the race or socioeconomic standing. This categorization tends to lump together a group of students who possess drastically different capabilities as well as problems into a collective category that may stigmatize them rather than help them. Finally, the research was also consistent in emphasizing that while the millennial generation possesses an impressive set of computer skills that can help them use technology in the classroom to good effect, some are better prepared to do so than others, and at-risk students who are at the short end of the digital divide stick may not possess the same level of expertise as their more fortunate and affluent counterparts.
The use of technology in the classroom is certainly not a new trend, but it has become more pronounced in recent years and many classrooms are equipped with Internet-accessible computers and other technological innovations that can provide students with important learning opportunities that were simply not available in the past. Technology, though, is clearly not an end-all solution to the problems facing young learners who may be experiencing the types of problems that get them labeled "at risk," but it can help. Indeed, new applications are being introduced every day that are specifically designed to help young people learn and some of these, such as the LEGO digital designer program, are superior products for this purpose. Perhaps the overriding theme that emerged from the literature review was the need for teachers who were aware of the individualized nature of the problems facing these young people and who were willing to the time and attention they need to overcome the obstacles and constraints in their lives to realize their personal capabilities. Moreover, more collaboration with parents or caregivers could go a long way toward helping at-risk students become more proficient with the use of technology at home in ways that would contribute to their academic performance in the classroom.
Technology can be an effective way to help at-risk students overcome the challenges they face in achieving positive academic outcomes. Computers and other innovations in technology will continue to influence how educational services are delivered in the American classroom in the future, and it just makes good sense to use these resources to their best effect by helping these young learners become more proficient in their use.
Based on the foregoing considerations, the following recommendations are provided:
1. Ensure that at-risk students understand how to use computers effectively before presenting them with computer-based applications in the classroom.
2. Avoid using standardized testing as the sole measure of academic performance for at-risk students and rely instead on more comprehensive measures such as capstone projects and portfolio development.
3. Avoid the tendency to use a "one-size-fits-all" approach for at-risk students who will inevitably have a number of unique issues that must be addressed before technology can be successful in helping them.