First Monday

The WIMBA experience: Technology in the Rio Grande Valley by Maria Elena Reyes

Trying to orient undergraduate students into the teaching profession is difficult under any circumstances. After modifying instruction and adding a technology component over a three week period, students appeared more effectively engaged with the course content. The researcher concluded that instructional systems like the one used in this study are assisting instructors in improving student learning, adding another dimension to the classroom experience, and delivering effective instruction. A short overview of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and the area’s mostly Latino population introduces this study.


The problem




South Texas is a unique region known locally as either “the Magic Valley” or “el valle de lagrimas” (the valley of tears). The first term, “the Magic Valley,” may have been coined by the so–called “winter Texans.” These out–of–state visitors escape the chilly northern states and make the drive south to this low–cost, mild winter weather region known for its agriculture. The second term “the valley of tears” requires more explanation. Until the 1980’s, the region was known as having some of the highest poverty levels in the U.S.

Latino residents in this area of the state, who have historically low educational attainment rates, were left to seek back–breaking work in agriculture, some as migrant workers (traveling to northern states) during the summer. Until recently, the area was plagued by a lack of economic opportunity, poor medical care, poverty, and inferior schools. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the term used for decades by local residents to describe the region was the “valley of tears.”

Close to 90 percent of the population of the Rio Grande Valley is of Latino origin, primarily Mexican American (U.S Census, 2006). Due to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the area has more recently enjoyed a robust and growing economy that has placed a heavy burden on the public school system partially due to a dramatic increase in the number of Mexican immigrant children entering local schools. With a total population of 569,463, which includes a markedly younger population than that in the state or nation, Hidalgo County (offered as an example of other counties in this region) is one of the largest of several counties in the Rio Grande Valley.

In educational attainment, 33.8 percent of Hidalgo County residents have less than a ninth grade education and only 8.4 percent have a bachelor’s degree. 82.3 percent report speaking Spanish at home. In terms of family income, 16.3 percent of families in this county reported an income of less than US$10,000, with the largest number, 19.9 percent, reporting an annual income of between US$15,000 and US$24,999. In Hidalgo County, 39.1 percent of families with children under age 18 live in poverty. 43.9 percent reported working in a service or sales occupation (U.S. Census, 2006).

Families at these income levels are unable to provide a computer or Internet connections at home to their children, supporting the case for what educators call the “digital divide.” The ERIC Digest reports that fewer Latinos than other students have access to a computer at home or school; although 68 percent use a computer at school (compared with 70 percent of African Americans and 84 percent of whites), only 18 percent use a computer at home.

Although the leadership of K–12 education has changed significantly — some regions in Texas have a high percentage of Latino administrators and teachers — Latino children still lag behind students in other groups in meeting basic performance standards. However, there are signs of hope due to the extensive efforts by the state and instances of private funding of public education. Small but significant gains in academic performance have been seen among Texas minority students following sweeping state and federal reform legislation, such as the “No Child Left Behind,” that began in the 1980’s [1].

Although basic technologies (PowerPoint presentations, e–mail for communication among teachers, use of USB drives, for example) are commonly used in the public schools in the Rio Grande Valley, missing are many technologies used in schools in other parts of the U.S. that contribute to sparking high order thinking skills, intellectual curiosity, and creativity. These include the educational use of podcasting, blogs, iMovies, and other emerging technologies.

A Pew 2002 survey found that three out of five children under 18, and more than 78 percent of children 12–17, use the Internet (Jones and Madden, 2002). Their findings revealed that although children use the Internet in completing their schoolwork, teachers have not responded to the ways these students communicate, think, or access information. Students reported that even when teachers build lessons around the Internet, the lessons were boring and unchallenging.

Although many students today are visual learners saturated by cultural images, the lack of the visual component in most secondary and post–secondary classrooms is often the norm. Prensky (2006) has written extensively on how students today, the so–called “digital natives,” have been fundamentally changed due to exposure to early and on–going technologies, while educators continue to use the same pedagogies in K–12 classrooms. Early on, Prensky (2002) identified the use of games, today widely used in the military, as a way to engage learners.

However, not all educators believe that we must modify curriculum for K–12 and post–secondary students due to students’ comfort level and exposure to technology. Jonassen (2000) and VanSlyke (2003) believe that it is just silly to disregard the importance of basic literacy to concentrate on visual representations. One of Prensky’s (2001) more controversial ideas is that students’ brains have actually changed due to their exposure to technology, an idea VanSlyke (2003) soundly rejects along with Prensky’s suggestion that learning can be fun. VanSlyke also questions whether all students fit Prensky’s digital native definition. He asks valid questions, such as, “What are the “demographic differences [among the digital natives]?” [2]

Meyer’s theory of multimedia learning and Sweller, Van Merienbora, and Pass’ cognitive load theory found that replacing visual text with spoken text (cueing effect) while adding visual cues increase the effectiveness of multimedia instruction (modality effect) will produce better learning results. In a follow up study, only a weak cueing effect was found and researchers concluded that effects could not easily be replicated in a non–laboratory setting (Tabbers, et al., 2004).

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has supported and advocated for the integration of technology into teaching and learning. In 1998, these effects resulted in the creation of the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS). The ISTE Standards’ New Learning Environments model argues that student–centered, constructivist and collaborative learning is more effective than the traditional top–down, lecture–based, text–driven model (ISTE/NETS, 2007).



The problem

In recent preservice classes, I was at first surprised at the apparent apathy of undergraduate education students in my classes. I considered myself a competent teacher with extensive experience at various levels of the educational ladder. I did not have this “problem” with older graduate students. Also, I kept hearing my colleagues complain about undergraduates and their attitude towards education and learning in general. But, more importantly to me as a teacher, I sensed that I was not ‘connecting’ with the students. I thought about and discussed this puzzle, I tried different strategies, I modified the curriculum, and I checked with colleagues in other universities. Those with experience with large university classes of undergraduates were mostly amused with my “problem.” Lastly, I checked with my very own expert, my youngest son, a college student. Matt, a senior at the University of Oregon Eugene, explained undergraduates this way:

“Mom, hello, this has been going on for a while. They do go to class, but are checking their e–mail and are text messaging. They are listening to their iPods, whispering to their cell phones, and, I guess, listening to the lecture. Most professors just ignore them, but one professor grabbed a cell phone and smashed it to the floor recently. That incident became the subject of a national blog because of course someone had filmed the incident with their cell phone and had posted it online.” [3]

Despite my non–traditional students’ demographic description, which would seem to indicate their disengagement with technology, I was forced to consider that these students were indeed part of a generation of “digital natives” that Prensky talked about.




I moved quickly to the next step: attempting a pilot study where I would try to deliver content in a way that included students’ previous exposure to technology in or out of the classroom. The purpose was to assess the effectiveness of a modified education curriculum in which the course delivery was specifically redesigned and/or modified to meet the academic needs and/or learning styles of preservice teachers in a teacher licensure program. The content for the course remained the same, but the method of delivering the content was modified.

Over a three week period in spring of 2007, I integrated Horizon Wimba, a course management system that can work in conjunction with Blackboard, WebCT, and Moodle [4]. The system permits instructors to review any type of content on the Web with students and to archive course content to be reviewed as many times as necessary by students on a 24/7 basis. Professors can record and archive discussions, lectures, presentations, etc. to be reviewed later by students, or they can archive discussions during an entire classes. Scheduling asynchronous classes are possible since students can “attend” classes from any online computer.

The sample consisted of 20 (n=20) juniors and seniors in their first semester of a teacher certification program. Students might be considered non–traditional students as some did not fit the typical profile of an undergraduate student. For example, about half were in their mid–to–late 20’s rather than their early 20’s. Over 90 percent were Latino and were first–generation college students. This means that these students were the first in their families to attend college. Most came from a working class background.

Data collection included analysis of how many times archived course material was accessed (found simply on the course Web site), notes and evaluation by the instructor, and a self–administered student survey given to students at the end of the three–week period. SPSS was used to produce simple frequencies of students’ survey responses, which assisted in analyzing the data.




The survey had a return rate of 65 percent. I also reviewed my own notes and observations during the three–week period. Selected survey findings included the following:

  1. 69 percent reported first using computers in elementary school;
  2. 61.5 percent of students thought that this part of the course was “a little better” (53.8 percent) or “much better” (7.7 percent) than most courses”;
  3. 53.8 percent of students would like to have more classes using Wimba that they could access from any computer;
  4. 92.3 percent of students reported understanding the course content about the same as in other courses, somewhat better than in other courses, or much better than in other courses.;
  5. 46.2 percent viewed using Wimba as “fun”; and,
  6. 50 percent said that they could learn course content well using Wimba;

Selected student responses included these:

“ … more classes should use technology because that is where the future is going.”
“It makes things much easier and more convenient … ”

When I reviewed the data on Wimba and my notes as instructor of the class, I concluded that:

The majority of students surveyed indicated that they could learn the course content effectively using the Wimba instructional delivery system. Students responded in a positive manner to the instructional delivery system used. Observations of their excitement as they were using the system in the University lab were notable. The system allowed them to interface with the course content visually (through posted material) and through the use of audio reinforcement (of lectures, class presentations and discussions). They were able to access the archived material as many times as they wanted. One hundred percent of students in the class accessed the Wimba site on a regular basis throughout the three–week period.




After reviewing the results of the survey and other data, I concluded that classroom instruction must change to accommodate the way most undergraduate students regardless of their background appear to learn best. I had underestimated how my students’ exposure to technology — even if limited — may have changed the way they preferred to learn new material. The new instructional program offered innovation, which included visual and verbal components, and a readily available accessibility to content that was preferable to students than what was available through traditional instructional methods. Students in this class had not previously been responding in a way that showed their active engagement with course material. As the instructor, I wanted them to be excited about this material or at the very least to engage with the content in a way that would help them better learn it.

During the initial phase of learning to use Wimba in the University lab, I noted that students appeared to find my own inexperience and struggle with the system somewhat humorous. I was in fact learning to use the system as they were. This breakdown of the teacher–student power relationship — often modified once technology is introduced into a classroom setting — cannot be underestimated especially since most students today are coming into classrooms with more technological competence than their teachers.

Some of the many facets of the Wimba system were not assessed, so there are many unrersolved questions. How important was it for students to be able to review difficult course content to reinforce required readings, class presentations and class discussions? Did students’ ability to review course content contribute to their gaining more confidence, which included improved test performance, about the content during the three–week period? Also, would the long–term use of the system diminish students’ excitement over time? End of article


About the author

Maria Elena Reyes is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas–Pan American.



This study was greatly aided by the assistance and support of Research Assistant Santhosh Venkatraja and the staff from the Center for Learning, Teaching, and Technology — Director Christina Rogoza, Josie Hernandez, Jessica Sanchez, Kumar Raman, and Edgar Gonzalez.



1. See the Texas chapter in McBeath, et al., 2007.

2. VanSlyke, 2003, p. 3.

3. Personal communication, 2007.

4. See



ISTE/NETS, 2007. National Educational Technology Standards Project: Essential Conditions for Teacher Preparationm at, accessed 24 July 2007.

D. Jonassen, 2000. Computers as mindtools for schools: Engaging critical thinking. Second edition. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill.

S. Jones and M. Madden, 2002. “The Internet goes to college: How students are living in the future of today’s technology,” Pew Internet and American Life Project, at, accessed 10 April 2008.

Jerry McBeath, Maria Elena Reyes, and Mary Ehrlander, 2007. Education reform in the American states. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing, pp. 171–198.

Marc Prensky, 2006. “Don’t bother me Mom, I’m learning!” How computer and video games are preparing your kids for twenty–first century success and how you can help! St. Paul, Minn.: Paragon House.

Marc Prensky, 2002. “The Motivation of gameplay or, the REAL 21st Century learning revolution,” On The Horizon, volume 10, number 1, pp. 1–14, and at

Marc Prensky, 2001. “Digital natives, digital immigrants,” On the Horizon, volume 9, number 5, pp. 1-6. Also see Part II, November/December, and at,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf.

H. K. Tabbers, R.L. Martens, and J.J.G. van Merriënboer, 2004. “Multimedia instructions and cognitive load theory: Effects of modality and cueing,” British Journal of Educational Psychology, volume 74, number 1, pp. 71–81.

U.S. Census, 2006. United States Census 2000, at, accessed 10 April 2008.

Timothy VanSlyke, 2003. “Digital natives, digital immigrants: Some thoughts from the generation gap,” Technology Source, at percent20Natives.htm, accessed 10 April 2008.


Editorial history

Paper received 1 January 2008; accepted 30 March 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Maria Elena Reyes.

The WIMBA experience: Technology in the Rio Grande Valley
by Maria Elena Reyes
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 5 - 5 May 2008