On ed tech, we’re asking the wrong question

By Dennis Pierce, Editor
September 21st, 2011

Instead of examining whether technology is worth schools’ investment, the Times should have focused on two other, more relevant questions: Why are so many districts that invest in technology still failing to see success? And, what are the conditions that best lead to ed-tech success?

Default Lines column, Oct. 2011 edition of eSchool News—Does the use of textbooks lead to better student achievement? Somebody should do the research. Schools nationwide are spending billions of dollars each year on textbooks, with no clear evidence they improve test scores—and stakeholders deserve some answers.

I’m being facetious, of course. Textbooks are simply tools that educators use in their instruction, and few people would suggest that textbooks—by themselves—hold some larger power over whether students learn.

But if we wouldn’t expect this of textbooks, then why should we expect it of educational technology?

In the end, that’s all technology is, too—a resource. In the hands of talented and well-trained teachers, it can facilitate high-quality teaching and learning; when used by average teachers, it most likely will lead to average results. And in either case, it’s not entirely clear whether test scores would rise, anyway—for reasons I’ll discuss later.

Whether technology can lead to better achievement is a question stakeholders have asked now for decades. This question surfaced yet again in a Sept. 3 front-page story in the New York Times, which examined whether—in light of “stagnant” test scores in reading and math—the Kyrene School District’s $33 million investment in educational technology over the last five years has been worth it.

In an issue of eSchool News in which two of the most significant news items relate to jobs creation and Jobs loss, it’s this story from the Gray Lady that I’d like to address instead. Honestly, I’m surprised that, more than a decade into the 21st century—and seven years since the launch of Facebook sparked the biggest communications revolution since the invention of the telephone—we’re still having this debate.

Outside of school, students are plugging in and taking charge of their own learning, as the results from Project Tomorrow’s annual Speak Up survey have shown. But when students arrive at school for their formal education, many have to power down and revert to a style of learning that arose when the goal of public education was to prepare them for industrial-era jobs.

Statistics from the U.S. Commerce Department rank education dead last in technology use among 55 sectors of the economy, suggesting that the transformation the rest of society has experienced as a result of technology has left schools largely untouched. That anyone would be OK with the notion that schools haven’t changed much since the days when factory jobs were prevalent speaks volumes about how our society values education and its children.

The Times story says there is very little evidence of technology’s efficacy as a learning tool. That’s not entirely true. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that, when used wisely, technology is a powerful resource that can help boost achievement.

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8 Responses to “On ed tech, we’re asking the wrong question”

You make a good point about ED tech and how it is beneficial for learning. Implementation of technology in education is always related to money, as your article shows. Money and investment seems to be a big problem now in the U.S economy that affects many aspects of our lives. I think it is a good time for technology producers like Mac, IBN and Microsoft to step in and show their good will for people as they have been always claiming.

September 22, 2011

There may be an issue with the way achievement is being defined here, but even if you do define it as something as one-dimensional as standardized test scores, there is empirical evidence that scores from standardized tests can go up when children use technology that has content designed to increase the skills being tested, such as math and literacy. One example would be the McManis, Gunnewig, & McManis (2010) study, which focuses on children in a rural area in Tennessee using the Hatch TeachSmart system. While anecdotal evidence has its place, it should not be used as ironclad evidence or as a tool to unduly raise alarm about the lack of effectiveness of certain programs. This seems to be an opportunity to look for natural experiments; surely some district similar to Kyrene exists that did not buy-in so heavily to technology. That would probably be more useful than comparing Kyrene to Arizona as a whole where too many factors differ. -Dr. Dale McManis, Hatch Research Director

McManis, Gunnewig, & McManis (2010) study:

September 26, 2011

Just as with textbooks, or any other educational tool, the question should be, Does this tool help my students learn?

The second question should be, Does this tool engage my students more and/or make efficient use of their time in learning?

Some technology tools may slow down learning but for good reasons. Some help students reach a deeper level of learning. But if a technology tool does no better job than a non-tech tool, why use it? If it is only engaging for the first few minutes until the novelty wears off, what’s the point?

I think the bigger issue in education today is that too many schools use technology just to say they are using technology. They aren’t putting it to any better use than textbooks.

September 26, 2011

As stated, “several elements must work in harmony”. So, when tech is put in harmony then it’s fair to expect student outcomes to improve. It’s ironic that a single-classroom student outcome story about math software is in the same paragraph with a whole district mentioned as crediting just its data/assessment management system. That same district uses math software in 34 of 36 sites, and increased its math proficiency from 33% in 2004/05 (16 points below the state average), with 5 of 38 campuses using the math software, to 67% proficient in 2010/11 (equaling the state average), with 36 of 38 campuses using the software. These are the kind of “stories” of harmonious use of technology by teachers, students, and administrators that need to become the new norm.

September 26, 2011

Dennis Pierce raises the right questions that the New York Times should have asked: ” Why are so many districts that invest in technology still failing to see success? And, what are the conditions that best lead to ed-tech success?”

Here is what I wrote to the Times: “Matt Richtel’s excellent portrayal of one school district’s dilemma in proving the benefits of educational technology (“In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores”, September 4, 2011) using current standardized test scores is a cautionary tale for all districts engaged in school innovation. These tests, he quotes some, are “an inadequate measure”. They fail to measure the 21st Century Skills that educational technology most effectively enables in the classroom.

The technology applications that Richtel describes in Kyrene are quite limited from a curriculum standpoint and mostly reinforce traditional education practices. Experience around the world shows that curriculum and pedagogy must change significantly to capitalize on technology’s potential. A year 2000 Australian report that reviewed research on technology implementation concluded that “until IT is more commonly used for educational practices that are constructivist and problem-based, locally relevant and critical, it has little hope of fundamentally changing patterns of student outcomes and achievement.”

I’m in my second year of teaching computer skills to students at our elementary campus. Before I took this position, our students had no formal instruction in this area, nothing beyond a little word processing and maybe an occasional PowerPoint taught to them through their homeroom teacher, who likely received his/her technology training when they hired on with the district 15-20 years ago. After teaching in this position, I now see how much they were missing. So, now that they have a state of the art computer lab, at a brand new school, with a full-time computer teacher, how likely is it that staff will “power up” so that kids don’t have to “power down”? Well, I’m finding real resistance. Our district doesn’t offer many staff development trainings in the area of technology and, if it did, it would likely be fee based. With teachers having their pay frozen or cut, I don’t blame them for not signing up for these classes. But, what I do find short-sighted, are teachers who see computer skills as a separate curriculum, not one infused into every subject they teach. I can offer to demonstrate how easy it is to use a specific website or application to help students achieve or to help teachers teach more efficiently, but they’re few takers. Currently, my students are powered up in the computer lab for 30-90 minutes,and then powered down for the rest of the school year when back in their homeroom. You’re right that technology needs a “supportive culture” to succeed. My district recently cut back on site techs to maintain the computer labs and trouble shoot for teachers. Last year, computer resource teachers were on the chopping block. They could still be cut for 2012-2013.

Why are so many districts that invest heavily in technology still failing to see success? And, what are the conditions that best lead to ed-tech success?
These are 2 very broad questions with answers that depend on a myriad of factors. As already pointed out, technology is just another or new resource with which to instruct and educate. However, this weighs so heavily on the teacher’s know-how, motivations, intent, and tech support. In my district, new technology is graciously afforded us with very little support. On top of that, the use of the new technology is part of the teacher evaluation. Technical support is so direly needed to afford effective and smooth use of the equipment. That area seems to be lacking.
It just seems that with all the new labels and educational pitches proposed by the government that districts are racing to meet the challenges; but in doing so, they are doing such a great disservice to the teachers and consequently, the students. I have the new equipment in my classroom this school year, but as far as I am concerned, it is just a new dust collector because it still is not hooked up properly so I can’t even make use of it. Now, are you ready for the ironic part? I am a Technology teacher. Why is it that my classroom was not fashioned correctly in the first place?

Wallace makes a valid point. We are attempting to put the latest technology in classrooms and buildings unprepared to support it. Our school buildings aren’t flexible enough to handle the latest and greatest technology, but yet teachers are expected to create a “work-around” that will enable it to function.

Part of the problem with education technology is that many of the general public see it as a pancea to education’s problems. They believe that if the latest technology is placed in the hands of students; they will learn. Technology is a resource that is only as good as the teacher’s effective use of it.