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.