For advocates of classroom technology, a new study linking technology with student achievement provides welcome news: The use of educational technology in Illinois public schools has had “a small but significant impact” on student performance, according to a statistical analysis.
The Illinois State Board of Education commissioned Westat, a research firm based in Rockville, Md., to find out how the state’s classrooms use technology and what affect computers and the internet have had on student performance.
The state has spent nearly $240 million on technology grants to schools since 1995, but it does not keep records on the number of computers or internet connections in a school or district, according to a state Department of Education spokesman.
After completing a two-and-a-half-year study, Westat concluded that Illinois’ investment in learning technologies appears to be paying off.
“We are beginning to see a relationship between technology in the classroom and student achievement,” said Gary Silverstein, principal investigator for the study. “In schools where [technology] usage was the highest, students’ scores on certain subjects tended to be higher.”
Westat researchers surveyed 440 elementary, middle, and high school principals twice to measure the scope and implementation of educational technology. They also surveyed 718 teachers from the same schools to find out about their use of technology in the classroom.
In addition, the researchers visited 15 schools that were making effective use of technology and five schools that weren’t. They also conducted telephone interviews with 28 teachers and 28 technology coordinators, and they analyzed the state’s standardized test scores.
The researchers’ questions focused on technology access, use, competency, student learning, productivity, best practices, and factors that influence these items.
To determine the impact of technology on student achievement, Westat statistically analyzed the following variables: poverty, access to educational technology, professional development, extent of technology use, and scores from the state’s 1998-99 standardized tests.
The statistical analysis shows in cases where teachers’ use of technology to facilitate or enhance classroom instruction was high, standardized test scores also were high.
Technology’s impact was strongest in the higher grades, but not in every subject area. It had the greatest influence on 11th-grade science and 10th-grade reading test scores.
Westat also found technology use was positively influenced by the amount of access and teacher training a school had.
The study “certainly suggests the state’s investment was a good one,” Silverstein said. “There certainly was a pay-off.”
Poverty a greater factor
However, poorer districts continue to lag behind wealthier ones. In fact, the percentage of poor students in a school affects its test scores by at least twice as much as technology, the study found.
Although “there were no instances where the use of technology had a negative impact” on students’ scores, poverty still has the strongest impact on student achievement, Silverstein said.
“The findings indicate there is a significant difference in terms of access, usage, and professional development in various areas of the state,” Silverstein said. “High-poverty areas were making less use of computers and had less access to computers.”
Chicago schools, as well as other schools in high-poverty areas, have less access to laptops, fewer computers per classroom, and fewer internet connections.
Westat recommends that the state place special emphasis on providing technology access and teacher training in high-poverty areas, because a combination of barriers is preventing poor schools from taking full advantage of educational technology.
Teachers also need more technology professional development, the study suggested. “Just putting a computer in a classroom doesn’t seem to be enough,” Silverstein said.
State Superintendent Max McGee agreed: “This report confirms our long-held beliefsthat technology in the classroom without teacher training is nothing more than boxes and wires.”
Schools should take a more proactive approach and require or encourage teachers to take technology training, the study recommended. In districts that mandated or gave incentives for professional development, technology use was higher.
“If you have a school policy promoting professional development, you have increased usagewhich, in turn, increases student achievement,” Silverstein said.
In addition, the report said school districts should be encouraged to devise professional development activities that stress both computer skills and how to integrate technology into the classroom. Westat’s research shows that while the amount of computer equipment has increased across the state, teacher understanding of the technology has not.
“People have joked for a long time that most eight-year-olds know how to use computers better than adults,” McGee said. “That’s great material for comedians, but not for our classrooms. We must do a better job of helping our teachers understand how to use technology as a tool for information and discovery.”
Silverstein said it would help if the state were to replicate this study at the classroom level to get a more accurate picture of technology’s effect on student achievement.
In future studies, he said, the state should examine other factors, including teachers’ teaching practices, how much teaching experience teachers have, how often teachers use computers, the amount of exposure students have to technology outside of the classroom, student behavior, and how engaged students are in lessons because of technology.
Also, instead of focusing solely on test scores as a measure of achievement, Illinois should look at computer-based activities, Silverstein said.
Illinois State Board of Education