Three studies: Technology can make a difference

“Fool’s Gold” argues that money spent on technology in K-6 education could better be spent on other, more pressing concerns, such as eliminating the threat of lead poisoning in some urban school districts or paying for educational field trips.

According to Stanford University’s Larry Cuban, a supporter of the Alliance for Childhood report, “There is no clear, commanding body of evidence that students’ sustained use of multimedia machines, the internet, word processing, spreadsheets, and other popular applications has any impact on academic achievement.”

But many technology advocates think there is little long-term evidence showing the effectiveness of technology on learning simply because educational technology is still coming of age in schools. They point to anecdotal, hard-to-quantify evidence that suggests technology can make a difference for students who are more motivated to learn or students collaborating with others across vast distances.

Although quantifiable evidence is hard to come by, a small but growing body of research is beginning to emerge. Besides the study of technology use in Illinois schools (see story, page 10), here are other recent studies that suggest that, used correctly, technology can improve educational outcomes:

1. “West Virginia Story: Achievement Gains from a Statewide Comprehensive Instructional Tech- nology Program” by Dr. Dale Mann, Columbia University; Dr. Charol Shakeshaft, Hofstra University; Jonathan Becker, J.D., Columbia University; and Dr. Robert Kottkamp, Hofstra University (1999).

In this landmark study, researchers examined the educational outcomes of the West Virginia Basic Skills/Computer Education (BS/CE) program, which began in 1990-’91.

At a cost of about $7 million per year, West Virginia provided every elementary school with enough equipment so that each classroom serving the grade targeted that year would have three to four computers, a printer, and a school-wide networked file server.

The program started with the kindergarten class of 1990-’91 and, as that class moved up in grade level, so did the successive waves of new computer installations.

The study revealed that as students were exposed to more elements of the BS/CE program, they scored higher on the Stanford-9 state exam. Researchers attributed an 11-percent rise in test scores to the state’s technology program.

The study also revealed that while participation in BS/CE helped all students perform better, it helped the neediest students the most. According to the report, “Those children without computers at home made the biggest gains in (1) total basic skills, (2) total language, (3) language expression, (4) total reading, (5) reading comprehension, and (6) vocabulary.”

2. “Idaho Technology Initiative: An Accountability Report to the Idaho Legislature,” prepared by the state Division of Vocational Education and the State Department of Education, Bureau of Technology Services (1999). Produced by the Idaho Council for Technology in Learning, this January 1999 report was charged with justifying the expenditure of one-time and ongoing funds to purchase and integrate technology into the state’s K-12 public schools. It drew from a sampling of 35,885 students.

The principal question of the report asked, “Have students improved their academic performance as a result of the integration of technology in Idaho’s K-12 schools?”

To answer this question, researchers targeted two groups of students, those who were in eighth grade at the time of the study and were preparing to take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and those who were in 11th grade and were preparing for the Test of Academic Proficiency.

Based on findings from the sample group, the researchers concluded, “The benefits of technology in teaching and learning are clear: an increase in academic achievement in reading, mathematics, language, and core studies; improved technology literacy; increased communication; well-trained, innovative teaching; positive relationships with the community; more efficient operation of schools; and technically qualified students ready to enter today’s workforce.”

3. “Does it Compute? The Relationship Between Educational Technology and Student Achievement in Mathematics” by Harold Wenglinsky (1998). With support from Education Week and the now-defunct Milken Exchange on Education Technology, Educational Testing Service researcher Harold Wenglinsky provided the first nationwide study of computers in the classroom.

Using data on the performance of fourth- and eighth-graders on the math section of the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and correlating them to other NAEP data on student use of computers at home and in school, Wenglinsky concluded that computers can have a positive impact on student achievement when used selectively by trained teachers.

Learning is enhanced, he found, when computers are used to encourage the development of higher-thinking skills. Simulations and applications, such as spreadsheets, are effective in eighth grade, and math learning games enhance achievement in fourth. Other uses, such as for rote drill-and-practice exercises, may actually have a negative impact.

“When computers are used to perform certain tasks, namely applying higher-order concepts, and when teachers are proficient enough in computer use to direct students toward productive uses … computers do seem to be associated with significant gains in math achievement,” Wenglinsky said.

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