By Harvey Barnett

Schools have purchased computers and other new technologies in hopes of raising students’ achievement and increasing their motivation. But has this investment paid off for students? The WestEd Regional Technology in Education Consortium (RTEC) recently released a paper authored by Cathy Ringstaff and Loretta Kelley that sought to answer this question.

During the course of their research, the authors discovered several factors that are key to enhancing student learning through the use of technology. Here are 10 suggestions for policy makers to consider, based on the lessons culled from this research. (A full copy of the paper is available at http://www.westedrtec.org.)

1. Match technology with learning goals.

To understand how best to derive benefits from technology, it’s important to consider that computer-based technology can refer to a wide variety of things. How to get the most from technology, then, depends in part on what you are trying to accomplish. A distinction the authors found helpful comes from the work of Thomas Reeves (1998), who describes learning “from” computers as different from learning “with” computers. Learning “from” computers occurs when the technology functions essentially as a tutor. By contrast, students learn “with” computer-based technology when they use the technology as a tool for problem solving, conceptual development, and critical thinking.

2. Make technology only one piece of the puzzle.

Technology by itself will have little impact without accompanying reform at the classroom, school, and district level. Studies of IBM’s Reinventing Education program showed that students’ reading skills improved in schools that had leaders who were committed to a school reform plan as well as clear, meaningful educational goals. In contrast, technology has been shown to be less effective when learning objectives are unclear and the focus of technology use is diffuse (Schacter, 1999).

3. Provide adequate and appropriate teacher training.

A variety of studies indicate that technology will have little effect unless teachers are adequately and appropriately trained to integrate technology with their instructional program (Office of Technology Assessment, 1995; 2000). In a paper discussing the cost, utility, and value of technology, Wahl (2000) suggests that organizations should spend 30 percent of their budget on equipment and 70 percent on the “human infrastructure” to support ongoing training and technical assistance.

4. Change teacher beliefs about learning and teaching.

Integrating technology into instruction is a difficult, time-consuming process; only those teachers who believe that technology use will lead to significant benefits for their students will undertake the associated challenges. Teachers need time to observe for themselves the impact of technology use on learning and teaching in their colleagues’ classrooms. Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) researchers think the shifts in teachers’ beliefs occurs when teachers begin to see firsthand the benefits of technology use (Sandholtz et al., 1997). Even the best professional development will have limited success with teachers who firmly believe that the lecture-recitation model of instruction is the best teaching method.

5. Ensure an adequate student-to-computer ratio.

Without sufficient access to technology, of course, even well-trained, highly motivated teachers will not be able to integrate technology effectively into instruction. A RAND study (Glennan & Melmed, 1996) of technology-rich schools suggested that the most successful of these schools had a high density of computers and high access to them. While there is no magic number, research suggests that a student-to-computer ratio of 5 to 1 or 4 to 1 will provide the level of access needed for technology to raise student achievement.

6. Make equipment accessible.

A study of computer use in West Virginia found that student outcomes were most improved by classroom access to technology. Students who had access to computers in their classrooms showed more improvement in basic skills than those who received instruction in computer labs. In addition, teachers who had computers in the classroom reported greater confidence and competence in using computers and more time using the computers (Mann, 1999).

7. Provide home access to computers.

Not surprisingly, students who have computers at home do better than students who don’t. In a New Jersey study focusing on seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, researchers found that students who had sustained access to computers, eMail, and the internet at home did significantly better on standardized writing tests than students who had access to similar technology only at school.

8. Plan for the long term.

Research suggests that technology should be implemented only after a planning stage in which administrators and other stakeholders develop clearly articulated standards and goals and a clear vision of how the technology is to be integrated into the mission of the school or district. The most successful schools in IBM’s Reinventing Education program were willing to allocate time and other scant resources for planning how best to use the technology to improve instruction (Trotter, 2001).

9. Provide technical and instructional support.

Although adequate access to technology is a key factor in successful implementation, researchers have also found that a major barrier to technology use is the lack of technical support. Even teachers who enjoy using computers will stop using technology if the equipment is unreliable. Many teachers lack adequate troubleshooting skills—not to mention time—to fix equipment, especially if it breaks in the middle of a lesson. Consequently, the effective use of technology requires an adequate school and district infrastructure that includes timely, on-site technical support.

10. Integrate technology within the curricular framework.

To use technology effectively, teachers must understand how its use fits into the larger curricular and instructional framework. The ACOT study found that student engagement remained highest when technology use was integrated into the larger curricular framework, rather than being an “add-on” to an already full curriculum (Sandholtz et al., 1997).

For technology to contribute positively to the learning experience, it’s important to put together all 10 pieces touched upon in this article. With ongoing attention, funding, and adjustments as needed, computer-based technology can play a significant role in contributing to a positive, productive learning experience. More importantly, by putting these pieces in place, you can ensure a learning return on your technology investment.

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Harvey Barnett is a senior research associate for WestEd RTEC.