An analysis of existing ed-tech research offers both good and bad news for advocates of educational technology: Although technology has had a positive impact on education so far, more dedication to research, implementation, and development is needed for technology to realize its full potential as a teaching and learning tool.

That’s the conclusion, anyway, of “Technology in Schools: What the Research Says,” a new meta-study–or study of studies–on the use and effectiveness of classroom technologies. Produced by Cisco Systems and the Metiri Group, the report summarizes general trends and representative studies in areas such as television and video use, calculators, engagement devices such as interactive whiteboards, portable or handheld devices, virtual learning, in-school computing, and one-to-one computing.

The report aims to provide educators with sound data about technological innovations that researchers say are working. Its goal is to help school leaders make better decisions about technology investments.

“Contrary to popular belief, much is now known about the effect of technology on learning and teaching in primary and secondary schools,” the report says, adding that technology does provide a “small, but significant,” increase in learning across all uses and in all content areas when implemented “with fidelity.”

For example, a review of research literature published in 2004 by the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (BECTA) found that the use of simulations and modeling in the natural sciences resulted in increased learning and retention by students. A meta-analysis conducted by Boston College on writing with word processors across the curriculum found that students using these electronic tools wrote significantly more, received earlier interventions by teachers, and wrote higher quality work than students in comparison groups. And a 2003 study of California middle-school students found that, when compared with a control group, students using laptop computers significantly outscored students in conventional classrooms in math and language arts.

But close attention to areas such as leadership development, professional development for teachers, and curricular design is needed to ensure the full benefits of technology implementation, the report warns.

The document comes as education stakeholders continue to debate the importance of technology in the nation’s schools. According to the report, significant investments in technological infrastructure, teacher training, and software have left many people questioning the value of technology in education.

“The reality is that advocates have over-promised the ability of education to extract a learning return on technology investments in schools,” the report says. “The research studies suggest that their error was not in citing the potential of technology to augment learning–for research now clearly indicates that the effective use of technology can result in higher levels of learning.”

Progress has been slow for several reasons, the report suggests. Many educators still do not have access to reliable, current technology. A lack of access to research or poorly articulated vision has stifled progress in some ed-tech programs. Identifying which types of technology will have the greatest impact and faithfully installing, using, and monitoring the technology have proven challenging for school leaders as well.

A review of research over the past decade revealed four miscalculations on the part of educators. First, the report says, educators have been “overly confident that they could easily accomplish the depth of school change required to realize the potential technology holds for learning–not an easy task.”

Second, educators did not make as much effort as they could have in documenting technology’s effect on student learning, the way teachers used the technology, or how efficient it was. Additionally, educators and school staff have underestimated the amount of time it would take for technology access to be sufficient, the report says. Finally, they have underestimated the rate of change in technology, and the impact of such a rapid, continuous change on staff time, budgeting, professional development, software upgrades, and curricular and lesson redesign.

“As a result, the real potential of technology for improving learning remains largely untapped in schools today,” the report says.

It is this idea that educational technology has not met its full promise that critics have seized on.

Larry Cuban, a professor at Stanford University, says in his book Oversold and Underused that technology has not transformed teaching or learning and has not affected the productivity gains that educators and others had hoped for.

The report recommends that school leaders heed Cuban’s recommendation for a reexamination of technology in schools. It says that such an examination should “result in redirecting investments of technology funds to proven learning technology solutions. Conscientious educators, facing severe budget deficits, will need to examine the research to focus technology investments on solutions that address profound, critical challenges that schools face today.”

Among these critical challenges, the report says, are adolescents who are nonreaders or who struggle to read fluently with comprehension; secondary schools that report dropout rates of more than 30 percent; large percentages of students failing basic algebra and other mathematics courses; and achievement gaps based on race, socioeconomic status, and gender.

Researchers have found that gaining the maximum learning return from technology requires more than simply introducing it with software and online resources that are aligned with the curriculum. Content, sound principles of learning, and high-quality teaching must all support one another, and these also must be aligned with assessment and accountability, according to the report.

Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), said he welcomed the report’s findings.

“For decades, ISTE’s position has been that using technology well within a school or across an education system constitutes significant school reform at the very least, and–in its most complete manifestation–school transformation. Therefore, I take some exception to the claim, ‘The reality is that advocates have over-promised the ability of education to extract a learning return on technology investments in schools,'” Knezek said.

“That said, I am pleased to see the work done and the findings so well laid out. Issues such as the fidelity with which technology is implemented for improved learning, the evaluation and monitoring of impact and use of data, and the planned flexibility to adjust when results don’t align with targeted improvements are all important features of effective implementation of technology in the learning process.”

Knezek concluded: “This is a very important piece of research.”


“Technology in Schools: What the Research Says”

Cisco Systems Inc.

The Metiri Group

International Society for Technology in Education