It’s hard to find a classroom today without some form of technology. But does investing in technology pay off in terms of test scores? Does outfitting every student with a laptop or iPad necessarily mean they are learning better?
The New York Times takes a close look at the the Kyrene School District in Chandler, Arizona. After a ballot initiative was passed in 2005, the Kyrene School District has spent roughly $33 million on technology. Its classrooms are outfitted with laptops, Smart Boards (like that in the photo above) and software to drill students on basic subjects. Teachers are supposed to be guides rather than lecturers to students who work at their own pace by using the resources of the Internet.
For its efforts, the Kyrene School District was pronounced a model of success by the National School Boards Association, which orchestrated a visit of 100 educators from 17 states to see Kyrene’s innovations in 2008.
But since 2005, Kyrene students’ scores in reading and math have “stagnated,” while scores for the rest of the state have risen.
“Pretty Weak” Evidence
Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, acknowledges that data for the educational value of extensive investments in technology is “pretty weak.” As the New York Times says, there simply isn’t much research showing that technology-centric teaching improves student learning.
Many studies have found that technology has helped individual classrooms, schools or districts. For instance, researchers found that writing scores improved for eighth-graders in Maine after they were all issued laptops in 2002. The same researchers, from the University of Southern Maine, found that math performance picked up among seventh- and eighth-graders after teachers in the state were trained in using the laptops to teach.
Bryan Goodwin, spokesman for Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, makes the point that “rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring — for better or worse.” Teachers who know what they’re doing will make good use of the technology while teachers who don’t will not.
A review by the Education Department in 2009 of research on online courses — which more than one million K-12 students are taking — found that few rigorous studies had been done and that policy makers “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness. A division of the Education Department that rates classroom curriculums has found that much educational software is not an improvement over textbooks.
Larry Cuban, an education professor emeritus at Stanford University, said the research did not justify big investments by districts.
“There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period,” he said. “There is no body of evidence that shows a trend line.”
Just having a computer in a classroom is no guarantee of successful student learning and can even simply promote student distraction.
Technology Advocates Disagree
Karen Cator, director of the office of educational technology in the United States Department of Education and a former Apple Computer executive, says that standardized test scores are not an adequate measure of the value of technology for students:
“In places where we’ve had a large implementing of technology and scores are flat, I see that as great,” she said. “Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.”
These are important skills for students to learn. But they are skills which students are probably honing at home when using the computer and Internet. Every single one of my college students knows how to use word processing software but that has little to do with their ability to write thoughtful analytical essays with well-substantiated arguments.
School Budget Cuts in Music, Art, PE
Technology isn’t the only way for students to “learn to collaborate with others”: Playing on a team in games in physical education class is another way, with the added benefit of getting students out of their seats. But PE is one area, along with music and art, in which instruction time is shrinking, due to budget issues. At a time when rising rates of childhood obesity have become a national concern, diminishing the hours of instruction in PE so that students spend more time on computers could be an innovation in the wrong direction.
Class size in Kyrene is also increasing: Seventh grade classes that had from 29 to 31 students now have 31 to 33 students.Teachers make roughly $33,000 to $57,000 a year and have not had a raise since 2008. The district’s maintenance and operating budget has shrunk from $106 million in 2008 to $95 million this year and teachers routinely bring in their own supplies.
The Question of Student Engagement
Teachers acknowledge that using technology often seems to be the only way to keep many students engaged. Indeed, “student engagement” is one of the main arguments for investing in classroom technology. But again, research “does not establish a clear link between computer-inspired engagement and learning,” as Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo, says.
“Do we really need technology to learn?” one Kyrene parent, Eduarda Schroder, asks. Last November, Schroder worked on the political action committee to advocate for an extension of the technology tax, so her answer to her question may seem obvious. But it’s a question that needs more consideration as schools decide whether to make big commitments to technology, possibly at the expense of other areas of student learning.
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Photo by kjarrett