Software in the Classroom: Does It Really Improve Learning?
Teachers and students offered “some of the most heartfelt online tributes” at the passing of Apple co-founder and innovator Steve Jobs. The Mac’s graphical interface takes well-deserved credit for helping to convince educators in the 1980s to introduce computers in the classroom, and to younger and younger students. Today, schools and teachers “integrating technology” into learning has become synonymous with improving student achievement.
The Case of Carnegie Learning’s Software
That technology can make a difference in students’ academic performance is not just assumed. You could say there is a bit of a blind faith that computers, software and the like will, just by using them, raise test scores. But two federal reviews of the flagship math-teaching software, Cognitive Tutor, of Carnegie Learning, have shown that using it had “no discernible effects” on the standardized test scores of high school students. The company’s promotional literature suggests otherwise:
…the gold standard of education research is a field trial in which similar groups of students are randomly assigned to classes where one uses the curriculum and the other does not.
The Carnegie Web site lists five such trials and says they all show positive results for Cognitive Tutor.
Three of these studies, however, were rejected by the [Education Department’s] What Works Clearinghouse, for flaws in their design; in a fourth, the clearinghouse identified a problem with part of the study — the part that purported to show benefits. One of the rejected studies had found that users of Cognitive Tutor in 10 Miami high schools scored better on Florida state exams than a control group, but the clearinghouse found that the students being compared were not equivalent.
Carnegie Learning was founded in 1998 by cognitive and computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University along with math teachers. But in August, it was acquired by the Apollo Group, the parent company of the 400,000 student for-profit University of Phoenix. Carnegie Learning’s website notes the acquisition with a link to a September 26th article on The Atlantic by Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School Professor and “world-renowned innovation guru,” and Henry Eyring, Advancement Vice President and educational strategist at BYU‐Idaho.
Christensen and Eyring unquestioningly laud the educational value of Carnegie Learning’s math tutorials which will “prove a boon to the hundreds of thousands of University of Phoenix students who take math courses in almost all of its programs of study.” Such online learning is something that many traditional universities and colleges are not, to their detriment, investing in. Christensen and Eyring claim numerous benefits for a mix of online and face-to-face learning:
…students will spend less time in the classroom, in favor of learning through personalized tutorials such as those produced by Carnegie Learning. They will also learn more from one another, through the application of social media technologies to defined learning objectives. Students who prepare for class via these technologies have much better learning experiences when they get to the classroom.
Not mentioned are teachers; students instead receive instruction through the software tutorials and, using more technology (social media), each other.
Christensen and Eyring do not spell out the evidence or research on what they are basing these statements. The two educators are talking not about school-age students using software in the classroom, but older individuals using educational software in an online course. Their short article does not indicate what they think about the federal review of some of Carnegie Learning’s software and its ineffectiveness as far as student achievement: Again, there’s a tendency to equate using computer technology with innovation and improved educational outcomes.
A $2.2 Billion Business
Classroom-based software is a $2.2 billion a year business though the jury is still out about how, and if, it really makes a difference in student learning. There’s no question that computers and online courses will be part of the educational future for many students. But the less than stellar results (as measured in students’ standardized test scores) of Carnegie Learning’s software should remind us that “educational innovations” do not go hand-in-hand with students learning.
My own college classroom is outfitted with a computer with internet access and an LED projector. I often show students maps of the ancient Mediterranean world, photos of Greek and Roman art and the ruins of buildings and much more that is readily available on the web; gone are the days of dragging in slides and a slide projector. But students look at webpages all the time and computers (or at least the one in my classroom) can freeze and crash. The best teaching innovation of this school year for me so far has been two 99 cent boxes of colored chalk I got at Target (the college of course provides white chalk but not chalk in rainbow hues). Writing and circling and underlining ancient Greek and Latin words in different colors can catch student’s attention more effectively than showing the yet another webpage on a screen.
Some research about “traditional” teaching technologies versus the latest new software products might be revealing.
Photo of the plural declension (in masculine, feminine, neuter genders) of the definite article in ancient Greek by the author
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