The data doesn’t “prove” that technology increases student learning. So what?

Quick aside: A big thanks to everyone who has emailed, messaged on Facebook, etc. to ask how we’re doing after Superstorm Sandy. We really appreciate your thoughts and prayers. Our part of Brooklyn is just fine: our biggest problem is that we still don’t have subway service and the gas shortages are serious, so it’s tough to get around. But we consider ourselves extremely blessed in that we’ve been able to focus our time and resources on helping people in much harder-hit areas. We’re dealing with minor inconveniences: others are facing the loss of everything they have. You’ve probably heard it a million times already, but you can donate through the American Red Cross or World Vision: there are tens of thousands of families here in the tri-state area who would be extremely grateful for your help as they start rebuilding their lives in the many months ahead.

Let’s face it: a lot of the stuff we’re doing with technology in schools right now doesn’t have a huge research base behind it. The ed tech world has gone crazy for Google Apps for Education, but we don’t have studies “proving” it’s worth implementing district- or school-wide. Ditto with mobile learning: this is only the second school year that iPads have been widely used in schools, and we’re still trying to quantify the impact on student learning. For schools with limited budgets (read: all of them), it takes a huge leap of faith to spend big bucks on tools that may or may not benefit kids.

Many of the pioneering and recent findings about the impact of technology in schools haven’t been promising. One of the latest studies  out of Maine indicates that giving every student a laptop for school and home use produced no change in reading scores and a single percentage point increase in math scores.

That’s not a shocking revelation to me.  And frankly, I don’t really care.

Here’s why: as I see it, there are (at least) two fundamental problems with these kinds of studies. The first is that researchers are attempting to measure whether kids “learn more” solely through standardized test scores, when any teacher will tell you that those tests aren’t an accurate measure of what students know and are far from all-encompassing. I’m not sure that technology improves students’ ability to bubble in the answers to multiple choice questions, and I don’t think it’s going to be earth-shattering in terms of how much it aids in the comprehension of long text passages that students are tested on.

The real impact and greatest value of technology in the classroom is that of “untested” skills like creativity and collaboration. Technology also empowers students to learn and apply traditional skills in meaningful, in-depth ways far beyond what typical textbook  work allows. And technology enables students to practice critical thinking and problem solving skills in ways that standardized tests just can’t quantify. If we’re only looking at standardized test scores to prove that technology is a worthwhile investment, I think the results will always be disappointing.

The second fundmental problem with proving whether or not technology is effective is that technology is just a tool: it’s not a teaching method. Some teachers will barely turn on the laptops, while others will use them all day long. Some teachers will use them mostly to allow students to play math fact practice games, while others will engage kids in long term cross-curricular project-based learning. There are an endless (and constantly evolving) number of ways to use technology, and they’re not all going to produce the same outcome. This fact has to be recognized instead of simply tossing a bunch of computers into classrooms and acting surprised when standardized test scores don’t immediately jump twenty percentile points.

Teachers often receive the unspoken message that they should not trust their instincts and professional expertise, and must go with only what the data shows and research proves. That’s a dangerous mindset because data never gives the complete picture. I’ve read study after study that “proves” class size doesn’t make a difference in student achievement, and yet nearly every teacher out there would vehemently disagree. I can say with certainty that I was less effective as a teacher the year I had 26 students than the year I had 18. I don’t care what the research says. I know my students better and can meet their needs and connect with them and their families on deeper levels when I have fewer of them. Period.

I have the same feeling about these technology effectiveness studies. I know that tech improves the way students learn when it’s used in meaningful ways, because I’ve seen it happen. I know the difference between the lessons I designed 7 years ago (PowerPoint and Microsoft Word on three shared classroom computers) and the ones I’m designing today that make full use of class sets of laptops, iPads, and/or interactive whiteboards with wifi connectivity. I see the depth of thinking and analysis that happens when students write and edit with Google Docs, and  the connections they make between different aspects of their learning when they Skype with classes in other parts of the world.

And that leads me to the most important point of all: Students deserve to have technology in their schools because it’s the 21st century and they’re global citizens. They use technology constantly in their daily lives, and they’re going to need it in their careers. Technology is not something most of us can opt of using in our lifetimes. Technology is here to stay, and it’s integrated into or at least impacting almost everything we do. It’s the key to connecting and collaborating with people around the globe. To me, that’s reason enough to give our students access to tech tools and teach them how to use those tools responsibly and in ways that enrich their lives. Do we really need a research study to prove it?

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shibahn Landry November 6, 2012 at 12:43 am

Glad you are okay! And amen sister to all your I don’t cares! We know our babies in the classroom better than anyone. If you know something is only going to solidify and embed the necessary learning through meaningful experience then that’s all the explanation needed. :)

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2 Angela Watson November 14, 2012 at 11:28 am

Thank you, Shibahn! I think research has a valuable place in education, but I don’t think it trumps experience in the classroom. They both have something to offer.

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3 Marge Smith November 6, 2012 at 9:25 am

You are a very wise young woman. Thanks for the read.
PS – also glad you are ok!

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4 Angela Watson November 14, 2012 at 11:28 am

Thank you, Marge! I appreciate that.

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5 Kay Mason November 7, 2012 at 10:16 pm

This is the third year our district has had no elementary technology instruction and very little available in the classrooms. As the former technology coordinator now back in the classroom, it really worries me how far behind our small, rural district is.

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6 Angela Watson November 14, 2012 at 11:29 am

Hi, Kay! I think most districts feel like they are far behind. I have seen teachers do amazing things with very little technology. Don’t be discouraged–make the best of what you have, and keep looking for grants to get more!

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7 Penelope Millar November 10, 2012 at 6:49 pm

I have 1 laptop in my classroom. We “upgraded” over the summer to laptops, and somehow that lost s computers – we had 2 desktops in the room before. Despite everything we wrote and pointed out about why this was a bad idea, no one in charge of buying computers cared. Nor were we allowed to keep the old desktops. *sigh* Sometimes I have these inkling of lesson ideas I could do if I knew I’d always have available a variety of student-accessible tech in the room, but then I remember that my district would rather spend the money on SMARTboards and laptops for teachers.

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8 Penelope Millar November 10, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Oh, also, completely there with you on studies vs experience. Not that research isn’t valuable, I’ve done some myself :), but when your research is based solely on how does this impact scores on standardized tests, I don’t care. What about teacher burn out? What about student motivation? What about students learning to use the technology of this day and age well?

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9 Angela Watson November 14, 2012 at 11:33 am

How frustrating about having the desktops removed. It would have been great to keep those, too. I also feel your frustration about SMARTBoards–they’re so incredibly expensive and often just maintain the status quo in terms of teacher-directed instruction. If we’re going to transform education, we’ve got to put the technology in the hands of the students!

Your points about studies vs. experience are well made. There are so many variables when researching the effectiveness of technology. We have to be very careful not to oversimplify the results and jump to false conclusions. Real learning is not easily measured.

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10 Lee Reed May 27, 2014 at 9:41 pm

This is an interesting subject for me since I have been teaching in Cambodia for the last year; a country with very few of the technological resources in most developed countries. Yes, I miss my Smartboard and other helpful tools, but not having those things has not kept me from teaching well. Do I think the new proposed technologies will be helpful? Absolutely, but they are not going to revolutionize teaching in the way many are proposing. Companies are racing to produce the newest slickest programs with vastly over-hyped visions of what they will be able to accomplish. Why? Because there is a lot of money at stake. But advances in teaching take time, years or even decades will pass before we fully learn how to make the most of the technologies at our disposal. Good teachers will always find creative ways to use the tools available to help their students learn, even if the tools they have a limited to a copier and a whiteboard.

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11 Angela Watson May 27, 2014 at 11:07 pm

Such wisdom in this comment! Thank you so much for sharing.

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