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How Effective is Ed Tech?


A commentary on edweek.org this week argues that investing more money into technology and professional development is not the way to improve K-12 education. Schools have already made massive investments into Internet access and technology, says the essay, without research to show how effective those investments have been.

The authors of the commentary, Gary W. Ritter and Robert Maranto, both of whom teach in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, point to a study by the Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research Inc. as proof that technology is not as effective as we'd like to believe. The study found that certain reading and math software products did not help improve student learning.

They say:

"Putting more resources into technology and for-profit consultants provides jobs and lets politicians feel they are helping schools, but it doesn’t improve student learning."

Instead, schools would be better served by increasing merit-pay for teachers and providing "bold action" to underperforming schools, the authors write.

While there are some folks out there who are overconfident in technology's ability to improve student achievement and address all the complicated problems that can face schools and students, I'm a bit skeptical of denouncing all tech-related education endeavors because of one study about computer software.

There is always room for more research, especially large-scale studies that look closely at technology's effect on student achievement (look at Project Red, for instance), but there are lots of examples of small-scale studies that point to increased student engagement and information retention in technology-rich classrooms. This study out of the University of Southern Maine's Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation is one example. And there's been a lot said about the imperative to provide students access to the tools and skills that they will need as employees in the 21st-century.

What do you think? Do we rely too heavily on technology to help improve student learning? Or are the investments we make in education technology worthwhile endeavors?


Technology should be viewed as an enabler and an equalizer, not a complete solution. Studies that compare a technology-based curriculum solution (e.g., an online reading or math program) to others that may not leverage technology are just as likely to be measuring the pedagogy and curriculum design, not the use of technology. So, pointing to the technology as the issue would be inappropriate. It seems clear, however, that technology is an inescapable component of our business world - important 21st Century tools (as the one study mentions). Ignoring intelligent uses of technology in K12 would certainly be a disservice to our learners.

It's a null effect - hard to interpret. There could be a hundred reasons for it.

-One might be that those 10 software tools could be improved (2 of them did show increases by the way). There are hundreds of educational technologies and software out there - this study just looked at ten of them.

-How much time did students spend using the software? I know in the first year it was only minutes a week that the students used them, and according to this report, the usage actually went down the second year for reading products. Students only spent about 30 minutes a week using the software. Would they improve on reading if they only had access to books for 30 minutes a week? Sure, the study found no correlation between time of software usage and learning effects, but perhaps the time of usage was too low even at the high end. The interventions may have been too weak.

-There are so many other potential confounding and moderating variables. What were the teachers' beliefs about technology and about learning? How did the introduction of the technology change their teaching? Did they teach less algebra skills because the software was doing it for them? How were the teachers in the treatment condition selected? You really need qualitative data and supplemental measurements to answer these. I personally might guess for example that the technology may have negatively impacted teaching practices because of teachers' particular beliefs about the technology. The software may have been used as a babysitter to out-source some teaching time, for example.

-What I really have a problem with is when people criticize something, but have no alternative to suggest other than to take it away. What is the alternative to technology? People forget what technology even means. Even pencils and chalkboards were "cutting edge" technology at one point. Even the language we speak and the written word are technologies. Where do we draw the line on what technologies are "bad" and what technologies are "good". School districts are spending millions on smart boards now, which surely have null effect on learning when compared to whiteboards/chalk boards. Should they be banned? Teachers would riot.

Just one more point I'd like to make. I'm perfectly willing to accept that my pet theories about this study are completely wrong. Perhaps students were given sufficient time to use these software applications. Perhaps they didn't have an inadvertent negative effect on teaching.

Still the most negative interpretation I can draw from this study is that 8 of 10 of the software tools showed no significant effects on learning compared to the control condition, and should be considered a waste of money for school districts.

Imagine if the Wright brothers had created 10 different airplane designs and found that only 2 of them got off the ground. Should they then not only give on designing airplanes, but give up on building bicycles (which they also designed) and give up all technology whatsoever and go back to just walking?

No, this is engineering, not just science. You learn from your failures and minor successes and try to improve the design. You don't give up or ban technology altogether. The software (and training) could be improved, or one could test any of the hundreds of other solutions out there.

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