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How Effective Is Technology With At-Risk Students?

Any initiative is as strong as it's implementation. If teachers and school leaders are not able to discuss, debate and dissect the initiative, it may not produce the desired results. This isn't just the case for state or federal initiatives, but for those that are brought in by central office administration as well.

One initiative that has often failed because of a lack of understanding is technology. As much as technology should be a natural part of learning for students, where they not only have access to laptops or tablets in the classroom, but also be able to bring their own devices, technology is still seen as an initiative among many schools.

Long ago there were computer labs popping up in schools across the country. Perhaps the goal was to improve learning by offering access to technology, but it also became a symbol of the "Have's and Have Not's." Those wealthier schools provided computer labs, while other poorer schools could only dream of offering such access to students.

Unfortunately, in either case the computers in the lab sat pining to be used by students, and those computers that were utilized were often only used for students to travel on a road to self-discovery...meaning it was quiet time for the teacher, and busy work for the students. As much as critics, researchers, policymakers and the peanut gallery want to scream from the sidelines, there are teachers who will not be able to use something correctly, if they are not provided with professional development and a few kind words to sway them on board.

Sadly, technology is a tool that can enhance learning, but there are camps that either believe it's the best thing in the world and don't understand why everyone doesn't want to use it, as well as camps that believe the wealthy want computers to take over the world and replace teachers.

How Effective is Technology?

Nowhere is technology seen as a distant dream more than in poor schools with a high percentage of at-risk learners. A recent report conducted by the Alliance for Excellent Education in partnership with Linda Darling-Hammond and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy for Education looked at the effectiveness of technology to support at-risk student's learning.

The report says,

The common caricature of computer-based instruction has been one in which the computer "takes over" for the teacher, presenting information to students, who absorb it, work on practice problems, and provide answers to factual questions posed by the computer until they demonstrate "learning" and move on to the next batch of information. And indeed, early versions of computer-based instruction (CBI) were structured much like electronic workbooks, moving students through a transmission curriculum in a fairly passive manner. Often programs have been geared toward improving student performance on minimum-competency tests, like high school graduation exams, that cover similar material in a similar format."

Anyone who has worked in a school has seen this happen. The most at-risk students in schools are provided with a computer, if their school is able to afford them, and they are left to go from one level to the next with very little teacher intervention. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, the report says,

"Results from these efforts have been largely disappointing. In some cases, students demonstrated improved outcomes on tests of similar information tested in a similar format; in most, they performed about the same as students taught by teachers during the same time period. One recent study, for example, used rigorous methods of random assignment to evaluate the impact of a variety of math and reading software products across 132 schools in 33 school districts, with a sample of more than 9,400 students, and found no significant difference on student test scores in classrooms using the software as compared to classrooms not using the software.10 Another large study using random assignment methods to evaluate the effectiveness of students' exposure to a phonics-based computer program also found no effect in terms of gains on reading comprehension tests.

However, other approaches have been more productive. Research has indicated three important variables for success with at-risk students who are learning new skills:

  • interactive learning;
  • use of technology to explore and create rather than to "drill and kill"; and
  • the right blend of teachers and technology"

In the End

The report should help us come to a few conclusions. First and foremost, poorer schools lack the necessary resources to make sure that at-risk students are provided with a equitable of an education as their wealthier peers. The following was a very important section in the report.

"It is important to note that in all of the examples of successful outcomes, students had access to one-to-one computing opportunities with adequate hardware and bandwidth to support their work. One-to-one access refers to environments where there is one device available for each student. Researchers have found that one-to-one availability is particularly important for lower-income students' ability to gain fluency in using the technology for a range of learning purposes, since they are less likely to have these opportunities at home."

The second conclusion is that technology is important, but alone technology will not help students reach academic growth. There needs to be a balanced approach that allows for opportunities for teachers and students to partner with one another, as well as time for students to have more time to create and less time for "Drill and Kill."

We all know that time for creativity matters. 

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Tom Murray from Alliance for Excellent Education did a webinar with Linda Darling-Hammond. Click here to listen to it. 

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