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Review Casts Doubt on Importance of Learner Control in Computerized Instruction

Results of a new research review suggest that participants in computerized instruction reach similar destinations regardless of whether the program they use puts them in the drivers seat or just lets them ride along as passengers.

Although findings varied by subgroup, setting, and subject, the review uncovered no overall differences between computerized instruction that provided students with greater and lesser opportunities to control aspects of learning such as pace, sequence, timing, practice, and review. As such, the results raise questions about justifications for educational technology that emphasize its ability to provide individualized instruction that permits students to learn in their own way, at their own pace.

"Giving a student control over their learning has theoretical and intuitive appeal, but its effects are neither powerful nor consistent in the empirical literature base," write the authors, a team of University of Minnesota-Twin Cities researchers that included doctoral student Abbey C. Karich, psychology professor Matthew K. Burns and doctoral student Kathrin E. Maki.

The review was a meta-analysis that used quantitative methods to pool the results of 18 studies published in peer-refereed journals between the years 1996 and 2012.  Eight of the studies included K-12-aged students.  Published online March 10th, the review will appear in a future edition of the Review of Educational Research, a peer-refereed journal.

 The review was an effort to update a 1996 meta-analysis of instructional technology studies that also found that levels of learner control made little difference. Karich and her co-authors theorized that they might reach different conclusions because computerized instruction has made dramatic technological advances since that time. But they did not. As a result, they concluded that "learner control can likely be ruled out as a potential [cause] for the positive effects of educational technology."

However, while levels of learner control made little overall difference, Karich and her co-authors did find that results varied by age, setting, subject matter, and outcome. One of the most interesting findings for them was that learner control did appear to matter for outcomes related to behavior. 

"The relatively higher effect for behavioral variables could suggest that the use of computers and technology may help improve motivation and engagement (e.g., time on task), but the effect on academic outcomes is less clear...Further research is warranted to examine not only how students learn on computers but also how we are measuring such learning."

 Although previous research suggested that higher levels of learner control were more important for college students, Karich and her co-authors found they made a bigger difference in K-12. Higher rates of learner control were also associated with better outcomes for language and social studies, for home-based instruction, and in comprehensive programs that provided "instruction, practice, and review on more than one discrete skill."

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