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The Unmet Promise of Education Technology

In the mid-2000s, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned a large, randomized evaluation of the most widely used computer-assisted instruction (CAI) programs in elementary reading and middle and high school math. Schools were randomly assigned to use one of several CAI programs. The results (published here and here) were dismal. In both subjects and all grade levels, achievement levels were virtually identical for the students who experienced CAI and those who did not. This finding was consistent with the conclusions of recent reviews of research on CAI in reading and math, which find that the higher the quality of the research (e.g. random assignment of large samples), the lower the estimate of CAI effects. In a nation that worships technology and spends billions on technology in schools, the study should have been a wake-up call, but it was hardly covered by the general press (and not so much by the education press). Earlier this month, Matt Richtel of The New York Times did a good job of describing the pressure and appeal for school leaders to adopt technologies that promise improved instruction, efficiency, and results but don't necessarily have the data to justify the cost.

How could modern CAI programs fail to make much difference in student learning? One clue in the federal study is in the fact that children did not spend many hours on the computers over the course of the year. Perhaps a bigger dose would have a larger effect, although studies of this possibility do not generally find a dosage effect.

Another explanation for both the limited hours of use of CAI (also found in many studies) and the limited impact may be that traditional CAI is just inconsistent with traditional teaching, and is therefore not valued by teachers or integrated very well into daily teaching.

Whatever the explanation, the modest impact of modern CAI programs creates a paradox. On one hand, it is clear that breakthroughs in educational practice (and therefore policy) will involve technology. Excellent professional development can help teachers get better results, but I believe that outstanding, sustainable improvements in daily teaching are going to depend on the extraordinary capabilities of technology. Yet I'd be the first to admit that the track record for technology as it has been used in schools so far is not so great.

I think the greatest promise for innovation in teaching using technology is in applications that fully integrate the two. Currently, some of the best evidence for modern technologies is for programs that cycle children through integrated activities, both with and without technology. Evidence also supports the use of embedded multimedia, where teachers use brief bits of video integrated into their lessons to build motivation and understanding with powerful visuals. Computer-assisted tutoring and small-group tutorials similarly combine the strengths of teachers and technology, and have shown very positive outcomes. A recent study in England showed that use of self-paced electronic response devices to provide immediate feedback to students and teachers increased math learning.

It's time to rethink the role of technology in instruction, to ask not how technology can mimic (and replace) what good teachers do, but how it can support good teaching. Kids, especially elementary kids, learn in large part because they want to please valued adults, and they learn in collaboration with each other. No computer can replace a teacher's empathy, enthusiasm, or ability to understand and respond to students' interests and needs. Yet research in reading and math suggests that technology has enormous potential to add interest, visual images, organization, and assessment to teachers' lessons and to cooperative interactions among students. The task is to figure out how teachers, peers, and technology can all work together to create effective classrooms.

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