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Can Technology Transform Schools?


Results from a recent federal report on the impact of educational software on learning found that the test scores of students using the technology were no better than those of students who did not use it.

Even so, the results are not evidence that technology cannot be a powerful learning tool, writes Henry Kelly in this Education Week Commentary. Though technology is omnipresent in today's "flat" world, says Kelly, it took some time, and a lot of research and development, for the commercial and corporate worlds to work out how best to use new software to revolutionize business practices.

Technology-based instruction can work in education, says Kelly, but not until the federal government funds adequate research and development to "design effective instructional software and to test innovations to see what works and what doesn't."

What do you think? Should the federal government do more to ensure that new technologies in education live up to their promise?


If technology is used to engage the students in the context of their lessons it is amazingly effective. You cannot tell teachers to use something without giving them the proper training.
If technology is used to reward or "keep busy" students, it is a waste of the potential. The tools are as good as the training and implementation.
Joy Walden

If we don't use technology in schools, we are cheating our students of an important part of their education. They will need to know how to use technology whether it helps them read better or not. We keep cramming more and more into the curriculum, so we have to find ways of teaching core content and technology concurrently. That is, in my opinion, the most important part of technology integration. Can educational technology be used to keep kids engaged? Absolutely. Still, EdTech is not a panacea for poor instruction and planning.

I agree with Mr. Kelly that technology solutions for educational challenges have been evolving over time. Computers and software have been present in our public classrooms for over twenty-five years with debatable outcomes regarding positive, measurable growth. There has been much money spent on dust-gathering techno-junk. However, the computer is only as useful as the software that runs on it and computers sitting in a classroom will have no effect on student performance if they are not used regularly and well. Putting more and more technology into schools, without matching the purchase to the specific needs is akin to providing a grocery clerk with an airport security scanner. When those tasked with purchasing technology for schools begin to ask those tasked with teaching the curriculum what outcomes they need to see and matching the technology to address those outcomes, rather than just buying the latest greatest hardware on the market, we will see more benefits. The technology in the classroom should be an industrial tool that automates the instructional process. It should require less work from the teacher, not more, while delivering higher yield. It should be easy for the teacher to use, be technically stable, and produce measurable gains. Developers have a responsibility to create smart software that adapts to the individual student's needs, diagnosing and delivering as it goes. It should track, assess, and report student progress, engage the learner, and relieve the teacher of the "busywork", giving more time for what teachers do best. Once trained to use the new technology, teachers have a responsibility to put it to good use in the classroom. Going back to our grocery clerk...imagine if the store upgraded to a new scanning checkout system, but the clerk was reluctant to learn how to use it and continued pulling out the old cash register to ring up the groceries. How long would the clerk be employed at the store? Yet, we see this behavior every day in our classrooms. Administrators who diligently choose technology solutions to address the needs of their districts/schools, spending into the millions to implement them, have difficulty ensuring that the programs are used in the classroom. And appropriate technology should be introduced early, even in preschool, to help achieve student success from day one, in accordance with the old adage: "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." I like to ask of technology directors: "What good is the internet to a student who can't read or who doesn't speak English?" There are definite benefits that come from introducing relevant technology in our schools. Those benefits will be better achieved when 1) the products are carefully constructed by the developers to meet specific educational needs, practices, and goals; 2)the discriminating purchaser matches the purchase and placement with the desired instructional outcome; 3)the teachers use the technology as it was intended to be used by both the purchasing administrator and the technology developer.

What is the old way of doing things? Paper and pencil? And how long have we been using computers in schools? A good 20 years? And now we have a report that says there hasn't been much improvement, if any. So what.

Folks, this is like arguing that either the glass is half-empty or the glass is half-full. Is the use of technology so bad that it barely does as well as the old way, or is technology so good that in a mere two decades, it is doing as well as the old way?

And the funny thing is, that point is moot. We can't go back to the way things were. That reality no longer exists. What we have on our hands is a transitional period for education that is using technology. We've only been at it for a relatively short while, and we're in a period of trying everything and anything.

So, does the research show whether kids are better or worse off? If it's about as good as what we've done for the past 100 years and we've only been trying for 20-25 years, then maybe we're onto something. I say let's keep going. It feels like we're going forward to me.

Too often we forget that "technology" (usually meaning computers and their peripherals) are just tools, much like typewriters, rulers, overheads, and calculators have been through the years. Following through with this analogy, the tool is only as good as the one who uses it. If we are going to use these tools in the educational world, people who use them need to know how to use them effectively... and they need the right tools for the job.

You don't use a hammer to screw in a lightbulb. Unfortunately, many schools ahve the tools but neglect to provide the training and environment that make the tools usable. Roadblocks abound. Too often the roadblock involves money - not enough to build the infrastructure to make computer technology stable; not enough to properly in-service educators; not enough to provide the support staff who assist the classroom teacher to keep things working or help instruct students in using the resources provided with the technology.

We cannot keep asking "the government" to pay for everything. WE are the government and communities and schools districts around the country need to consider carefully what they want their students to leave school knowing, htne plan accordingly. Use the research that exists to identify the solid ways and means of education - not the latest fad - and prioritize their funding along those lines.

We do not live in a perfect world, unfortunately. But we do need to do our best. Perhaps if we could use the passion we educators often have, but temper it with a bit of practicality and wisdom from the ages. We can approach these news tools with an attitude of "how can this help?" instead of "not another thing to learn!". Perhaps teachers and students would both benefit then.

Administrators also need to trust their teachers more. Include them in the very beginning of examining the technologies available. Allow them the freedom to experiment with and work with technology tools and resources to find the best "fit" for the classroom and students being served. Many times teachers could have saved districts thousands, even millions of dollars, had they been included in the process.

All in all, it goes back to the truth that technology is just a tool. The educator who uses it makes all the difference in its effectiveness. If the tools is broken, missing parts, or just plain inappropriate, they aren't going anywhere with it.

For almost two decades we have been allowed to design, deliver and evaluate compelling learning experiences and professional development with proven profoundly enabling research based tools. With our massive firsthand experiences using K12 educational technology, we (practitioners) are already participating in practical real world leading edge coaching and learning along with the best practices of organizational theory.
With the power of flat and transparent organizations unleashed in K12, and student outcomes paramount, our calculation for return on investment uses timely data analysis, cognitive sciences, and culturally responsive strategies for applying technology in compelling ways.
We are seeing learners time on task greatly expanded by just in time support services, simulations and virtual field work; leveraged to highest quality by the fuel of personal passions for learning, facilitated by parents and mentor teachers, and served by easy access to digital resources. These services, passions, guidance, and tools drive learners developmentally, from unpracticed minds to well thought, well read, well experienced minds, minds of mature intellectual capacity and wisdom.
Already proficient information workers and highly skilled pedagogically, master educators in 2007 are using cost effective tools for individualizing instruction and creating learner support services for a new type of precision schooling and professional development. Tools and services that, for example, use timely data analysis to inform policy, scheduling options, and shape instructional practices; as well as making available the invisible thoughts of a child for addressing preconceived notions and misunderstandings, training habits of mind, observable demonstrations of mastery, and opportunities for learners to attend to multiple representations.
We fail less often today then in 1990 because of our habit of always relying on sufficient research proofs as well as our experiences to guide us. Minus the artifacts of marketing hype and low resolution noise that sells paper, airtime, and hit counts, the work is served by a host of solid, sometimes sobering, research. From the likes of our federal, universities, state and philanthropic sources we know without a doubt that edtech works.
One data point of thousands will serve to illustrate what we know: The National Academies report the calculated effect of edtech is about .34. Compare this with the effect of about .13 to .18 for class size reduction. So why does politics lead to funding the lesser effect while the greater effect goes begging? Both should be funded. Lets move forward with the same sustainable effort needed to understand our world and explore others in the neighborhood.
Scott ColettiAttribution ShareAlike copyright V3.0

When I was a young researcher more years ago than I like to admit the first thing I learned in creating good scientific research is to ask the right questions. Do books help learning or does technology increase learning? These are the wrong questions. We must ask what we are using the technology for and is it a cost effective way to learn. For example, the Navy and Air Force use flight simulators to teach young people to fly. The ultimate measure of the success of the training procedures in the Navy is can the pilot land and take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Admittedly school goals and objectives are broader than the skills sets associated with piloting an aircraft. However we can develop more authentic ways to assess and measure academic success. However, such authentic assessment cost significant amounts of money and as a society we have not been wiling to pay the price for authentic assessments.

The current studies appear as they have in the past to indicate that technology does as well if not slightly better than traditional approaches to teaching and learning. The question then becomes is the technology cost effective? We are not going to put the digital technologies back in the box they are an integral part of a modern society. Therefore, the issue is how to best use the technologies to reach specific educational goals. Senator Bob Kerry and Congressman John Isakson co-chaired an investigation in the late 1990s to examine the importance of technology in learning and teaching. Witness after witness called for the federal government to invest in the development of specific high quality software. To date we have not seen the development of such programs at either the U. S. Education Department or the National Science Foundation.

Technology does three things. For disabled learners it can make the learning field more even. For example, the Kurzwiel reading machine makes all printed materials accessible for blind learners. Captioned TV and films makes these materials available for deaf students. Other new technologies level the la=earning field for a wide range of disabled learners. Second, technology can develop a wide range of learning experiences from sophisticated simulators to high quality software. In mathematics the graphing software gives the learner an almost unlimited way of examining formulas and graphs. The third is the use of data and management software to manage the individual learning plans and progress of learners.

In my opinion it is unfortunate that the USED study has been released without a clear description of its results. However, the challenge is how to effectively use the vast array of digital technologies that are in the hands and homes of learners.

Engaging the students is the magic wand of good teaching, no matter what tools a teacher uses. If a teacher doesn't know how to excite the students' curiosity and involve them actively in the process of learning, students will not achieve the learning goals. This is especially true when we look beyond the standardized testing level (memorizing rote facts in most cases) and step into the real-world realm of complex problem-solving and critical thinking.
Technology, when used creatively by teachers who are properly trained in its use, engages and excites the students, pushing them to think beyond the one-dimensional step of merely memorizing facts. I personally have witnessed innumerable times when students who usually had their heads down on their desk became beacons of energy when they used a technology tool such as Inspiration software or WebQuests to explore a curriculum topic. These students often end up presenting the most thoughtful and provocative products -- and the sweet serendipity of the process is that they also soak up the curriculum "facts" in such an inadvertent way that they retain the information. Because they have actively interacted with the information, they own it and they remember it. This high level of engagement is a powerful key to improving students' overall achievement, and I agree with other posts here that say the jury is still out. We haven't begun to see the impressive results yet!
Here's the challenge and the thorn in our side: to be effective, technology requires staff development so that teachers can learn how to use it properly. Some teachers are reluctant because they are traditional teachers and do not understand the value of technology. They are also incredibly busy! In my opinion, administrators are often the culprits who tend to slow the use of technology by not encouraging or requiring teachers to start trying technology in the classroom. Adminstrators are the ones who set the tone in their school and they are the ones who choose the staff development topics. As a technology integrator for a large school system, I see too many teachers shrugging off technology because they don't "have to" use it, and to use it would require extra work and time.
Fortunately, my school system employs instructional technology integrators who are highly qualified and experienced teachers to train other teachers and come into their classrooms to model the use of technology. As long as administrators encourage the process, we can open doors to the most powerful teaching tools the educational world has ever known.
It's time to support teachers, provide the hardware and software, and encourage leadership that will bring present-day tools and applications into the chalky classrooms. We're losing our kids fast because they don't see school as anything that resembles or relates to the real world.

First, we need to make a distinction of technology tools:
1. 1990-2000: These tools focus on student/ teacher PRODUCTIVITY (e.g., Intro of PCs, Word Processing, etc).
2. 2000-2010 -- Stage-1: These tools focus on ENHANCED LEARNING & ACHIEVEMENT. (e.g., Cognitive Tutoring tools - just entering K-12 education -2% taking the lead).
So..., trying to tie PRODUCTIVITY tools directly to enhancing student learning and achievement is like "apples and oranges" -- both fruit, but different.

The research that found technology did not improve student achievement focused upon a small select group of very specific software applications and cannot be used to generalize about technology in education. My classroom experiences with interactive whiteboards, Internet use, and handhelds tell me that technology has great educational power in the right hands and given the right circumstances. Implementation is everything.

Already, technology has transformed our home and work lives from how we measure and calculate to how we communicate and create. How can it not also transform schools? For the transformation to be realized, though, we need a school system in place that recognizes, values, and promotes the use of technology in learning. This means proper funding, technical support, architecture, teacher training, and systemic decisionmaking that supports the possibilities of technology in learning.

As it stands, I see little of the type of leadership that could support and sustain this future for public education. Perhaps it will have to begin in small places like charter and pilot schools with unique, visionary leadership. Once demonstrated, then perhaps more typical public education venues will adopt successful technology and make it real for students.

I think that the 30% of the budget that is supposed to be used for profesional development is never used for PD, and since the PD is lacking, so is the use of technology.


Much of this discussion reminds me of the charter vs public (or private vs public) research or the phonics vs whole language discussions and so forth.

We operate too often in this dichotomous, either/or, black/white frame of mind. And if we can point to something that "works," we are likely to overgeneralize it to every situation until the evidence is overwhelming that it doesn't "work."

As others have pointed out, the question needs to be addressing, "what is technology good for?" and "are we using technology well?" I can certainly point to instances where appropriate assistive technology is overlooked because of the teacher's comfort level, lack of training, or because s/he can do without it (never mind that s/he is 2-3 grade levels below and stuck with mentally unchallenging work in order to keep pace with a physical disability), or because of some misguided notion of what the "real world" is like.

While I haven't yet read the study, what I would be interested in is what value-add the technology in each case attempted (was it just a digital textbook, a workbook, individualized instruction, hands-on animation?), how faithfully was it implemented in the classroom (always a biggie--for both techno and non-techno innovations), were there other advantages than the academic achievement (greater efficiency, better reporting, increased equity) that have value, as well as the ever-important level of teacher buy-in at the outset and teacher preparation to implement the techology.

The difficulty in addressing this issue is the questions being asked. Can technology transform education? No doubt about it; move from paper and pencil, chalkboard and lecture to video and interactive learning will transform, or change education. Will the technology improve education? That is a more difficult question to answer. The technology is, as has been stated ealier, a tool, like a pencil, or better, a ballpoint pen. The ballpoint pen and later, the felt tip pen, did transform education. The next BIG technology was the calculator. These things are all commonplace in classrooms today, but their impact has been forgotten. The question to ask is if the technology is engaging? Is the tecnology having the desired effect of transferring knowledge and the desire to gain more knowledge to the students?
It is not a matter of whether or not students are learning more. It is a matter of whether or not students are learning. The achievement tests still in use today do not measure learning. They measure levels of knowledge, as if learning were somehow a quantifiable thing like water in a glass. Learnin, true learning is a quality and is not measured easily as something added to something else. To put it into context, one might look at the somewhat popular business model. If a product costs more over time, the product should be also improving over time. In the case of gasoline, it has become quite a bit more expensive over time and the quality of the gas we buy today is much better, no lead in it, cleaner burning, etc. The quality has gone up more or less with the price. The same gas however, does not make my car go any faster, nor does it last much longer in my tank as a result of all of the improvements to it. These are quantity issues. The quality is improved, while the quantity may lag far behind. In education, the question is do students learn, not how much more do they learn.

The study in question tested *specific software applications,* not technology in general. The applications were chosen by a process that is not well reported, and appears to have been fuzzy at best. The study reports that those particular applications did not result in improved standardized test scores. Unfortunately, that finding was overgeneralized and misreported as an indictment of educational technology as a whole.

I'd like to be more sympathetic to administrators. They are under the gun to produce data that shows students are learning more. They will purchase almost anything that promises to raise test scores and save their jobs. Unfortunately, if a technology-based program doesn't accomplish that task, they tend to reject the whole package: program AND delivery system.

The people who are using the technology are seeing good things happen. Kids who used to refuse to do research will give it a try if finding the information is convenient. Kids who used to refuse to revise their writing will do it if they don't have to completely recopy an essay by hand. Kids who couldn't be bothered to do a book report will spend hours on the MySpace page of the book's main character. Qualitative data, unfortunately, doesn't count in studies like this.

The serious flaws in this study are the real story.

The question you ask at the bottom of the Commentary is the wrong question. The more useful question is:

How can and will the federal government ensure that schools have sufficient and appropriate resources (technology infrastructure, teacher preparation and professional development, time for planning and reflection for educators, maintenance and technical support, and curriculum and instructionl support--consider the model of a 21st century business or hospital) to guarantee the promise of the new technologies?

Right on, Leslie. Properly used in teaching and learning can be very effective. Unfortunately since standardized test scores are the only objective that seem to be measurable, people tend to forget about other benefits such as increased collaboration, better teacher/student communications, enhanced computer skills, student equity, enhanced curriculum, improved community and parent relationships, enhanced student motivation, improved attendence, lower drop-outs...
Well you get the idea!

Giving students supervised access to the internet--and encouraging them to use laptops to learn--is adding a NEW dimension to our educational process. It is not simply 'more of the same' in digital form. I worked with a middle school student (age 13) on her winning science fair project. She discovered significant flaws in public records used to identify people--at the age of 13. The problem is so serious that I turned around and published several academic papers about it--among other things. I have changed what I teach to college students--and what kinds of problems we discuss in class. Standardized testing cannot capture this kind of boundary-spanning change that one middle school student--on her laptop--began.

Technology is only as good as the content it conveys, and only as successful as the instructor or coordinator who programs or facilitates students in accessing this content. Furthermore, what I have seen first-hand are the benefits students reap from being able to connect to students and leading educators in other parts of the world. These are unique and powerful learning opportunities that they would not have had access to through the resources of their school.

Technology is not being used appropriately. Metrics for technology in the schools simply measures computers per child. A proxy for school reform is to buy new computers. The use of technology does not appropriately build on and reinforce key classroom interactions. I was working on this in my own classroom, but then I got hired by a technology firm. Convenient.

I think that schools will be on the right track if they make every effort to teach students to be critical of the information received via on-line sources. In this issue of EdTech Trends, the article from the Buffalo News about "Tykes Taking to High Tech" tells of a mother who asks her 8-year old son what Indian tribe was present at the first Thanksgiving. In spite of having his social studies book in his lap, he says "Let's Google it". And this instinct is already deeply ingrained in many students, regardless of how much or how little they are utilizing technology in the classroom. If I pay Google enough $$, I could have a site be the first to pop up on Google which tells that the Maya were the Indian tribe at the first Thanksgiving. My fear is that the Google- happy student would believe it, hook line and sinker, simply because it came up on Google. If we are going to completely embrace technology in our classrooms, we need to teach our students about the financial and other motivations that drive much of the information appearing on the internet.

I feel the question would be better posed if it were stated as, "When Will Technology Transform Schools."

I am not going to go into a long list of reasons to substantiate the fact that our schools need upgrading. However, it needs to be said that our teaching core is dated, retiring, and in serious need of revamping. That said, our students our into technology in a big way. Everything they buy is leading edge when it comes to new technology. The problem is our schools are producing consumers of technology and not developers of even tech savvy students.

So when will technology transform our schools? I hope sooner than later.

Over the past 20 years I have watched several school Districts that I've been affiliated with either as a teacher or educational software representative, sincerely tackle the technology issues without the tools needed to make an informed decision.

As a former educational software sales representative, I have seen technology illiterate administrators make million dollar technology decisions with minimal professional advice. As a former reading teacher whose classroom was a 30 station computer lab, I have seen and experienced students engaged in learning that would otherwise be considered challenges in the traditional classroom. I also know that many of the schools of education at universities across the country have instructors who are challenged with technology and have never used it for instructional purposes. When I tried to sell integrated software to the universities many of the professors had a minimal frame of reference to comprehend how the software could enhance learning.

We are providing education to a generation that has never lived without a remote control or computer and there are instructors out there that think they can effectively educate students without the use of technology. Technology can enhance education if the teacher has the tools needed to make it an effective tool. The whole classroom management paradigm changes when technology is the tool instead of print. There is more for administrators to consider when using technology as a learning tool than the hardware.

The focus on technology is divided into two major considerations: 1. the hardware 2. instructional usage of technology. In many cases the school District's infrastructure and hardware are not reliable therefore the instructor is challenged when using technology. Have you ever been in a classroom with 25 seventh graders and the computers will not connect to the Internet to complete a planned lesson? You feel like bacon frying. Teachers need additional support to ensure that the hardware is operative and the lessons involved technology are effectively supporting the curriculum.

There was a study done on the outsized productivity gains during the 90's among our major corporations. The findings attributed this growth to the wide application and development of technology that occured during this same time frame. That was not surprising. What was interesting was that higher output only occured once corporations stopped viewing new technology as only useful in replacement of their traditional operations. The productivity gains occured once they began understanding how technology effectively redefined their business plan entirely. The other interesting fact was that the technology most companies utilized toward this increased productivity had been developed and available ten years prior. Corporations who didn't transform their practices experienced great downturn, or ceased to exist.
I believe that's the paradigm shift that needs to occur in education for us to truly reap the benefits, and justify the cost, of integrating technology into our classrooms.
Our schools must continue this struggle as failure is not an option we can much longer afford for our students.

If you include online and over the air programs the evidence is overwhelming that technology can and already is an effective tool for teaching reading and math. Whether you look at Heymath.com now used by two thirds of the students in Singapore, and endorsed by the Singapore teachers union or APREMAT which teachs math to over two million students in five Latin American countries over the radio. In fact APREMAT functions as the primary classroom teacher of mathematics in most cases. Students who complete 100 of the 150 APREMAT math lessons pass the math exam for their grade level (the standards mirror California’s). Now online at www.aprematusa.org access is being provided to any Spanish speaking student. On the reading side www.headsprout.com effectively takes any student from early phonics to early reading in 80 online lessons and they guarantee it. So technology is already here online and over the air teaching students math and reading. If you study “software” that hasn’t been proven in the real world you prove nothing.

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Recent Comments

  • John Stallcup Co Founder APREMAT/USA: If you include online and over the air programs the read more
  • Tim Surridge/New Summit Learning: There was a study done on the outsized productivity gains read more
  • Gladys Coleman/Media Specialist: Over the past 20 years I have watched several school read more
  • Charles Willard / Educator / Parent: I feel the question would be better posed if it read more
  • Melissa Bailey / recent graduate / pre-service teacher: I think that schools will be on the right track read more




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