Today’s AP article “Study eyes effect of tech on classroom” is yet another example of media oversimplification of “wicked challenges” that are faced by teachers every day, particularly when it comes to the use of educational technology. According to the article:

Going high-tech doesn’t lead to higher math and reading scores, according to a federal study. The study on the effectiveness of education technology was released late Wednesday by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, a research arm of the Education Department. The study found achievement scores were no higher in classrooms using reading and math software products than in classrooms without the new products.

How ridiculous for the article’s author (Nancy Zuckerbrod) to reach such a sweeping generalization and conclusion based on this single research study.

Let’s examine more closely the type of “educational technology use” the study involved to learn more. According to the article:

Researchers looked at elementary and secondary classes in 132 schools. The teachers that participated used more than a dozen software products to help deliver their lessons.

Note the important operant phrase here: “DELIVER THEIR LESSONS.” That is a bigger problem than the fact that test scores didn’t seem to go up for these students.

K-12 teachers have historically seen themselves as content experts. That era has past. Yes, we need teachers with content knowledge, but today more than ever thanks to the Internet and the wealth of high-quality digital curriculum there, teachers don’t have to be the content experts anymore. Teachers need to be PEDAGOGICAL EXPERTS much more than they need to be content experts today. Teachers need to be coaches, facilitators, and cheerleaders for students who engage in REAL work as they learn and create knowledge work “deliverables” for prescribed deadlines. That sort of work environment is what Roger Shank was talking about last week in his keynote at SITE, and what his Engines for Education nonprofit is seeking to empower through its digital curriculum series. (Note I am referring to K-12 teachers here, not university professors. I think it is quite appropriate for our professors to be content experts. I think they need to teach with more blended approaches to learning too, however!)

Does technology by itself serve as a panacea for improving student achievement in the classroom? Of course not! How ridiculous a newspaper reporter insinuates that it should. Let’s put her assumption in a different context to uncover how silly it should sound:

– NEWS FLASH! SHARPER PENCILS DON’T IMPROVE STUDENT TEST SCORES!

– HOT OFF THE PRESSES! BRIGHTER OVERHEAD PROJECTOR BULBS FAIL TO BOOST SAT RESULTS!

– AMAZING DISCOVERY! COLORED CHALK DOES NOT INCREASE STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT IN 132 SCHOOLS!

No technology by itself is going to boost student achievement. Anyone who has read “Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom” by Larry Cuban (or even scanned the book cover summary, most likely) should be able to tell you that. We need to utilize more sophisticated frameworks for analyzing and understanding the most beneficial uses of technology for learning. The conversation is (perhaps unfortunately from the perspective of a mainstream media journalist) much more complex (even “wicked”) than a simple “happy face / sad face” or “technology in schools good / technology in schools bad” dichotomy.

GOOD TEACHING with technology DOES make a big difference. This morning driving into work I was listening to Tim Wilson’s interview with Cheryl Lemke at FETC 2006, which unfortunately appears to now be unavailable online. (It’s still on my iPod, however.) In that interview, Cheryl discusses the large body of research that DOES exist which reveals the positive differences that ARE made when technology is used appropriately by teachers.

Tim has some good notes here and here from a keynote Cheryl shared in December 2006 related to technology and the achievement gap. I’m likely going to listen in detail to Cheryl’s interview from FETC 2006 again and take some notes, which I’ll digitize and post here soon. Cheryl shared some REALLY good thinking about educational technology and the impact it CAN have on student achievement. Whether it does nor not has everything to do with HOW technology is used, and more specifically the types of learning activities in which students are invited (or are NOT invited) to participate.

More info about Cheryl’s organization (the Metiri Group) is available on www.metiri.com. Instead of believing shallow, simplistic and generally “not helpful” articles about the impact of educational technology like today’s mainstream media article from the AP, I’d suggest checking out the latest report from Metiri:

Cisco Systems and Metiri Group recently released a new report, Technology in Schools: What Does the Research Say? It is intended to assist educators to make informed technology investments. It says, “Contrary to popular belief, much is now known about the effect of technology on learning and teaching in primary and secondary schools,” adding that technology does provide a “small, but significant,” increase in learning across all uses and in all content areas when implemented “with fidelity.”

It’s an 18 page PDF file, and does require more reading than the mainstream media article from today, but I think it provides a comparatively more informative and useful take on educational research and the use of technology to improve student achievement.

Thanks to my mom for alerting me to this link! 🙂

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  • I love your alternate headlines! Thank you for bringing a smile to my face. It’s sad that you have to write things that ridiculous to get the point across, but I know that this is what’s needed to get people to understand.

  • Wesley, I think your statement that using sharper pencils does not increase academic achievement makes your point very well.

    However, I can’t help but wonder if there is a correlation between the sharpness of a pencil and the level of student achievement. I would imagine that kids who are organized and neat, kids who sharpen their dull pencils, do better in school than disorganized students who use dull pencils. My point here can easily be related to a correlation between technology and achievement. Teachers who take the time to find sharp websites and computer programs that relate to the material under study likely have an advantage when it comes to trying to promote academic achievement. My point is not that technology promotes achievement, though I believe the right kind of technology can indeed do just that; but rather that a correlation exists.

    Andrew Pass
    http://www.pass-ed.com/blogger.html

  • Bravo, Wesley, for challenging this article! Good teachers who use pedagogy well are the key to evaluating use of technology tools. No technology tool is a silver bullet in and of itself. In fact, we teachers should take heart that there is no substitute for a teacher who uses technology tools well and knowledgeably. There is a place here for teachers who have a vision for cultural and digital literacy and see its place in the curriculum. What we need to be focusing on are the skills our student will need for the 21st century and we discussed this the other night on the WOW2 webcast with George Siemens: anchoring, filtering, connecting with each other, BEING HUMAN TOGETHER, creating and deriving meaning, and so on from his book, Knowing Knowledge. These skills fall into the domain of teacher control. Either we choose to address these skills (with or without the use of tech tools) or we ignore the fact that our students are using social online spaces on their own without our guidance (or possibly knowledge). Is that what we want? Thanks again, Wes!

  • This is more than just a misunderstanding by a newspaper reporter. It’s about our own ability as educators to frame the discussion of teaching and learning with technology. This is the problem that happens when we accept all uses of technology as innovative and fail to make clear distinctions between vendor hype or political expediency vs. real learning.

    This study is going to make our jobs harder and the USDOE owes us more information – I did a post on this aspect today. http://blog.genyes.com/index.php/2007/04/05/headlines-that-wont-help/

    Thanks for the research articles, this will help.

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  • Hi Wes,
    I really enjoyed reading this post and as you can see I’ve mentioned it in my own blog. I’m in New Zealand … good teaching in the 21st Century is certainly going global – we must be getting closer to the tipping point!

  • We need a different yardstick; as long as we keep using achievement test scores the results will always be the same. Change the assessment and we communicate what we value to our teachers and students. Then we’ll be able to measure the difference technology makes.

  • vejraska

    This kind of negative publicity is always sad to see and hear about, but I must say that external forces of negativity are less stinging to me than the ones closer to home. I recently presented at a conference where I had to explain that the way that I teach using technology actually has very little to do with the computers. It was sad to see people dismissing the ideas that I was presenting simply because they didn’t have as many computers as I did. It is frustrating to see other educators missing the point. I know that the big headlines impact the progress of tech integration more than the few nay-sayers I am referring to. I just think that we as a professional community have to get on the same page before anyone on the outside is going to take us seriously.

  • Although I agree with the concept that educational technology used appropriately can increase achievement, it does so in much the same sense as the chalk, LCD projector bulb and sharper pencils mentioned above.

    It’s not the technology, but the teaching that makes the difference. Technology is just a tool teachers can use to instruct with using best practices.

    The AP story was discussing a study released by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

    http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20074005/

    The report essentially says that computer applications that do the same things that worksheets and SRA “reading labs” did when I was growing up are not much of an impact on achievement.

    I don’t view this as NEGATIVE publicity about technology as much as research confirming the idea the technology is just another tool in the toolbox of the skilled educator. I have no more use for packaged drill and kill programs in the Flavor of the Day than I did for the other packaged learning materials I let sit on my shelves while I was busy teaching.

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  • Wes, I am so glad to read your response to this article and also all of the comments from others. My fist reaction to the article was a huge deflated sigh…..This article is an example of how so many still don’t get it…. how will I be able to reach these people? After reading many responses I feel better. There is a large group of us that get it and we just have to keep marching on.

    I totally agree – technology doesn’t raise test scores – changing the way we teach will prepare students for the 21st Century and technology is a tool to help us change the way we teach. The change we must make in our teaching is actually just to parallel the changes that are going on in the world. We can’t prepare students for tomorrow teaching for yesterday’s world!

  • Koreen

    I really enjoyed your article. I am a big advocate for using technology to teach disabled children. It is a great tool that enhances their learning and makes it much more fun. At the same time, using tech to teach exceptional children allows them to to teach others in their community what they have learned and it lends itself to making feel a self of accomplishement.

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  • Hey Wes
    Thanks and kudos…

    Also, take a look at the NCREL research and publication “Viewpoints 12”
    http://www.ncrel.org/policy/pubs/html/vp12/

    “What the Research Says…” begins on page 9 of the 30 page publication….

    “One of the reasons that technology’s impact on student learning is difficult
    to gauge is that the skills it can affect—skills such as higher-order thinking
    and research ability—are more difficult to measure in a quantifiable way.
    Another impediment is that technology and its uses are changing so
    quickly that technology use in schools today is very different from technology
    use only a few years ago, suggesting that its impact may have changed
    dramatically as well. Yet another reason for the lack of clear research is that
    technology is not a solution in itself. Rather, it is a tool whose effectiveness
    relies on the expertise of the user—on the teacher to use it effectively as a
    teaching tool, on the administrator to use it effectively as a data resource,
    and so on.”

    🙂
    Charlene

  • also… a follow up article today in the LA Times, “If wired right, computers do belong in classrooms”

    and I love this by author Bob Spichen:
    “When a good teacher and good technology get together, watch out.”

  • Noir Ad Der

    nice article, but overlooks the issue that in many circumstances policy documents that are put forward to purchase ICT in schools make exactly that claim – “we need computers to improve student learning”. Small wonder that when research shows that to be a lie, it gains media headlines?

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