Sunday, September 4, 2011

Does technology really improve student learning?

Thomas Edison once predicated that film would revolutionize teaching by replacing textbooks since he believed that all classroom lessons could be taught "through the eye." With the benefit of hindsight (and a better understanding of cognitive science) we now know Edison was way too optimistic about the transformative effect of film on student learning. But that hasn't stopped every generation of teachers since then from making equally utopian predictions about new classroom technologies.

Cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham remind us that learning is really hard and thus shortcuts don't exist. That doesn't mean technology can't help - film is indeed an excellent, supplemental teaching tool (as are computers) - just don't expect miracles.  And that is the theme of this story from today's New York Times entitled "In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores." Here's an excerpt:

Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way. In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

The class, and the Kyrene School District as a whole, offer what some see as a utopian vision of education’s future. Classrooms are decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drills students on every basic subject. Under a ballot initiative approved in 2005, the district has invested roughly $33 million in such technologies.

The digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer, wandering among students who learn at their own pace on Internet-connected devices.

“This is such a dynamic class,” Ms. Furman says of her 21st-century classroom. “I really hope it works.”

Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores.

Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as statewide scores have risen.

To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.

Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.

“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”

. . . . 

Many studies have found that technology has helped individual classrooms, schools or districts. For instance, researchers found that writing scores improved for eighth-graders in Maine after they were all issued laptops in 2002. The same researchers, from the University of Southern Maine, found that math performance picked up among seventh- and eighth-graders after teachers in the state were trained in using the laptops to teach.

A question plaguing many education researchers is how to draw broader inferences from such case studies, which can have serious limitations. For instance, in the Maine math study, it is hard to separate the effect of the laptops from the effect of the teacher training.

One broad analysis of laptop programs like the one in Maine, for example, found that such programs are not a major factor in student performance.

“Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring — for better or worse,” wrote Bryan Goodwin, spokesman for Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, a nonpartisan group that did the study, in an essay. Good teachers, he said, can make good use of computers, while bad teachers won’t, and they and their students could wind up becoming distracted by the technology.

You can read the rest here.


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It has nothing to do with technology per se. It is what they are doing with the technology. Chalk is a tool. In the days of chalk and blackboard, what mattered was not the chalk, but what the teacher did with the chalk. Present useful and helpful material beneficial to the learning process? Or draw meaningless circles while presenting disjointed observations, many of which are irrelevant? Letting students loose to go do whatever they think is helpful isn't necessarily -- and might even definitively be not -- the best approach to teaching Shakespeare. It's time to stop blaming "technology" and start looking closely at how the teacher uses it.

Posted by: Jim Maule | Sep 5, 2011 8:03:08 AM

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