Educational Technology Is Not Making the Grade

Digital technology has revolutionized our homes, cars, and workplaces, but it hasn’t changed much in one surprising area: schools. The problem isn’t that schools lack access to technology, but that the expensive technology they have isn’t effective. In 2014 alone, U.S. schools spent close to $10 billion on educational technology, yet research on the benefits for students is “disheartening, at best,” according to Kimberly Lawless, who reviewed dozens of studies on the topic in Policy Insights for the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The main reason, research suggests, is that technology developers and users have failed to rethink teaching, instead utilizing new platforms as a more efficient means to do what schools have always done – provide passive information and rote instruction.

In theory, technology has the potential to usher in revolutionary ways of teaching and learning, because it allows for interactive instruction, manipulation of information like complex numbers and geometric patterns, and tailoring instruction to individual students’ needs. And, of course, students are drawn to computers and mobile devices in an almost magnetic way. Recent national studies have found that more than 90% of teenagers and young adults go online every day. (The “digital divide” in access that policymakers used to worry about has been nearly erased in young people, thanks in large part to mobile devices.)

But most of the time, schools use digital technology for what Lawless describes as “low-level” tasks, like reading or watching a speaker present content. In one study, nearly 70% of teachers reported that they typically used technology for basic skills practice, despite the fact that such drilling has not been shown to help students’ achievement or even standardized test scores. Less than 20% of teachers used technology for more complex and useful purposes, like modeling, simulations, collaborative problem-solving, or creating digital products like movies and podcasts. Disturbingly, these patterns were most pronounced among teachers in classrooms with predominantly low-income students.

Perhaps some kinds of classroom technology are being used more effectively and to greater benefit? Lawless found little evidence of that. Research on video games in the classroom has been mixed, with both positive outcomes (e.g., spatial ability and complex motor skills) and negative ones (e.g., gender bias and aggression), but few investigations into academic performance. That may be because most studies have looked at the use of existing video games rather than games designed specifically for schools. Similarly, there have been few methodologically sound studies on whether social media can enhance learning or academic achievement. And augmented reality platforms, which could allow students to take a virtual tour of another country or conduct lab work without specialized materials, are too new and too expensive for researchers to assess their potential in schools.

There has been a lot of hope for MOOCs (massively open online courses) that allow hundreds or even thousands of students to take online classes, often for free and through respected educational institutions. But MOOCs usually use the same passive strategies as traditional classrooms and seem to have limited effectiveness and even engagement potential. Many MOOC providers are seeing only 20% or fewer of their students completing the courses. Lawless was disappointed to find that when students benefit from MOOCs, it is usually due to characteristics of the students themselves, like time management and other self-regulation skills. This is particularly problematic, she points out, because MOOCs are supposedly designed for students who struggle in a traditional school environment, yet those are exactly the students who are least likely to benefit.

Despite these negative findings, Lawless is optimistic that technology can help students – if we refocus on using it in more innovative ways. It isn’t the technology that’s at fault, she says; it’s the people who design, buy, and use it. So far, she believes, educational technology has been driven by the “technology industry’s agenda, whose primary intention is to sell their product, not reinvent education.” And educators share some of the blame. “We have forgotten some fundamental principles of education,” Lawless warns, adding that adopting classroom technology should begin with articulating a learning goal, understanding student needs, and then creating an interaction between teacher and student that supports those goals and needs with sound pedagogy. She advises: “Tools, technological or otherwise, should follow these decisions, not lead them.”

Access “Educational Technology: False Profit or Sacrificial Lamb? A Review of Policy, Research, and Practice” by Kimberly A. Lawless in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.