Mar 152012

Learning Technology, School Reform and Classroom Practice (Part 1)

Learning Technology;  By Larry Cuban, March 10, 2012

Learning Technology; Answering the Big Question on New Technology in Schools: Does It Work? (Part 1)

Learning Technology: What drives many district and state technology leaders bonkers is being asked time and again by their school boards, superintendents, parents, and media: What does the research say about whether we should invest in iPads, tablets, and 1:1 laptops?  What they really want to know is: does the new technology work? Is it effective?

Of course, some district technology leaders and superintendents already know the answer; they forge ahead to buy iPads for kindergartners in Auburn (ME) or hand out over 6,000 to every high school student and teacher in Lexington  (SC). They do not need researchers to tell them that these devices “work.”  They believe and know that they will work.

For those technology leaders, however, who want to provide credible answers to the inevitable question that decision-makers ask about the effectiveness of new devices, they might consider a prior question. What is the pressing or important problem to which an iPad is the solution? Asking that question first uncovers the confused set of purposes that surround buying and using high-tech devices in classrooms.

Drawn from reports of superintendents, school board members, and technology champions, here is a short list of those problems that will get solved by 1:1 laptops and other devices.

*These devices will motivate students to work harder, gain more knowledge and skills, and be engaged in schooling.Engaged students will achieve higher grades. When the  Auburn (ME)  school board authorized the purchase of  iPads for kindergartners, their leaders assured them that reading scores would rise.

*Students will be prepared for an information-driven labor market. Or as one superintendent put it: “Students have to have digital competence, and to be competent, you have to have access. Using current-day technology should be a normal part of what we do. We need to close the gap between schools, education and the real world.”

*High-tech devices will erase the gap in access to knowledge that exists between poor and wealthy. The superintendent who bought 6,000 iPads said:  “It’s an equalizer. There’s no difference in learning advantage from the poorest to the most affluent.”

*Using laptops and tablets will transform traditional teaching.

There are, then, many immediate problems that high-tech devices and software could solve. Now the question of whether these hardware and software solutions “work” can be asked. These varied problem s attribute great powers to these devices and software to solve problems of  students disengagement,  lack of job preparation, the gap between the worlds that children and youth experience inside and outside school, socioeconomic differences in access to knowledge and skills, traditional classroom lessons, and, finally, the problem of low academic achievement of U.S. students.

That is  one big heap of purposes squeezed into the question of whether 1:1 tablets and laptops “work.” Especially since there is hardly any research evidence that these high-tech devices solve these complex problems.

learning technology
Think for a moment about investments in schools that do have a solid basis in research evidence. Where research clearly shows that certain practices do, indeed, “work.” Take preschool education. Study after study done on three and four year-olds who were in preschool programs (e.g., Perry pre-schools, Abecedarian) and their progress through schools and into adulthood show short- and long-term gains in academic achievement, earnings, and other behaviors. Or consider the research on career-technical academies where students get prepared for both college and career.  Researchers have found over the past four decades solid results for students who have graduated from these programs.
When it comes to research supporting major purchases of laptops, tablets, and similar devices, such a cumulative body of evidence is missing-in-action.
So if the research pantry is nearly empty, why do districts buy iPads?
They want to use hardware and software to solve difficult problems. But school boards and superintendents also buy high-tech devices because they want to be seen as technologically innovative and ahead of other districts. In this culture, the value of technology is equal to social and economic progress. Because school boards are completely dependent upon the political support of their parents, taxpayers, and voters to fund annual budgets, being seen as ahead of the game in technology garners public support. Not to adopt new technologies, even when funds are short, means that district leaders are failing their students and against progress.
So the truth of the matter is that research studies that show positive effects of technology hardly matter.   Occasional studies that do show promising results for new technologies are dragged in to cover the near nakedness of research, much like a fig leaf, to justify the high costs of these new devices in the face of little evidence. The fact remains that no one knows for sure whether the new hardware and software appearing in schools works. They are all beta versions with glitches that teachers and students end up discovering.

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