Technology and Student Achievement: The Right Question to Ask

What is the impact of technology in our classrooms? Stats, like the ones below from Project Tomorrow’s 2014 United States Speak Up Reports, are increasingly common.

  • Nearly 50% of students in virtual schools report being interested in learning versus 32% in traditional schools.
  • 74% of teachers believe technology increases student engagement in the classroom.
  • 46% of principals believe that digital content is having the greatest impact on teaching and learning.

In our digital world, surveys consistently show that technology increases student engagement and motivation to learn. Beyond this, students, teachers, and principals see the value of technology and actively want more access in schools. However, many still search tirelessly for whether or not technology positively impacts student achievement.

But is this the right question?

The fact is that technology DOES have an impact on student achievement, but documented effects tend to be modest at best. In a secondary meta-analysis of existing studies over the past 40 years comparing achievement in educational settings with and without technology, Rana Tamim et. al. identified only a small to moderate effect of technology on achievement. In many cases, the impact of technology seems to be less than other proven instructional techniques and interventions.

Interestingly, Tamim et. al. noted that technology had different effect sizes in different use situations. They found technology is more impactful when used to support instruction rather than provide direct instruction. In and of itself, technology is purely another medium for helping propel students along their learning paths. But it can be used in a wide variety of ways. Some might use technology as an easy substitute for traditional drill and kill exercises. Others might harness its potential to capture student interest, individualize instruction, and connect students to learning beyond classroom walls. Shouldn’t a more important question for research be: how can technology be used effectively to improve achievement?

Exciting Possibilities

The mere presence of technology in classrooms is destined to have small, if any, effects on teaching and learning. However, when technology is thoughtfully implemented to support students in their learning and development, the possibilities are much brighter. Smaller scale research and case studies highlight some of these opportunities. In a study measuring the effectiveness of a 1:1 laptop environment based on constructivist principles, authors Dawne Beck-Hill and Yigal Rosen, documented the impact on achievement many have been looking for: significant Math and Reading gains on a standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS).

What’s more, the study found that teachers in the experimental classrooms adopted more student-centric instructional techniques. In the experimental technology classrooms, teachers had twice the number of one-on-one student interactions with students and implemented independent learning activities more frequently. Further, students not only reported being more invested in school, but also improved attendance by nearly 30 percent over the course of the study.

However, such results will not appear overnight or automatically. Impactful technology initiatives require a community-wide vision and substantial preparation. However, as the primary point of contact with students in schools, whether or not technology initiatives are successful really comes down to teachers.

Supporting Teachers

Teaching, and especially teaching well, is difficult. Even in the absence of adopting new technology, many teachers likely feel that there are not enough hours in the day to do their professional responsibilities justice. Asking teachers to use technology effectively without proper support is not fair. They need professional development to learn not just the basics of the technology but, more importantly, how to use it in their classrooms. They need time to collaborate with peers grappling with the same issues across the hall and around the world. And they need school leadership to foster a supportive environment where risk-taking and learning are encouraged and successes are celebrated.

As the number of American classrooms left completely untouched by technology become increasingly sparse, comparative studies based on technology versus non-technology classroom become less and less relevant. Technology has amazing potential and now we need to focus on how to leverage its presence in schools to enhance teaching and learning and prepare our students for our technological world.