Technology Bang for Buck

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

A recent article1 from the Center for American Progress analyzes data from NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The summary bullet points seem reasonable enough.

  • Students often use technology for basic skills.
  • States are not looking at what sort of outcomes they are getting for the technology spending.
  • Students from disadvantaged neighborhoods are less likely to have access to more rigorous STEM-learning opportunities.edtech03

The explanations may veer widely from rational thought. After explaining that the first point means that technology is used more for drill than for real learning, the report goes on to address science classes and STEM education.

Our analysis showed that 73 percent of students, for example, reported regularly watching a movie or video in science class. By contrast, far fewer students used computers in their science classes — just 66 percent of students reported regularly using a computer in science class.

What’s wrong with movies? Some are excellent explanations and visualizations of natural phenomena, far better than a lecture by the typical science teacher. On the other hand, is using a computer in science class synonymous with better learning? I’d say not. It’s entirely dependent on the software being used. These statistics say nothing about the quality of education. 

Next, the report slams schools for not providing enough hands-on experiences.

At the same time, high school students were not getting the hands-on STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — experiences that they need to succeed. Just 39 percent of high school students indicated that they had hands-on experience with simple machines in their science classes over the past year. And just a third of high school students said that they did hands-on projects with electricity over the past year.

Hand-on experiences can be wonderful. They also can be mind-numbing to the point of being worse than no experience at all. Furthermore, they are very time-intensive. Were you to do nothing but tactile projects all year long, your students would not come near completing any set of standards, even the ones that have pared down the breadth to improve depth as NGSS claims to be doing. You’d probably be hard-pressed to find enough projects for a meaningful experience with every single one of them, although I can think of some people who just might manage it — if they had the budget available.

Glorification of hands-on does not advance the cause of better education. It’s what your hands are on and what your mind is doing that count, not the act of touching things. No one knows how much of these tactile lab learning experiences is the right amount. It’s somewhere between 0% and 100% of the class time, and that’s all we know for sure. It’s probably above 0% and below 100% too but by how much?

Instead of hand-wringing over how much hands-on work students get, this report should have investigated what learning activities work best and for how much of the time. It would have been very interesting to find out what effect different teachers have on the results for the same activity.

The second point is very important and, because we see no such reports, should also be obvious. It does bear stating because many people appear to be unaware of this simple fact. Who exactly is checking on whether high-speed Internet access helps schools perform their tasks? None of our states are doing it. Where are the correlations between Internet spending and student performance?

In other words, no one is watching the store. We’re spending tons of taxpayer money on hope.

We should scrutinize the third point carefully. We’re wasting much of our national potential because the wealthy take the best educational opportunities for their children and withhold them from the poor. Most may not do so intentionally, but the outcome is the same nevertheless.

Poor and minority students were more likely to use computers for drill than wealthier and non-minority students. Because poverty often means entering school at a disadvantage, this result may not be as bad as the report would have you believe. The basics that students must have to advance in learning are learned most often, even in wealthy areas, as drill and practice. This excess of drill could be remediation. The report does not say. Certainly, remediation is the one thing that educational software has done well at. Most such software does practice of one sort or another albeit often heavily disguised. Perhaps, some of the reporting of non-drill software in wealthier schools was really just disguised practice software. We cannot tell.

Discussion of the third point veers again into science despite science and STEM not being part of the title or the opening paragraphs.

Sixty-eight percent of white students regularly used computers for science class, compared to sixty percent of Hispanic students. Students of color were also less likely to have access to hands-on science projects, and just 37 percent of black students had experienced hands-on activities with simple machines in their science class over the past year. In contrast, 40 percent of white students and 45 percent of Asian students reported having such experiences.

These sound like scary numbers as they are presented here, but they may not be so scary after all. Computer use in science classes can be useless. Hands-on activities can be mind-numbing cookbook procedures. Without any analysis of the quality of these experiences, we cannot tell how damning these numbers really are. The supposition, which is likely correct, is that the poorer schools have fewer good learning opportunities, but these numbers do not show that.

Using a computer for a science class may mean merely writing a report on a computer. It could mean using computer simulations in place of true labs, which will skew the students’ view of science to an incorrect one.2 The hands-on experiences could be just verification exercises in which students are told what to expect and then go on to see that what happens is indeed what their teacher said would happen. This may be gratifying for the teacher but hardly imbues students with the joy of science.

The report has an excellent section on the potential of technology. (It doesn’t mention science or STEM once.) The report suggests that technology can act as a booster for excellent teachers and provide better and less expensive testing options. It also notes that the culture of K-12 education makes changing to use technology better and measuring the results difficult. In addition, technology costs often are underestimated.

When addressing the future of technology in education, the report mentions that online learning appears to be the equal of face-to-face learning. Then, it makes a couple of salient points.

In too many schools computers appear to be an add-on rather than a true lever for change.

Are these investments the best use of our limited dollars? Is technology allowing us to do things that we do not — or cannot — already do?

These points address the “better, faster, cheaper” motto championed by Dan Goldin when he ran NASA from 1992 to 2001. Technology should do all three, not just one or two. Educational technology can produce better learning in less time at lower cost than traditional methods. It rarely does. To do so would require that schools deal with what Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen calls “disruptive technology.” The last thing any ordinary school seeks is disruption of any sort.

Technology as an add-on will change the fundamentals of learning in classrooms, although it may make teachers’ work a bit easier. That’s where most technology sales go in education, to making life more pleasant for the teachers and administrators. This is not a bad thing but does not address learning, especially learning to think and to learn.

The report points out that “Successful organizations reward success, encourage innovation, and ensure the efficient use of funds.” Doing that requires leadership skills for the person in charge, superintendent at the district level and principal at the school level. Too few of these education leaders seem to be available.

The report finishes with three recommendation bullet points.

  • Policymakers must do more to make sure that technology promotes key learning goals.
  • Schools must address the digital divide.
  • Advocates must push for studies of the cost-effectiveness of technology.

I feel fairly secure in saying that few will argue with these recommendations. Based on what’s going on out in the real world, these appear to be critical issues that should have been addressed long ago.

The authors of the report felt compelled to remind us all that “It is easy to forget that technology is a tool.” That’s often true. The worst cases result when technology replaces something already done well and costing very little. Measuring the mass of an ice cube and comparing it with the water from the ice melting is a simple, inexpensive, and safe experiment. No one has to have a simulation to replace that.

Will this report cause any changes in education? Perhaps not. Few such reports ever create real change. Everyone today is scrambling for the next great education app. Yet, I’ve seen none above the elementary school level that are transformational. It is indeed time, as this report suggests, to step back and assess technology in education. Out of thousands of examples from all sources, a few will be worthwhile. It’s no wonder that schools have trouble sorting through them as though seeking a needle in a haystack. Too often, they buy the one with the best sales pitch (and best free lunch).

1 Ulrich Boser’s “Are Schools Getting a Big Enough Bang for Their Education Technology Buck?“, Center for American Progress, 6.14.13. Tip from associate editor Bonnie Bracey Sutton, who shared Motoko Rich’s “Study Gauges Value of Technology in Schools” (NY Times, 6.13.13) with ETCJ staff on 6.14.13. -Editor

2 Harry Keller is associated with an educational science lab service that offers an alternative to simulated lab instruction. -Editor

One Response

  1. Because the Digital Divide has been so ignored I wrote this for my Digital Equity SIG it is published on my blog.

    I was overwhelmed by the various initiatives that as of Friday, support most of the points that I often make.

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