Research & Commentary: Technology and Education

Published November 29, 2013

Some educators say implanting computers into existing classrooms, even with few other changes, will dramatically benefit students. Schools and states across the country are spending millions to buy laptops and tablets for students, in the belief the computers will help students accomplish “twenty-first century learning.” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has repeatedly asserted print textbooks become “obsolete” the moment they hit the shelves, and he proposes raising federal phone taxes to increase school technology subsidies.

The emerging research on this topic, however, suggests a far different approach. Merely adding computers to classrooms, like adding slide projectors or televisions, in itself does little to increase student learning. There also may be harmful side effects, especially on young children, of rewiring their expectations toward immediate rewards rather than the sustained effort necessary for success, and of dulling their imaginations.

What seems to produce learning gains for children and financial gains for taxpayers is, instead, using technology to restructure education—and not in all cases, but for particular children who stand to benefit from such approaches. This may include, for example, those who are too sick to attend regular school, autistic children who respond well to technology, and young adults (and older adults) who want to combine more formal education with an intensive apprenticeship or full-time job.

Technology has real potential to allow great teachers to reach more students and to extend flexibility for students with specialized needs. The current research, however, indicates it should be applied cautiously and certainly should not serve as an excuse for school districts to put the next generation in debt for one-to-one laptop programs or other massive, untargeted expenditures layered atop the existing school structure.

The following documents offer more information about the uses and misuses of technology in education.


Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather of Free Online Education, Changes Course
After being on the front page of well-known periodicals across the globe, Sebastian Thrun, the Harvard professor who enthralled TED audiences with stories of free online education for the masses, is backing off of the idea, reports Fast Company. “We don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished,” he says. After several years of massive open online courses, both inside schools and out, Thrun says the results are so disappointing he’s pivoting to new ideas that involve creating training for the employees of particular companies and specific industries rather than well-rounded liberal arts classes.

The Inside Story on LA Schools’ iPad Rollout: “A Colossal Disaster”
Los Angeles schools pledged to spend $1 billion to give every student an iPad, which quickly turned into a “disaster” just hours after the computers were placed in students’ hands, reports The Hechinger Report. Hundreds of students quickly hacked the tablets to evade security; hundreds of tablets went missing as district leaders puzzled over how to ensure equal access while not allowing students to sell, break, or lose the expensive devices; and thousands of teachers had no idea how to use the devices in classrooms. Now the district plans to spend millions more to buy keyboards for the devices to make them more useful in school.

Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say
Most teachers believe their students’ incessant use of electronics limits their attention spans and persistence, according to two surveys. On average, U.S. students now spend twice as much time looking at screens as they do in school, and teachers report this has reduced students’ academic abilities. Even advanced students, teachers say, have declined in quality of thought, attention span, and analysis. Teachers expressed concern about their ability to keep up with children fed a constant diet of video entertainment.

Tech Is Killing Childhood
Child psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair explores the research and social effects of the current generation’s technology immersion. She chronicles how constant media use changes children’s habits and character, making them less self-controlled, more hypersensitive, and less likely to enjoy strong relationships with peers and adults. Especially in the elementary years, children are developing their sense of self, character, and moral habits, and technology often interferes with their development, she notes. Studies show overexposure to media makes children lonely, aggressive, and impulsive, and the brain research on this topic is still developing even as children and society plunge ahead.

Effective Use of Digital Tools Seen Lacking in Most Tech-Rich Schools
Only 1 percent of 1,000 schools surveyed use technology in ways that will increase student achievement and save money, reports Education Week. The organization that conducted the survey recommends schools use technology in intervention classes; set aside time for teacher development; integrate technology into core curricula at least weekly; administer online formative assessments at least weekly; lower the student-to-computer ratio as much as possible; use virtual field trips at least monthly; encourage students to use search engines daily; and train principals on how to implement technology.

Electronic Textbooks: What’s the Rush?
Studies comparing electronic textbooks to print textbooks come to mixed conclusions about which is better, and when pressed, students say they prefer print textbooks, observes cognitive researcher Daniel Willingham. People use textbooks differently than other books—flipping back and forth between the pages, for example, and selecting portions to review. Unfortunately, most education publishers are not paying attention to the research indicating the most effective ways to incorporate multimedia into e-textbooks.

Have Technology and Multitasking Rewired How Students Learn?
Research indicates integrating technology into education is not a silver bullet and has many potential pitfalls, writes Daniel Willingham in the American Educator. The research also shows effectiveness of technology for a particular student depends on what technology is used and the particular student’s needs. “The mere presence of technology in a classroom is no guarantee that students will learn more,” he writes. Also, “ways that new technologies can be usefully applied are not always obvious.”

Blueprint for School System Transformation: A Vision for Comprehensive Reform in Milwaukee and Beyond
Despite widespread recognition that school systems need to do much better, those seeking improvement have been persistently frustrated by the mediocre results of popular reforms. School and system leaders, policymakers, and funders lack clear guidance about the steps necessary to transform an education system. Would-be reformers need a playbook outlining clear strategies for rethinking outdated approaches to school and system governance, resource allocation, quality control, talent management, and data use for the twenty-first century. In this chapter, a team of national experts addresses the major elements necessary for system redesign, describing in detail the steps needed at the community, school, district, and state level.

Is K–12 Blended Learning Disruptive? An Introduction of the Theory of Hybrids
In the long term, online learning blended with traditional classrooms will become the dominant form of U.S. education, write Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Heather Staker for the Clayton Christensen Institute. The authors discuss how the economic theory of “disruptive innovation” is likely to work on the U.S. education system. The end result, they posit, will be that schools will focus more “on providing well-kept facilities that students want to attend with great face-to-face support, high-quality meals, and a range of athletic, musical, and artistic programs and will leverage the Internet for instruction.”

The End of “Disrupting” in Higher Education?
Applying “disruption theory” to education because of new technologies “means replacing an expensive and often self-indulgent concern for quality with doing what’s required to come up with an cheaper alternative that’s good enough for giving students what they need as productive members of the 21st century global competitive marketplace,” writes Peter Augustine Lawler on Minding the Campus. This reduces education to a mechanistic checklist process that will ultimately disserve both children and society. The theory also is similar to Marxism in providing a simplistic way to poorly explain the complexities of humanity. In short, embracing video lectures and forum posts as new ways to do education will tear down the foolish inefficiencies of modern education, but it will destroy the good things and aims of education, as well.

Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning
A U.S. Department of Education analysis of 51 “rigorous” online learning studies concludes, on average, students learning online perform better academically than those receiving only face-to-face instruction. Students engaging in blended learning—some instruction online and some face-to-face—did even better than those studying exclusively online. The analysis included both K-12 students and college students, but the authors consider only the results for college students reliable since the K-12 studies examined so few students.

E-Rate, Education Technology, and School Reform
Over the past two decades, U.S. presidents, governors, CEOs, and journalists have trumpeted technology’s power to transform schools. Yet technology never seems to deliver on its promise as an education game-changer, note Frederick M. Hess, Bror Saxberg, and Taryn Hochleitner in this American Enterprise Institute Education Outlook. This is because technology cannot drive meaningful change by itself—it must be coupled with a commitment by school leaders to reinvent teaching and learning. Policymakers and reformers should take cues from school systems such as Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, which successfully employs technology to make learning solutions more affordable, reliable, available, customizable, and data-rich. Specifically, state legislatures should encourage technology-enabled reinvention of schools by loosening seat-time requirements and online-learning restrictions, revisiting school spending rules, relaxing teacher evaluation policies, and supporting innovative school models.


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If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].