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Researching the Effectiveness of Technology

We were a captive audience and I was ready to leap out the window.  The state education official was twenty minutes into her PowerPoint presentation, and from the looks of her handout, we had another sixty minutes to go.  The actual topic wasn’t that boring, although it included WAY more detail that I wanted or needed.  The problem was that every single slide was laden with words – paragraph after paragraph, single spaced, small type.  Of course, it turned out that the small type didn’t really matter because the presenter read every word to the audience anyway.  A few assertive souls tried to disrupt the boredom with questions, but her pat answer was, “We’ll get to that later.”  Shoot me now, I thought.

Despite this experience (and many others like it) I should point out that I myself use the much-maligned Computerstudent PowerPoint as a teaching tool when I do presentations because it’s a ready-made structure to present an argument clearly, effectively, and efficiently. The tool itself doesn’t teach people anything, but it can make the content more interesting and accessible.  What matters is how the presenter uses the technology, but it’s hard to miss the eye-rolling when I put up the first slide.

In one Arizona school district, parents and school people are beginning to wonder if it’s possible that technology has actually become an end in itself rather than a tool for better learning.  Since 2005, the Kyrene School District, has invested $33 million in technology for its 18,000 students.  The district has become a widely acknowledged leader in technology infusion.  But since 2005, test scores in reading and math have flatlined, even as scores in the rest of the state have risen.  School officials and parents alike are wondering what to make of this surprising outcome.

Despite an intuitive belief that the more technology the better, research is divided on the effectiveness of instructional technology. Larry Cuban of Stanford University says that supportive research simply doesn’t exist.  “There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money, period,” he says.  “Period, period, period.”

Karen Cantor, director of the office of educational technology for the US Department of Education, says you can’t measure the value of technology by standardized test scores.  “In places where we’ve had a large implementing of technology and scores are flat, I see that as great,” she says. “…Look at all the other things students are doing:  learning to use the internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.”  Still, a skeptic might wonder why none of these purported skills would improve test scores.

Clearly, technology is here to stay in our schools, but how much is enough?  Can we justify ever-increasing funding without reliable data to support the investment?  Some say that infusion of technology allows kids to learn at their own pace.  New technology really belongs to them, and teachers are always going to be behind kids when it comes to using it.  Still, the teacher’s job isn’t to be a technocrat, but to guide and direct the child’s learning.  Officials in the Kyrene district are beginning to wonder if all their technology enhances learning or whether some of it is just an unnecessary embellishment or even a distraction.  It’s a question that more and more administrators and parents will be asking as our economy limps along and more cuts will have to be made in school budgets.  Will we add computers while we lose teachers?







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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.