“Where’s the supportive research to demonstrate that technology increases student achievement?”
“Why do you pursue providing a 1:1 laptop environment for your students and teachers when you get the same results without technology? Where’s the evidence that it works?”
“Research in this field says that there is little to no positive impact on learning. So, why are you continuing the initiative?”
In 2003, when I was the Director General for the Eastern Townships School Board, my team had anticipated such queries and comments about our decision to provide a free, wireless Apple laptop computer to all students from Grades 3-11, as well as to all teachers. It was my first real introduction to the “techno-critiques”. In particular, media and policymakers raised the question of supportive research. At first, I was pleased by the implication that school and classroom practices were research- and evidence-based. But I knew that this was not the predominant reality in public education.
In contrast to this reality, our team had done its homework and investigated research into technology in the classroom. A large amount of research existed in this field; however, almost all was focused on the impact of desktop computers and the infamous “school computer room”. Such research did not address our concerns, since the provision of technology in an anytime-anywhere, one-to-one (1:1) context was unique.
Since then, research has begun to focus on 1:1 initiatives, as well as on the growing use of mobile devices, iPads, and other related products. The results have been mixed – but in my numerous discussions with credible educational researchers, one prevailing theme has emerged: it is almost impossible to isolate one specific approach or tool in a classroom and determine its effectiveness. So how do we know what we’re measuring? 20th century skills? 21st Century skills as defined by The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)? Changes in teaching practice with the use of technology? Or are we really measuring the effects of increased student motivation and an inquiry-based curriculum?
In other words, the activities in a classroom represent a multitude of behaviours and interventions, including personal dynamics, classroom management and size, classroom ergonomics, students’ academic and socio-economic profile, etc. When technology is introduced into the classroom, it becomes one of the many classroom instruments within the grasp of educators and students, and credible researchers have indicated that isolating the impact of technology from the “human factor” in the classroom is a formidable challenge.
In January 2010, The Journal of Technology, Learning and Assessment (JTLA) published “The End of Techno-Critique: The Naked Truth about 1:1 Initiatives and Educational Change.” I cite this research since it was the first time in my experience that researchers attempted to fully understand precisely what the real expectation was of technology use in the classroom. In a society that has become focused on accountability and results, technology used in a traditional manner or context will simply generate traditional results, and it could easily be argued that it has failed to live up to expectations. Larry Cuban best described this issue when he wrote that the use of technology was “oversold” and “underutilized”.
The JTLA article suggested that researchers are focusing on the trees rather than the forest. It reviewed a number of research studies on technology in the classroom, including a meta-analysis of previous research, and concluded that perhaps their greatest potential is “the creation of new-paradigm schools that are self organizing.” As this article describes, creating a change “dynamic” in the classroom, where students become increasingly engaged in their learning, participating in the design of teaching strategies and assessments, does generate the elusive increase in student achievement. Further research into how this change occurs needs to focus on the outcomes that best serve the needs of students and on how classrooms can be best designed to support this endeavour.
Once again, citing the JTLA, “By missing the forest, techno-critics have diverted attention from the real problem of improving the totality of education for all students. So when a 1:1 initiative fails to deliver the much-hyped results, it is much simpler to start sawing on a tree than it is to cut down the forest and start replanting. But then, like so many problems in changing venerable institutions, it too often is easier simply to protect the status quo and blame the innovation or the innovator.”
The children of our world are significantly engaged in the use of technology, especially outside the school. If education is meant to prepare these children for their world, use of technology must become the norm in our classrooms and schools.
 Larry Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Harvard Univeristy Press, 2001).