Bells & Whistles: Is Technology Really Useful in Education?
By Jeremy Rappaport
Fueled is London’s leading iPhone app development firm. We love making apps.
It’s quite obvious that digital technology has played a large role in American education, at least for the past 30 years or so. By 2009, 97% of teachers had at least one computer in their classroom, and 93% of these had internet access. Sixty-nine percent of teachers said they at least sometimes used computers during class instruction. But how much do SMART Boards, laptops, and iPads affect the quality and effectiveness of learning?
Back in 1996, Steve Jobs sat down with Wired Magazine’s Gary Wolf to discuss the state of technology. Well before this interview, Jobs was able to compare the rise of the web with past technological trends, such as radio and VCRs. His views on the impact of the internet on society at large, however, may surprise most of us, and anyone who puts his entrepreneurial journey on a pedestal.
“This stuff doesn’t change the world. It really doesn’t…It’s certainly not going to be like the first time somebody saw a television. It’s certainly not going to be as profound as when someone in Nebraska first heard a radio broadcast. It’s not going to be that profound.”
Making sure to blow everyone’s mind, if they weren’t already blown away by his genius, Jobs viewed such admiration as a “disservice” to societal progress.
“We live in an information economy, but I don’t believe we live in an information society. People are thinking less than they used to…What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.”
This commercial for Ashford University–titled “Technology Changes Everything,” of course–seems a perfect example of the power we attribute to technology, a magical tool that just makes our country smarter. Nevermind that we can’t explain how. It’s a tricky situation, since today’s workforce requires a level of technical literacy, yet the U.S. has a reduced standing in education when compared to other nations. What are we doing wrong?
Steve Jobs’ solution for America’s education issues focused primarily on changing public policy and adopting a school voucher system. He also figured that the world’s ever increasing population was a strain on resources and legislators. But surely, there’s an easier place to start.
Maybe we should start changing the classroom.
In 1999, Dr. John Schacter–then the vice president of research for the Milken Family Foundation–conducted a literature review on over 700 comprehensive studies regarding technology’s effect on education. While many of these studies showed slightly improved performance in students, or at least increased enthusiasm, there were some shortcomings.
Learning technology that involved the development of cognitive skills (think Lumosity) tended to be successful in increasing eighth-grade student performance, giving them an academic boost up to 15 weeks ahead of their peers. Similarly, when the instructors were given training in these technologies, the success of their classes jumped 13 weeks ahead of those without training.
Virtual tools that used already-established instruction were slightly helpful, improving students’ test scores by about 15 percent. Learning games teaching fourth-graders thinking skills only advanced them by 3 to 5 weeks. Software using drills as a practice technique actually decreased performance in various grade levels.
The most effective use of computerized devices, according to Schacter’s review, includes teaching higher order thinking, computer assisted instruction, clear learning objectives, and an appropriate context for using the technology. In fact, for basic skills like reading comprehension, vocabulary, and math, it is considered more helpful to go the traditional route, rather than rely on entertaining word and number games. As Harvard’s Dr. Martha Stone Wiske is quoted as saying in Schacter’s paper, “a lot of people think of the technology first and the education later.”
This might make sense for today’s teachers and administrators, who may be wondering if they truly need to spend money on software to teach spelling, when using Hooked-On Phonics is a tried and true method. Moreover, today’s children could be at a disadvantage if they begin to expect a digital alternative for all or most of their learning. Sometimes, as I’ve learned in my school experience, you just have to open a book and study.
Research shows that a combination of digital and traditional methods best help children to learn their common core subjects. Some mobile apps and webpages, even some representing popular television programs, can improve reading skills. Calculators allow students to focus on more complex mathematical formulas, rather than staying preoccupied with their arithmetic. However, this is counterproductive when certain users are unable to memorize their multiplication tables. Developers and manufacturers, therefore, should be designing more of their products to complement existing resources, not to replace them.
Like Steve Jobs said, throwing computers and other devices at the problem won’t solve anything. There needs to be a purpose and science to back it up. To ensure the impact of our tax dollars, we must commit to using these tools effectively.