Thursday, September 27, 2007

My thoughts on technology and education

I found an interesting video on YouTube called "School goes digital with UMPCs" about a school in Scottland which uses UMPCs (ultra-mobile PCs, see the Wikipedia entry for more information). My favourite comment can be found at 4 min 29 sec where it's said that "...the benefits are clearly outweighing the costs..."

Ever since I took an interest in the One-Laptop-Per-Child project back when it was first introduced and even more so since OLPC Austria was formed I've spent quite some time reading up (and thinking) about the effects of (computer) technology on education. Especially in settings such as that school in Scottland the planned implementation of the OLPC project where students spent most of their time working with their computers.

From what I know at this point there's still no real and generally accepted conclusion (as in the result of independent research, not some TV reporter saying something) on what effects, let alone benefits, introducing computers into the classroom has on students and teachers. As always there're are indications for this and that, people claiming one thing or another thing and the media reporting all of it without really looking into matters. The single best article I've found about this topic so far appeared in the Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung (link, unfortunately it's only available in German). Its main comment ("US study shows that the use of electronic media does not improve student performance") is based on the first-year findings of a study conducted by the Texas Center for Educational Research ("The overarching purpose of the study is to scientifically investigate the effectiveness of technology immersion in increasing middle school students’ achievement in core academic subjects as measured by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS)"). Reading through the TCER's "Findings from the Second Year" report (pdf, 1.25MB, 158 pages) is probably the best thing anyone interested in this field can do. Here is a (fairly long, but it wouldn't make sense to shorten it, after all this blog isn't a media outlet that has to deal with 30-sec or 150 words limits;-) quote from the Executive Summary (pages 7 to 14 of that pdf) that seem to be a good indication of the current findings (emphasize added by yours truely):

Summary of First- and Second-Year Findings

Our first-year report—Evaluation of the Texas Technology Immersion Pilot: First-Year Results (Shapley et al., 2006a)—revealed positive effects of technology immersion on schools, teachers, and students. Findings for the second year relative to these same variables are generally consistent with first-year results. Steadfast outcomes across two evaluation years and two student cohorts show that immersing a middle school in technology produces schools with stronger principal leadership for technology, greater teacher collaboration and collective support for technology innovation, and stronger parent and community support for technology. Additionally, teachers in immersion schools are more technically proficient and use technology more often for their own professional productivity, their students use technology more often in core-subject classrooms, and teachers adopt more integration-oriented and learner-centered ideologies. Students in immersion schools are more technically proficient, use technology more often for learning, interact more often with their peers in small-group activities, and have fewer disciplinary problems than control-group students.

Also consistent with first-year results, we found no significant effect of technology immersion in the second year on student self-directed learning, and we found a significantly negative immersion effect on student attendance. Moreover, the availability of technology across two years provided no significant increase in the intellectual challenge of immersion teachers’ core-subject lessons.

First-year findings on academic achievement revealed no statistically significant immersion effects on TAKS reading or mathematics scores for Cohort 1, sixth graders. Similarly, second-year results for Cohort 1 students (as seventh graders) showed no significant effects of immersion on TAKS reading, mathematics, or writing achievement. Likewise, achievement results for Cohort 2 students (sixth graders involved in the project for one year) revealed no significant effect of immersion on TAKS reading achievement. However, for TAKS mathematics, students in immersion schools who began the year with higher math pretest scores had significantly higher mathematics achievement than their control-group counterparts. The math achievement gap favoring immersion students over control widened as students’ pretest scores increased. Although TAKS score differences between immersion and control schools usually did not differ by statistically significant margins, second-year achievement trends, in contrast to first-year results, generally favored technology immersion schools.

What does this tell us?

I'm still not quite sure to be honest and adding my thoughts below is of course a mockery of my own complaints about everyone adding their (mostly uneducated) opinion to the discussion. So, here's another uneducated guess:

The way I understand it using computers has the potential to bring (many) benefits to students, teachers and education overall. This however is a "can" and not a "will" type of situation. I believe that just introducing computers to a school will have no real positive effect. Only if all the aspects (one could actually go as far as calling them requirements) such as implementation, teacher training, learning materials, learning methods, etc. are sufficiently executed and available will we see "statistically relevant" improvements on young people's education (or "benefits outweighing costs" as others might put it). Otherwise the only benefit students will have is easier access to porn, as demonstrated by this story about an OLPC trial in Nigeria.

I'll definitely be talking more about this topic over the coming days, weeks, months...


Anonymous said...


I think the evidence you have collected demonstrates quite well that computers are a great asset to schools. Computers have had both positive and negative effects on students in today's society and I think you showed both sides of the argument well. I found it interesting that studies show that schools with available computers have less disciplinary problems, when other studies show that computers have decreased class attendance. It seems that the location of the school depends on the usefulness of the computer. You state that you do not think computers have had a positive effect on education, today. I do not agree with you. I think it's important for students to be exposed to computers at a young age because we are in world of booming technology and it is important for kids to grow up understanding the technology around them. Without computers, school work would not be as organized, students would not have web resources for research, and commmunication with professors would not be as quick and efficient. I think computers are a great asset to our society and schools should continue the use within the school and teach students how to use them.

Kelly Borman

ChristophD said...

Kelly, thanks a lot for your comment.

What I was basically try to say is that the jury is still out there when it comes to a real assessment of information and communication technology and its impact on children and more specifically their education. That's why I'm so interested in that TCER study because the way I look at is this is currently the best effort in terms of independent research on the matter.

Yesterday I stumbled across an interesting term for what I'm looking for when it comes to technology and education:

"evidence-based policy is public policy informed by rigorously established objective evidence." (via Wikipedia)

I strongly believe that this lack of conclusive evidence, especially in the context of the One Laptop Per Child project, has been one of the main reasons why there's been less progress in that field than one might expect.