Technology in the Classroom: Don’t Believe the Hype

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For more than a decade, many policymakers, tech gurus and private companies have been proclaiming that digital technology holds the golden key to unlocking students motivation and engagement.

It’s like a deafening drumbeat: Every child should have a laptop. Every child should have an iPad. Textbooks are finished. Online education is the future. And teachers? Well, they would be a nice extra. Failure to comply, we’re often warned, would weaken our schools and cripple the nation’s ability to compete in the 21st century.

As a result, huge amounts of cash have been spent in an effort to deliver countless digital tools to classrooms across the country. Far from abating, the level of enthusiasm seems to increase with every new technological advancement.

But maybe it’s time to step back and actually assess the actual evidence about the limits – and successes- of technology in the classroom. What really has been delivered in the way of improved student learning?

It has been an era of “unfulfilled promises,” says Noel Enyedy, associate professor of education and information studies at UCLA.

“Computers in the classroom are commonplace but teaching practices often look similar, as do student outcomes,” Enyedy writes in a new policy brief published by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado.

Enyedy is no technophobe. Far from it, but he urges caution in rushing to adopt new tools.

“Clearly, as we move forward, technology will be in the classroom in one form or another. It is unrealistic and irresponsible not to figure out how to use technology well.” Enyedy believes the promise of “personalized instruction” has fallen short, however.

Tech advocates usually tout personalized instruction as the foundation of computer-based learning. Personalized instruction, Enyedi explains, emphasizes “tailoring the pace, order, location, and content of a lesson” for the individual student. This is not to be confused with “personalized learning,” which is more about adapting learning environments in a variety of ways to engage and motivate as many students as possible.

Still, many people do confuse the two, and the evidence that personalized instruction produces improved student outcomes is at best minimal or even non-existent. In surveying the available research, Enyedy argues that the results do not  justify the enormity of the investment or the effort to upend traditional classroom environments.

One personalized instruction system that showed some degree of success is blended learning, which fuses face-to-face instruction with some facet of online learning (the “flipped” classroom is an increasingly popular model). But Enyedy cautions that the research into blended learning is somewhat incomplete because it tends not to control for changes in teacher pedagogy, making it difficult to determine what specific factors led to the improvement.

Despite its potential, blended learning models are also expensive, incurring new costs in the form of infrastructure, licenses, professional development, and maintenance. Still, at least the approach shows some promise. Other models, which don’t have much of a track record, are held up as being more cost efficient than brick-and-mortar schools, another dubious claim not supported by the facts.

Enyedy believes that technology in the classroom has a valuable role to play in American education, but its potential has, to a large extent, been squandered by empty promises, ill-defined goals and outdated strategies. Personalized instruction – tailored mostly to the use of desktop computers – cannot transform learning when technology has moved on.

“We need a new vision for educational technology,” he writes. “We need technologies that are based on what we know about the process of learning an take advantage of the mobile, network technologies of today.”

Among Enyedy’s recommendations:

-Continue to invest in technology but take a more incremental approach. Policymakers should also be more skeptical about some of the more hyperbolic claims put forward by tech companies.

-Create more partnerships between developers and educators to truly discover what works and what doesn’t in the classroom. “We cannot trust market forces alone to sort out which systems are effective,” Enyedy writes.

-School administrators must ensure that rigorous professional development accompany new investments in technology to build “skills that have not historically been in the teacher toolbox.”

  • Pat Fleming

    Why isn’t this information in a public format where folks who do not already know will see it? Posting this on my facebook seems a little timid and wasteful of energy. Where is the national campaign to inform the voters?

  • Seanna

    Almost wanted to stop reading because of the typos. Additionally, teachers need to question what “traditional” methods are. If this means returning to multiple choice pen/pencil testing, then this article serves the students poorly. What teachers parents and students need is a more engaging environment where learning is valued. Drill and kill “traditional”methods aren’t the answer anymore than plugging kids into machines. It would benefit readers to know of project based learning and how technology is possible to support that just as it is in today’s business industry uses technology. I use technology every day, but I had to learn how to use it, how to operate it responsibily and without these skills I wouldn’t be reading this very questionably written article here on my high-tech device.

    • Holly

      …and I so wished your comment would have been devoid of mistakes. I hate when people point out other people’s mistakes that way. The content remained the same…

      • Seanna

        I am not a professional writer with a professional team of editors to support me representing a professional organization of educators.

        • Jared

          What typos are you talking about? I don’t think my copy has been edited and I find none. Sorry, I am only a high school English teacher with 38 years teaching experience. I think you do not like the message of this article so you are attacking the writer. That is hardly fair.

  • Jen

    I had to teach a “blended” classroom for Summer school this past year. The students were to spend their 90 minutes in my math class on a computer program that was self-paced and then I would pull small groups or individual students for direct instruction. Well, at least that was the way the county wanted me to teach. It was clear on the first day that 15-20 minutes was all that these unmotivated students could handle on the computer. Once I changed it up and varied the time between whole group, small group, individual instruction, and computer use it did become a little better. But, it would be a lie to say that even one of those students learned anything via the computer program (not to mention the moans I would get when I announced computer time). The students would skip the lessons (they learned how to cheat the system) and try to do the quizzes right away–then they would get bored and frustrated because they would have to take the quizzes over and over until I sat next to them and taught them the whole lesson anyway because they would not go back to the “lesson” portion of the computer program. Computers are great…but I believe you would be hard pressed to find many students who would prefer using them over having direct instruction by a teacher. Just my two cents.

    • bob

      you can only do so much with unmotivated students

  • KicksmarkMyHeart

    Taking from experience: Technology in the classroom will make a good teacher better and a bad teacher worse.

    • majorhenderson

      When computers were first coming on the scene (in the 80’s) they fascinated the children and few had access to them outside the classroom. Now, everyone carries them around with them daily, so we are held to a much higher standard to make the computer programming challenging and interesting. Repetitive drill no longer will hold their interest. Even back in the 80’s, the arcade and adventure games elicited the best response.

  • FrankLuke

    It is not complicated. If 70% of my students are resisting education because it is more fun to socialize in class, technology cannot help them. One 12th grader wrote to me, “Every year as technology keeps increasing, our skills keep on decreasing”. That is greatly causative and partly co-incidental.

  • Socialist Pig

    Kids who learn better through “antiquated” paper-and-pencil lessons are being left behind, and in some cases, stigmatized because they plain don’t like/can’t successfully use the technology. More computer training may help, but many (most?) kids need an actual human being to sit with them, answer their questions, and show them a little courtesy, patience, and kindness. Last time I checked, there was no AI capable of doing that.

    In addition, the people who are reaping handsome profits from the sale of all these technological wonders couldn’t care less about poorer school districts who MUST spend thousands of dollars on Pearson-ready computer systems or risk become a “failed” district. These districts would much better serve their students if they invested that money in after school programs or (God forbid!) more live, human faculty people who can give their students the aforementioned human attention a computer program cannot. Instead they are forced to use resources they don’t have on technology they MUST use but don’t necessarily need.

    I can think of nothing else that will more quickly exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots than lockstep reliance on mandated, expensive technology. Personally, I love computers, but I’ve yet to see one that addresses the problem of poverty in this country, which is the huge elephant in the classroom that corporate “educators” choose to ignore.

  • Bob

    Technology in the classroom Hype yup thats what it is, but you are making corporate America rich. I still can’t get many students to bring the best technology ever invented to my classroom (A Pencil and Paper) How many of you muast provide this daily?

  • bob

    the teacher is the most important piece of technology in the classroom, and always giving a child a piece of technology ignores human nature and how easily kids convert into snapchat, instagram, internet trolling, texting, etc….

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  • L‘avocado

    seems have become a part of education for now in most places. As a graduate
    student in TESOL program, I am taught multimedia strategies and new literacy in
    education field in almost every single class that I take. Professors are using
    computers in class; we are required to bring laptops or ipads to classes; we
    hand out assignments online; we discuss online; we get our feedbacks online; we
    are encouraged to use high-tech in our projects, presentations and teamwork. I feel
    like I cannot get my degree without technology or internet since I cannot even get
    access to class resources or readings without a computer. When it refers to my
    personal experience both being a students and a student teacher, I think
    multimedia is a great way to motivate students. Also it helps students to learn
    visually and audibly since technology turns the one-dimensional “drill and kill” traditional methods into “live
    shows”. However, I don’t think the technology is well-prepared and applicable
    enough to be the dominance of a class since students may lose control when the
    computer program of individual instruction is not perfectly intellectual. So I think
    technology could be a nice extra in class while teachers should still be the

  • CJ

    My school had to invest in technology in order to take our state mandated tests. However, this technology is not available for students to use for classroom purposes for the most part due to district mandated quarterly benchmark testing for all subjects tested and test prep sessions by subject that keep the computers tied up. I can rarely get access to them to do any of the projects and assignments I have developed over the years. Our actual classroom usage diminished greatly in spite of the huge amount of money funneled toward technology. We do have a test prep program kids were supposed to be able to access with phones, but for the most part it has not been usable. Also, many students either don’t have phones or are often grounded from them. It has been extremely frustrating to do all the work to include technology, then toxic testing takes the access away.

  • Christine Carlson

    My favorite use of technology is for handing in assignments. I expect high school students to type assignments, so I have them attach the file in Edmodo which shows a time and date stamp. This has reduced the, “my son says you lost his assignment” to zero. I show parents how to log in to the program and see for themselves. They can also see if their child is turning in shoddy work. Partnerships with parents have increased substantially.