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.”