At least since the invention of the blackboard two centuries ago, educators have used technology to enhance classroom instruction. The digital revolution has accelerated that trend, with the market for educational tech in the U.S. and Europe exceeding $100 billion. What’s less clear is whether these investments are doing any good.
Advances in educational software, particularly applications that aim to “personalize” learning, have the potential to help students, support teachers and make academics more engaging. But a good deal of the technology pouring into schools remains unproven, untested and — due to inadequate teacher training — poorly applied. To avoid squandering further time and tax dollars, policy makers should limit spending on new technologies until more schools demonstrate they’re able to use them effectively.
In many wealthy countries, digital technology has become a fixture in classrooms. The number of computers in U.S. public schools tripled between 1995 and 2008, the most recent year for which national data is available. More than eight in 10 students in the U.S. in grades four through 12 do at least some of their school work on laptops, and almost 60% use tablets for learning.
Yet there’s little evidence that this technology improves student performance — and excessive use may even have negative effects. A 2015 study of 38 countries found that those that made large investments in educational technology showed “no appreciable improvements in student achievement” on international assessments of math, science and reading.
In the U.S., fourth graders who reported using digital devices in most or all of their classes did worse on reading tests than students who used them in less than half their classes. Similarly, eighth-grade students who used a computer every day for math scored four points lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than those who did so only once or twice a year. To the extent technology plays a productive role, research shows it’s far more helpful for students in high school and beyond than for grade-schoolers. But even for older students, the mere presence of devices in the classroom can divide their attention and worsen their long-term performance.
As is true in every aspect of schooling, teacher engagement is critical to realizing ed-tech’s potential. But in the U.S., only 40% of K-12 teachers say that they’ve received effective training on how to use such tools. More than one-third say that they never use the digital products or devices their school districts give them; an additional 30% say they’re unaware if they even have such technology at their disposal. That disconnect is costly: One analysis found that as much as 67% of software licenses purchased by schools go unused, which amounts to $5.6 billion in annual waste.
Considering the strain on public-school budgets, that’s money that students can’t afford to lose. Policy makers should insist that schools audit their educational-software purchases and end extraneous contracts. They should focus tech spending less on expensive hardware and more on applications that help administrators save time and run classrooms more efficiently, such as communications and scheduling platforms. And they should ensure that any technology used by students is helping them meet measurable goals.
Of course, schools should be willing to experiment with technologies that show promise — such as some personalized-learning programs, which have yielded gains for poor students — and invest in helping teachers to do so. But until these tools offer clearer and more widespread benefits for students, they should be evaluated with serious skepticism. In education, minds — and money — are terrible things to waste.
— Bloomberg Opinion