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What We Know About Educational Technology Effectiveness in Schools

By Mary Burns on November 10, 2021

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Few innovations have generated such excitement and idealism—and such disappointment and cynicism—as information and communication technology in education. The noise around ‘educational technology’ is as cacophonous and contradictory as ever.

  • Four decades after the introduction of computers in schools.
  • Three decades after the first 1:1 computing programme was launched in Australia.
  • Two decades after the appearance of virtual schools.
  • Roughly a decade after the dawn of tablets.
  • Now, as parts of the globe tentatively and anxiously emerge from the worst pandemic in over a century.

To wit: Computers are cast as an expensive boondoggle that do nothing to aid learning, yet tablets proliferate across schools in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Online learning promises equity of access to learning for all the world’s students, yet during COVID 19, online learning generally benefited the ‘easiest to reach‘—students from wealthy families and communities in wealthy countries—thus exacerbating educational inequities.

Educational technology can help students improve reading, math, and writing skills, yet it has failed to deliver consistent learning results. ‘Successful ‘technology interventions often fail to reproduce similar results in different—or even similar—contexts.

Educational Technology Research

The research base has traditionally done little to quiet this clamour. Evidence around the effectiveness of technology for improved learning can be described as falling into one of three categories: success (sometimes); failure (broadly), or no significant difference (generally) (Tamim et al., 2011; Spezia, 2010; McEwan, 2015; Kizilcec et al., 2020; Angrist and Lavy, 2002; Fuchs and Wößmann, 2005; Pedró, 2012; Burns, 2013a).

Competing narratives and inconsistent research findings on educational technology raise genuine concerns, but the picture they paint is incomplete. Amidst the noise around educational technology, the signal has grown stronger over the last few years, and our understanding of technology has begun to come into clearer focus.

This is due to multiple factors:

  • The maturation and increased prevalence of educational technology, thus allowing for studies with adequate power and longitudinal data
  • The accumulation of years of intensive experiences using a variety of technologies for a variety of educational purposes, thereby contributing to shared and applied knowledge about ‘best practices’
  • Increasing demands for rigorous, evidence-based research by donors, governments, and educational organisations, culminating in the creation of entities such as the EdTech Hub and the open access Learning Technology Directory by the International Society of Technology in Education.

These developments should continue to paint a fuller picture of the kinds of accommodations and conditions that must be in place for technology’s promise and potential to be fulfilled. And they should help to further document technology’s diffuse educational benefits as well the many challenges associated with its effective implementation and integration for improved teaching and learning.

What Do We Know?

Here is what we do know about educational technology: We know that that in terms of learning, students are more likely to learn with technology than without it, particularly at-risk learners (Tamim et al., 2011; Bebell and Kay, 2010; Silvernail and MLTI Research and Evaluation Team, 2011; Major and Francis, 2020; Darling-Hammond, Zielezinski and Goldman, 2014).

We know that if students in the Global South cannot use technology as frequently and in similar ways as their peers in wealthy countries, they will be left behind in terms of educational and professional opportunities (MasterCard Foundation, 2020).

We know also that technology’s problems and successes are rarely due to technology alone—they are more often created by decisions and practices that are political, educational, financial, human, and institutional. Many educational systems attempt to use technology to overcome existing constraints in the education system (De Melo et al., 2014).

Yet we know that technology ipso facto cannot fix poor teaching and modernise outdated curricula that emphasise lower order thinking skills and the assessments that measure them.

Educational Technology Can Have Impact

However, technology can be an important component of educational improvement when it is part of a carefully designed and implemented programme of whole system reform (Culp, Honey and Mandinach, 2005). We do know that for many of the world’s teachers and students, the lack of access to a cellular network, an internet signal, or a digital device has been tantamount to a lack of access to education.

And we know that technology, because of its ability to scale, can make attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4)—‘ensur(ing) inclusive and equitable quality education and promot(ing) lifelong learning opportunities for all ‘(United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2021)—far more possible than it would be without technology.

As the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report Think Piece will repeatedly emphasise, educational technology is a highly complex intervention. As such, more than many interventions, it demands much from the education systems that seek to deploy it:

  • It demands access to infrastructure, including sufficient electrical voltage; telecommunications infrastructure; secure spaces; and functioning, reliable equipment.
  • It demands that government policymakers understand the affordances and challenges associated with educational technology and the array of inputs that must be in place, so they treat technology as a support, not as a saviour or as a silver bullet.
  • It requires that policymakers and decisionmakers be as savvy as the educational technology companies pushing their digital ‘solutions‘ to educational problems, lest they waste limited financial resources that could otherwise be better invested in different interventions.
  • It requires teachers who understand the conceptual underpinnings of a piece of software and know how to use, design for, and teach through and with a variety of technologies, as well as have the skills to change dominant instructional paradigms to capitalise on the benefits of technology for instruction and assessment.
  • It calls for students who have the literacies, habits of mind, and behaviours to be successful participants in their own technology-based learning experiences.

Given that technology is such a highly complex intervention, the research issues around technology are also complex. Education systems are noisy. As an example, even for educational interventions in the Global South that do not involve technology, effect sizes for changes in learning generally tend to be small to moderate (Evans and Yuan, 2020).

Despite this, and despite its ubiquity, complexity, utility, and heterogeneity, technology’s many concrete, non-measurable critical functions have been distilled to one indicator—student learning outcomes as measured on test scores.

Student Test Score Problems

This is problematic for several reasons. Technology has manifold direct and indirect educational and personal benefits that may not lend themselves to empirical measurements, but that makes them no less valuable. The research questions asked about technology may be formulated in ways that fail to consider the complexity and contingencies associated with education and thus may not be answerable (Pedró, 2012).

The diversity of technologies used in a particular setting may make it difficult to attribute specific outcomes to particular interventions, and there may be no normative expectations for improvement over time in student achievement as a result of technology use (Hill et al., 2008).

However, the absence of evidence may not necessarily equal evidence of absence. Focusing on one data point—student test scores—is an insufficient measure of student learning in its fuller sense (E. Morris, personal interview, July, 2021; Spaull and Taylor, 2015). It may not give policymakers and planners the answers they need to make the decisions to drive investment and procurement.

The danger is ‘the baby and the bathwater’ syndrome—that donors and governments may jettison funding technology in schools, not because of issues with technology per se, but because of decades of ‘unproductive’ attempts to isolate the effects of technology as an independent variable.

Technology is often a Rorschach test for the understanding and misunderstanding, the biases and desires of governments, private enterprise, donor agencies, and the education system itself. Although technology can support instruction, it is not a pedagogy.

And while computer programmes and apps can teach students basic skills such as multiplication tables, they cannot cultivate empathy or kindness in students. No amount of technology in the world can fix curricula that emphasise rote learning.

No amount of technology can compensate for teachers who are poorly prepared, poorly paid, or poorly motivated. Technology cannot improve education on its own, but education cannot be improved without technology.

A lightly edited overview of the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report Think Piece by Mary Burns, a senior technology and teacher professional development specialist based at Education Development Center

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Mary Burns works in the areas of teacher professional development, online learning, instruction, curriculum development, and educational technology at both Education Development Center and as an advisor to the Millennium Challenge Corporation
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4 Comments to “What We Know About Educational Technology Effectiveness in Schools”

  1. Dayani Mbowe says:

    This is one of the best articles I have read about ICT in education. Thank you so much for sharing, it’s worth reading over and over especially for the practitioners and other educational stakeholders.

  2. Mary Hooker says:

    A timely article and think piece – on the maturation of the role of technology in education. Where are we now – in the new normal of living with the pandemic and needing flexible modes of educational provision and outreach? We can find some critical answers in these pieces. Thank you Mary for rich review and insights.