High hopes for technology, few results

Schools are spending on technology with no evidence it helps children learn, writes the New York Times. Arizona’s Kyrene School District is considered a national model for high-tech classrooms:

Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.

In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

. . . Classrooms are decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drills students on every basic subject. Under a ballot initiative approved in 2005, the district has invested roughly $33 million in such technologies.

But “scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as statewide scores have risen,” the Times reports.

Research hasn’t shown that adding technology improves performance.

Larry Cuban, an education professor emeritus at Stanford University, said the research did not justify big investments by districts.

“There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period,” he said. “There is no body of evidence that shows a trend line.”

Karen Cator, a former Apple exec who now runs the office of educational technology in the U.S.  Department of Education, said technology is “great” even if scores don’t rise.

“Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.”

The National Education Technology Plan released by the White House last year calls for bringing “state-of-the art technology into learning to enable, motivate and inspire all students.”

But there’s no link between computer-inspired engagement and learning, said Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo. “Engagement” is a “fluffy” term, Yerrick said.

Professor Cuban agreed. “There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he said.

Furthermore, computers can be fun without being educational.

Xavier Diaz, 6, sits quietly, chair pulled close to his Dell laptop, playing “Alien Addition.” In this math arcade game, Xavier controls a pod at the bottom of the screen that shoots at spaceships falling from the sky. Inside each ship is a pair of numbers. Xavier’s goal is to shoot only the spaceship with numbers that are the sum of the number inside his pod.

But Xavier is just shooting every target in sight. Over and over. Periodically, the game gives him a message: “Try again.” He tries again.

His teacher believes he’s learning to think quickly, but he’s not really thinking at all.

As the district seeks more technology funding, it’s also raising class sizes and stinting on copy paper, construction paper, pencils and other supplies. The tech director spent $500,000 to replace projectors whose bulbs were dimming, sometimes making it necessary to turn out the lights to get a crisp image.  “My projector works just fine,” teacher Erin Kirchoff told the Times. “Give me Kleenex, Kleenex, Kleenex!”

Here’s the Times’ discussion with Cator, Cuban and others: What will school look like in 10 years?

What will a digital school look like in five years? Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise discusses technology as a “force multiplier” on Hechinger Report.

About Joanne


  1. In my opinion…technology should be a class but it shouldn’t necessarily be in the classroom…yes, kids need to know how to use a computer, use word, excel, powerpoint but computers do not improve learning…I don’t understand why so many think they do? The computer, ipad, etc. are tools. Just look how much using the calculator has improved kids math skills…NOT.

    Schools and administrative offices need to be more tech savvy/dependent and less reliant on paper as this will take millions out of each district’s operating budget, allowing people to be removed (RIFFED) from the administrative office and the savings put in the classroom. Teachers need to email, enter attendance by computer each class period, post homework, grades and messages on their web page but that is about it…

    If books are available electronically and kids have computers then they should be able to download them. I am all in favor of taking money out of the textbook manufacturers hands but…

    Technology is not the answer to education’s problems…

  2. Same old story. What works for learning versus what looks cool and gets you kudos at educational conferences (and maybe a spot on the local news).

    Technology can be beneficial in the classroom just like any other tools. The mistake is idea that simply incorporating technology will improve learning. The current question schools are asking their teachers is “How are you going to use technology?” as opposed to “in what ways can technology help you improve learning?”

  3. Richard Nieporent says:

    The tech director spent $500,000 to replace projectors whose bulbs were dimming

    There is clearly one other dim bulb that should be replaced immediately.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Electronic page-turning. Great. My daughter’s TX HS got a several thousand bucks’ worth of gizmology per classroom. Ipad or blueberry plus projectors and whatnot. She expects no benefit from them. The school laid off a teacher in her department and my daughter has 200 kids to teach Spanish. Which means machine-scored tests, a bad deal for language studies.
    But the purchasing agent will be able to retire early.

  5. georgelarson says:

    If we knew how to train teachers to educate students with a high probability of success we could automate the classroom. According to what I have read on this blog, schools of education do not train teachers and teachers learn primarily on the job so classroom automation is wasted effort. We are automating at great expense what does not work.

  6. Computers still have the potential of being great learning tools but in practice, we’ve just gone backwards since the 1980’s.

    Students used to learn programming and publishing skill and they used to engage in programmed learning. Not any more.

    The phrase “Drill and kill” killed off a lot of good software.

    Liability fearing administrators won’t allow online communication or publishing.

    The golden era of computers in the classroom ended when administrators thought it was time they took control.

  7. I think its a bit meaningless to ask whether ‘technology’ improves performance. We can talk about whether a specific piece of technology (e.g. a particular software program) used in a specific manner improves performance, but once you generalize all meaning goes out the window.

    There is a lot of junk out there. Like textbooks and other learning resources, its up to teachers and parents to weed out the good from the bad. When we do that, it’s also important to have a reasonable criteria for what constitutes success; I would be very suspect of technologies that do not appear to improve reading, writing or math but build ‘collaboration’ skills. http://www.k5learning.com

  8. Today educational experts all hail the pencil as the great technological innovation that will help students excel in their learning. “Students will be able to” exclaimed one administrator, “collaborate, organize their work, do research and learn about professional writing tools!”
    The is a lot of concern about the optional eraser on some of the pencils.
    Many parents are concerned about the cost of buying paper and pencils for their children who attend these technologically advanced schools.
    “Students will no longer have to carry the heavy, burdensome slate tablets and get their fingers dirty with the charcoal sticks” said Andy the tech coordinator.
    Some educational reformers criticize the pencil saying teachers aren’t trained to use the new tools and students will just doodle and waste their time in class.
    “There is no real learning, period, period, period.” said non-teacher education reform expert, “students need to keep using those slate tablets!”
    “Why when I was in school, I used clay tablets and a style! I learned just fine!” is a quote often heard when people look at the new pencil wonder.

  9. georgelarson says:


    I like your sarcasm but back to reality.

    I do not know the history of education. I am not aware of any educational hype surrounding the invention of the printing press, cheap paper or the pencil. It was a long time after Gutenberg before mass schooling occurred.

    I know there was some pushback over the printing press, but not on the issue of education. People were worried about exposing the masses to knowledge and the resulting social upheaval. They were not talking about schools. They were worried about literate people having broader access to knowledge. Some thought mankind’s ignorance was divine will.

    When Edison invented film technology he did try to turn in into an educational tool. When TV was perfected and commercialized after WWII there was a lot of educational hype surrounding its introduction. Both were failures. Was it poor implementation or was the technology not right for the task?

    In the late 70s the Army implemented the Bessler Cue See machine. It was “guaranteed to teach.” It did not.

    When the steam engine was invented did anyone try to make a steam powered teaching machine?

    I think we have different expectations of technology than previous generations.

    Adults see how easily children absorb the new technology and think that means it can be a tool to teach better. It has not met expectations. Were they unreasonable? Was it badly implemented? Was it inappropriate use of technology? Was it corrupt?

  10. Technology is like anything else, a tool for you to use or not.

  11. Technology is an expensive luxury which cannot prove it improves student learning.

    If your goal is to spend money on technology, then you won’t care if the students’ test scores improve. If you want to have all the new toys, and make a profit for technology companies, then you won’t care how much money districts spend.

    However, if you think that current test scores reflect mediocre student performance, you should want to invest in things which have some evidence of efficacy. It’s darned expensive, trying to buy the latest technology. If every dollar should be spent wisely, spending more on something which doesn’t make a difference makes no sense.

    What about using the money for things which do seem to increase student learning, such as more time spent learning, i.e., increasing the length of school days, or of the school year? (I would rather the longer school schedules be implemented on a voluntary basis.)

  12. Even without being a researcher, I knew that this headline was true. Technology is not a teacher. A teacher is a teacher. And our job is to spend money and effort– and positive encouragement–to improve teaching. Technology is an expensive side show that’s getting us off track, as I see it. Good teaching is where it’s at! Parents who support schools is where it’s at! Students who come to school prepared to learn is where it’s at! Technology is not.