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.