Is technology making it worse?

A new study suggests that students who used technology for “practice and drill” scored worse on the PISA assessment than students who did not use computers for this purpose. The study generally found that the highest scores on the PISA were obtained by students who used technology “moderately,” meaning a few times per week. It’s not clear from the study why more frequent use of technology does not increase student test scores, though the authors suggest that it may be a mismatch between pedagogy and technology.

Despite the fact that technology has been present in schools for over 20 years, ubiquitous access is still relatively new. It was easy for teachers to ignore when it was locked in a room down the hall, but with more schools and districts looking toward implementing 1:1 initiatives, and mobile carts and wifi becoming the norm rather than the exception, the push to change instruction becomes all the more important. Research on professional development suggests that a teacher must use a new strategy many times before they are comfortable enough with it that it becomes part of their everyday practice. Coach Rich Brooks from the University of Oregon believes, “We’ll generally make you worse before we make you better.” Teachers are unlikely to be successful at digital teaching and learning on the first try, but without the right guidance, they may give up rather than keep trying.

The current research found that just using the technology for learning-related activities was not enough. If the technology is not used in a purposeful way as a result of what the authors call “adding 21st Century technology to 20th Century classrooms,” then the technology is not likely to enhance learning. The question becomes, “Are teachers not trying to integrate technology in a powerful way, or are they giving up before they have mastered it?” I would suggest that we may just need more time for our pedagogies to catch up, but history would suggest that additional time is not enough. Maybe we need to increase our expectations and adjust the incentives to ensure that all teachers are using the instructional practices and technology that we believe will better prepare students for their future.

As a critical consumer of research, I do wonder whether or not what is measured by PISA is the goal of digital teaching and learning initiatives in the first place, and if what students are gaining from these initiatives is not measured by such a test. If a person studies the rules of lacrosse, and the test is on how to play tennis, this mismatch will make it appear that nothing was learned. The emphasis on deeper learning and 21st Century skills in digital teaching and learning environments, may improve these skills while leaving other skill levels untouched. This may not be a bad thing necessarily, if our argument is that students will need these higher level skills in the future and that the ability to find information is more important than memorizing it. As Sumatra Mitra says, “If there’s stuff on Google, why would you need to stuff it into your head?”

The emphasis in any instructional initiative should be instruction. Digital tools are not going to fix poor instruction and, in fact, could make it worse. Very traditional instruction that emphasizes memorization of facts could potentially result in less learning when technology is added to the mix. Without the technology, students would have to memorize the facts. With the technology, they can just Google them, copy and paste them into whatever document is required, and learn nothing. But if we’re not asking them to go beyond those facts, to synthesize, analyze, evaluate, question, and produce new information, then they have learned nothing except how to use a search engine. This is something the researchers recognized, and hopefully is the subject of someone else’s research.