Before You Pick Up That Ed Tech

By David Lariviere

The proliferation of technology into our daily lives has certainly made its way into the classroom and is obviously here to stay. While no one in education questions that statement, what is widely open for debate is its effectiveness in advancing students’ learning beyond traditional methods.

A great divide often occurs between the assumptions of people who invent flashy educational games and the science of teaching and learning, as ETS Research Scientist Madeleine Keehner recalled recently.

“I remember in one of my first weeks at ETS, I attended a conference organized by the gaming community,” she says. “The speaker was saying this game is fantastic for learning, look at all the graphics, and the students loved it — and the educators are sitting in the audience saying, ‘but are you actually measuring anything?’ There was no evidence of whether learning was happening.”

I think children are learning differently today because there’s more opportunity for more independent learning. It opens up new opportunities but there still needs to be guidance.

~ Blair Lehman

Keehner’s experience cuts right to the heart of today’s debate that sees ed-tech designers and educators often at odds. Fellow ETS researcher Gabrielle Cayton-Hodges says, “The biggest hurdle we have is there are so many options out there. Some are excellent and some don’t have any real impact on learning.”

Interestingly enough, much of the research about the effects of technology in the classroom are either mixed or negative. In 2015, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an ETS client, asked millions of high school students from dozens of countries about their access to computers. Surprisingly, the authors wrote, “Students who use computers very frequently at school (for math lessons and homework) do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”

Similarly, a Pew Internet Project survey of teachers in 2012 showed that nearly 90 percent thought digital technologies were creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

Many ETS research scientists are also wary of the benefits of tech in aiding student learning. “Games that split your attention and have a casino-type atmosphere with flashy graphics may not help learning,” says Carolyn Forsyth. “Indeed, learning environments that are not designed based on cognitive science principles tend to have less learning impact.”

The OECD study did show, however, that modest computer use was positive. ETS Associate Research Scientist Blair Lehman says gearing technology toward the specific interests of kids can be highly effective. “Topics can get presented in a very dry form but, if you use technology by adapting something to baseball or hiking for the kid who likes the outdoors, you may be able to sustain the learning,” she explains.

Cayton-Hodges also acknowledges that technology can be helpful but was cautionary amid a blitz by technology giants to get established in the classroom. “Everything needs to be thoughtfully done.  Fifteen years ago, there was a big rush for everyone to get a smart board, but a smart board is just a blackboard if you don’t know how to use it the right way. Some know how to use it well and, for others, it’s more of a distractor,” she says.

Keehner and Cayton-Hodges have spent a lot of time studying scientific experimentation through the use of computer simulation and do see technology’s benefits there. “Science is very performance-based, it’s about knowing and doing, so you can do a lot with technology that you could never do with paper and pencil,” says Keehner.

“A big advantage with tech is the enhanced individualized experience,” says Lehman, who studies emotional reactions to test-taking. “I think children are learning differently today because there’s more opportunity for more independent learning. It opens up new opportunities but there still needs to be guidance.”

That is especially true, ETS Research Scientist Jesse Sparks contends, because of the proliferation of digital media and the lack of processes to ensure quality information is provided. “It’s like the Wild West, which has increased the reader’s responsibility to be openly critical, and as a child, you might not have the strategies to make those kinds of evaluative judgments about what sources are worth learning from,” Sparks says.

The pervasiveness of social media has also created a large uncertainty of what is reliable information and what isn’t in terms of technology in general. “It’s really important for us to be thinking about the role of assessment to identify where are these gaps in evaluation skills and how we can somehow feed back into the instructional process the strategies and tools that can help students to build up these critical habits of mind,” explains Sparks.

Another ETS researcher, Bridgid Finn, who studies meta-cognition, says, “It’s inevitable that technology is going to be used and, in many ways, technology can open doors that students might not have had access to by allowing authentic exposure to educational questions.”

But Finn doesn’t think the classroom has to be leading the way in technology. “I think it’s OK to be careful in how we proceed.”