Technology in Education

This version was published in 2006. An updated version is available from 2011.

Twenty-five years ago, having a computer in your classroom—or for that matter, your school—was a mark of distinction. The idea of bringing the high-tech into schools was still somewhat cutting edge. But today, things are different. In fact, no school seems complete without a full complement of desktop computers, as well as other relatively new forms of technology. The question is not whether computers belong in classrooms, but how they can be put to most effective use and how schools can ensure that all of their students are getting the same online opportunities.


In 1996, about two-thirds of public schools had Internet access, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2003, virtually every public school could go online. Perhaps even more striking, high-poverty schools, as well as their low-poverty counterparts, could boast near-universal access to the Internet by that point.

From 1999 to 2002, student access to instructional computers improved dramatically in all types of schools. The ratio of students to computers dropped from about 5.7-to-1 to 3.8-to-1 during that period. The pace of improvement was somewhat faster in high-minority and high-poverty schools, a development that helped narrow the technology-access gap between such schools and those with lower concentrations of nonwhite and economically disadvantaged students.

After these rapid improvements, the trend toward increasing access to computers has slowed in the past few years, according to MDR data. Since 2002, the average level of access has barely budged, remaining close to four students per instructional computer nationally.

Yet even though the overall level of access to instructional computers appears to have reached a plateau, striking differences exist from state to state.

In the average public school in the nation, 3.8 students share every computer used for instructional purposes, MDR data for the 2004-05 school year show. However, in high-access states, such as Maine and South Dakota, schools have an average of only two students for each computer. At the other extreme, the student-to-computer ratio exceeds the 5-to-1 mark in California, New Hampshire, and Utah, a level of computer access less than half of that found in the leading states.

Some districts and states are working to provide students and teachers with greater access to technology off-campus by purchasing wireless laptops, personal digital assistants, and hand-held computers that students may take off school grounds. Maine and New Hampshire, for example, provide middle school students with laptop computers.

Despite progress in the classroom, some indicators suggest a lingering "digital divide" at home. For example, 28 percent of 4th graders and 24 percent of 8th grade students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches report not having a computer at home. In stark contrast, only seven percent and five percent of wealthier 4th and 8th graders respectively, do not have home computers (NAEP, 2003).


Internet-connected computers have become a fixture in the majority of the nation’s public schools. Yet, states still have a spotty record in adopting policies to make sure that educators and students can take advantage of that access.

While access to technology within schools has expanded at a rapid rate, less-dramatic change has been apparent in policies designed to improve the ability of teachers and administrators to use technology effectively. In a survey of state education technology officials conducted for Technology Counts 2006, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center found that 40 states had technology standards for teachers in place for the 2005-06 school year. That number held steady from the previous year.

But many states have not adopted licensure policies to ensure that teachers meet those standards. Only 21 states require that teachers take one or more technology courses or pass a technology test before they can receive an initial teaching license. Teachers are required to demonstrate competence in technology or complete professional development related to technology before being recertified in just nine states, most of which do not include technology requirements as part of initial licensure. In all, 26 states have policies in place to help ensure that teachers are competent in technology.

The EPE Research Center found that it is less common for states to have standards for administrators that include technology. Thirty-three states have technology standards for administrators. Only nine states require administrators to complete technology coursework or pass a technology test before they can receive an initial license. An additional six states require administrators to demonstrate competence in technology or complete professional development related to technology before being recertified.

No state has adopted technology requirements at both the initial and continuing stages of certification for administrators. In total, 15 states have policies designed to ensure that administrators are competent in the use of technology.

Although many states have not yet created policies to ensure that educators become savvy users of technology, MDR data show improvements in the percentage of schools where most teachers are considered “beginner” users of technology. That figure has substantially declined in recent years, from 35 percent in 1999 to 15 percent in 2005.


Despite schools' evident commitment to technology, some research indicates that teachers continue to use computers to maintain their current teaching methods rather than to promote innovative practices (Cuban, 2001). Survey data from a 2001 Education Week/Market Data Retrieval/Harris Interactive poll of students, for example, found that only 29 percent of students said teachers use a computer to help them understand a problem in a different way.

Data from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that 28 percent of 4th grade teachers reported not using computers at all in class. Among those who did use computers, the most common uses were playing math games and engaging in drill-and-practice activities. Tasks that promote higher-order-thinking skills were used much less frequently.

Discrepancies also exist in students' use of the Internet based on family income. Research by the U.S. Department of Commerce (2002) found that 35 percent of students aged 10-17 whose household incomes were less than $15,000 used the Internet at school compared with 63 percent of students with family incomes of $75,000 or more. Further, in the lowest income bracket ($15,000 or less), 54 percent of students reported that they didn't use the Internet at all. By comparison, only 12 percent of students in the highest income bracket ($75,000 or more), indicated that they didn't use the Internet.

Other Uses of Technology

The technology in schools today includes more than the boxy desktop equipment found in classrooms and computer labs. For instance, teachers and students alike are learning the benefits of digital whiteboards, which offer users many of the features of a computer, as well as a 4-by-5 foot screen. Computers are also used to help children with disabilities in the classroom. For example, e-books may run assistive software such as Braille printers and audible text-readers.

In addition to these classroom-based uses, states are taking steps to help expand the use of educational technology both through standards for students and via efforts to push the boundaries of conventional schooling. The rise of technology in education has also led to the development of e-learning initiatives, which include online courses, virtual schools, Internet-based professional development, and online testing programs.

E-learning opportunities, in which instruction takes place over the Internet instead of in a traditional classroom, are available to a sizable number of students. Twenty-two states have established a state virtual school, and 16 states have at least one cyber charter school (Technology Counts 2006).

In the 2004-05 school year, according to MDR data, about 19 percent of public schools offered their own distance-learning programs for students. But those programs have taken root more strongly in some states than others. Likely in a reflection of the state’s vast size and many isolated communities, close to half of all public schools in Alaska offer distance learning, a rate nearly 2½ times the national average.

Some forms of e-learning are expanding more slowly. For the 2005-06 school year, 22 states offered some form of computer-based assessment for students. But of the 48 states with technology standards for students, only four states—Arizona, New York, North Carolina, and Utah—actually test students on their knowledge of or ability to use technology (Technology Counts 2006).


As the amount and variety of technology available to schools continues to grow, the potential for new and innovative ways to enhance students' educational experiences increases as well. To date, there has been little research on the impact of technology on student achievement. However, a recent study found that, despite significant Internet subsidies in California from 1996 to 2000, there was very little evidence to show that the expansion of Internet availability had a significant impact on student achievement in the Golden State (Goolsbee & Guryan, 2002).

There also have been a few studies focusing on teaching and learning with technology and its impact on student achievement. For example, a meta-analysis focused specifically on reading and math educational software, revealed a somewhat strong association between the use of the software and student achievement in these subjects (Murphy et al., 2002). Another meta-analysis found that teaching and learning with technology had a small, but positive effect on student outcomes (Waxman, Connell, & Gray, 2002).

Ultimately, technology's impact on student achievement is difficult to measure because the areas it can affect—such as higher-order thinking, creativity, and research skills—are themselves difficult to quantify. Still, some studies have demonstrated that some uses of technology can boost student achievement under certain conditions, but there is no "magic formula that educators and policymakers can use to determine if this 'return' is actually worth the 'investment'" (Ringstaff & Kelley, 2002).

Cuban, L., Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, pp. 131-175, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Goolsbee, A. and Guryan, J., "The Impact of Internet Subsidies in Public Schools." (Working paper #9090), National Bureau of Economic Research, 2002.
Market Data Retrieval, "Technology in Education," 2004.
Market Data Retrieval, "Technology in Education," 2003.
Murphy, R.F., Penuel, W.R., Means, B., Korbak, C., Whaley, A., Allen, J.E., "E-DESK: A Review of Recent Evidence on the Effectiveness of Discrete Educational Software," SRI International, 2002.