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Using Technology to Support Learning for At-Risk Students

By Robert Rothman — September 11, 2014 3 min read
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In recent posts, Beth Rabbitt described ways that blended learning can support deeper learning for students and for teachers. But what is the evidence that the use of technology can enable students to develop high-level abilities--especially students placed at risk?

A new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) provides some answers. The report, by SCOPE’s Linda Darling-Hammond, Molly B. Zielezinski, and Shelley Goldman, notes that simply providing students with technology, or using computers as electronic worksheets, is not enough. Schools need to attend to how the technologies are used, and the report identifies three characteristics of technology use, based on an extensive study of research.

The first is interactive learning. Unlike drill-and-practice applications, technology programs that engage students in interactive learning enable them to see concepts through a variety of representations. They also provide feedback and offer opportunities for high-level discussions about content. For example, one study of high school students in Texas found significant improvements in math learning among students who took part in an interactive computer-based instructional environment, compared with students who learned via traditional lecture, note-taking, and practice. As the report states:

In this experiment, students spent fifty-five minutes per day working through six lessons that followed the cycle of “engage, explore, explain, and elaborate.” Through this cycle, students used simulations that allowed them to manipulate information on interactive graphs and tables. They followed an exploration and were prompted to explain and elaborate on certain phenomena observed. They also engaged in dialogue with other students about their findings. The authors [of the study] concluded that “results are deeply embedded in the core of the learning process and the necessity to create an environment that involves all students in high level thinking skills and to promote problem solving versus a more drill-practice approach.”

The second characteristic of effective technology use is the ability to explore and create. Studies show that, when students have opportunities to create their own content, they are more engaged and motivated, and they learn more. In one instance, Latino students created materials for a new business, such as a restaurant. The students tracked “expenses,” developed advertisements, and created a web site. The experience was highly motivating for the students, and as a result, they developed a broad range of skills.

The third characteristic of effective technology use is a blend of teachers and technology. The results are stronger, the report notes, when teachers provide support and feedback to students, and students have opportunities for interaction, than when students use technology on their own.

Despite the promise of technology, the report notes that there are substantial inequities in the availability of technology and the use of it by students. One survey found that 56 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools agreed that the lack of resources or access to digital technologies is a challenge in their classroom, compared with 21 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools. Even more striking, only 3 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools said students have the digital tools they need to complete assignments at home (52 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools agreed with that assessment).

The report concludes that the review of research suggests several policy implications:


  • Technology access policies should aim for one-to-one computer access.
  • Technology access policies should ensure that speedy Internet connections are available.
  • Plans and purchases should take into account the fact that at-risk students benefit most from technology that is designed to promote high levels of interactivity and engagement with data and information in multiple forms.
  • Curriculum and instructional plans should enable students to use technology to create content as well as to learn material.
  • Policymakers and educators should plan for blended learning environments.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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