School & District Management

How Teachers Use Ed Tech: 8 Research Studies You Need to Know

By Benjamin Herold — June 11, 2015 7 min read
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Thinking about spending million of dollars on educational technology for your school or district?

Take a deep breath: Mounds of research suggest it might not be wise to expect such an investment to yield major changes in how teachers actually, you know, teach.

As part of our newly released report, Tech Counts 2015: Learning the Digital Way, Education Week took a penetrating look at why 1-to-1 computing and digital content are not transforming most classrooms into the kind of student-centered, personalized, technology-driven havens that ed-tech proponents have touted.

Yes, we often hear about the exemplars.

But when researchers have undertaken systematic examinations of how technology is actually being used in the majority of classrooms, the findings have generally not been pretty.

So if your goal is to transform teaching through technology, here are the 8 research studies you need to know before—and after—taking the ed-tech plunge:

1. Teachers’ Use of Educational Technology in U.S. Public Schools (2009)

This survey of 3,159 teachers by the National Center for Education Statistics is still the definitive national review of what teachers actually do with ed tech inside their classrooms. The NCES found widespread access to technology, including a national student: computer ratio of 5.3:1. But the most commonly reported usage of classroom technology was to help students learn or practice skills (69 percent of teachers said their students used tech in that way ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’), while just 13 percent of teachers said their students sometimes or often used tech to design and create a product. While the survey is now six years old - and, in fact, predates much of the mobile revolution—many researchers believe the general thrust of its findings still hold true.

2. Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice (2013)

At the turn of the 21st century, Stanford University researcher Larry Cuban observed classrooms at technology-rich Silicon Valley schools, concluding in his seminal book Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom that “most teachers had adapted an innovation to fit their customary practices.” More than a decade later, he revisited one of the schools, to find that most of the changes had been incremental. In Inside the Black of Box of Classroom Practice, Cuban wrote that teachers did indeed use technology to plan more efficiently, email with colleagues more frequently, and look up information on the Internet more regularly. But when he and his colleagues shadowed teachers and students, it was a different story. “We saw what classroom researchers have seen for decades,” he wrote: lectures, discussions, and occasional technology use that resulted in primarily teacher-led instruction, with a few student-centered activities mixed in.

3. Evaluating the Implementation Fidelity of Technology Immersion and Its Relationship With Student Achievement (2010)

How’s that for a difficult-to-digest title? But this study by private researcher Kelly S. Shapley and her colleagues is worth chewing on. The researchers studied 21 high-needs Texas middle schools that received a total of $20 million in federal funds to immerse classrooms in technology, including laptops, wireless infrastructure, curricula, and more. Only about one-fourth of the schools reached “substantial implementation,” the researchers found, and the most prominent uses of the new technology were by teachers to improve their own productivity. “In general, teachers at many schools seemed to view technology as a more valuable tool for themselves than for their students,” Shapley and her colleagues concluded.

4. Laptop Initiatives: Summary of Research Across Seven States (2011)

Before you go jump off a cliff, read this summary of seven major 1-to-1 laptop initiatives spanning Florida to Maine. In a white paper reviewing existing studies of these initiatives, researchers from the William & Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at the North Carolina State University College of Education found many encouraging signs. Student engagement generally went up with the introduction of laptops into the classroom. Some states also found increased student motivation. And some teachers and students believed that use of laptops had a positive affect on student test scores, although the N.C. State researchers wrote that “only some analysis of test scores support this belief.” When it came to the classrooms, the researchers said they saw in students in some states evidence of improved technology, communication, and collaboration skills, as well as more self-directed learning. In some cases, the research also pointed to shifts in teachers’ pedagogy and in teachers’ and students’ roles.

5. Evaluation of the Common Core Technology Project: Interim Report (2014)

OK, now you can go jump off that cliff. By this point, the troubles encountered by the Los Angeles Unified School District in procuring and deploying tens of thousands of iPads are well-known. But the LAUSD’s external evaluator, the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, also found major challenges in the classroom. Here’s one example: In just 2 of the 245 classrooms that AIR researchers observed during the first year of implementation were teachers using their new technology to support collaborative student learning. Check out Ed Week’s Q&A with AIR managing researcher Jessica Heppen for more details and insight. And check out the study itself for a comprehensive methodology that was used to understand how tech was actually being used in the classroom during one of the rockiest 1-to-1 device deployments in history.

6. Teacher Technology Change: How Knowledge, Confidence, Beliefs, and Culture Intersect (2010)

By this point, you’ve probably gotten the picture on just how limited most teachers’ use of technology in the classroom appears to be. But why? This overview by researchers Peggy Ertmer (Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind.) and Anne Ottenrbeit-Leftwich (Indiana University, in Bloomington) take a comprehensive look at a host of factors. Teachers not only lack of knowledge of how ed tech works, the researchers say, they lack the pedagogical knowledge it takes to select and use the right tool, for the right subject, for the right time, with the right students. Many teachers either lack the confidence to even attempt to use new technologies, or don’t believe the tech fits with their philosophy of teaching and learning. And school factors - including cultures that strongly enforce norms around teacher-centered instruction - can also play a big role.

7. Conditions for Classroom Technology Innovations (2002)

Then-Michigan State University researcher Yong Zhao and his co-authors on this study—the oldest on our list—set out to answer the question “why don’t teachers innovate when they are given computers?” After following for a year teachers who had received state grants to carry out technology-based projects in their classrooms, the researchers identified 11 key factors. Among them: teachers’ proficiency with technology and pedagogical beliefs; the extent to which using a technological innovation fits within a school’s culture and is connected to a teacher’s existing practice; the degree to which using technology requires help from others; and the extent to which interpersonal and infrastructure supports are in place.

8. Teachers’ Beliefs and Technology Practices: A Mixed-Methods Approach (2009)

Researchers Deniz Palak (New York Institute of Technology) and Richard T. Walls (West Virginia University) set out to resolve what they described as contradictory findings on the frequency and nature of teachers’ technology use. In this study of 28 technology-rich West Virginia schools, Palak and Wells surveyed teachers, then conducted extensive follow-up interviews and classroom observations with some of the respondents. The case studies will likely ring true. Here are two examples: “Kate,” a veteran teacher and the head of her school’s technology committee, held strongly teacher-centered beliefs and mostly used technology to help students achieve mastery of subject matter through use of drill-and-practice software. “Tina,” an elementary special education teacher, was strongly student-centered and professed a belief in technology. But she did not use it with her students, because she didn’t have tools she felt supported the types of direct teacher-student interaction and cooperative learning she thought was best for her students.

None of this is to say that all is lost, that there is no way to do technology integration well, or that it’s impossible for teachers to change.

Nor is it to suggest that there aren’t resources to help school and district leaders. If you’re not sure where to begin, check out these standards and “essential conditions” for success, published by the International Society for Technology in Education.

But if you’re going to spend big bucks in the hopes of transforming your classrooms, it’s best to go in with eyes wide open. These eight studies are a good place to start.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.