Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Smart Thinking About Educational Technology

By Andrew A. Zucker — April 01, 2008 6 min read
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Simplistic thinking is often applied to educational technology. Either it’s the greatest approach to education ever invented or it’s a waste of money. We can do better than such limited rhetoric. Too many advocates rely on weak arguments, such as “students are digital natives, so we should use more technology,” as if schools should have used radio and TV more often when earlier generations grew up with those media. Stanford University’s Larry Cuban was right to warn against the excessive “hype” one hears about the value of computers. (“The Laptop Revolution Has No Clothes,” Commentary, Oct. 18, 2006.) On the other hand, a majority of skeptics have failed to notice how quickly online schools, computer-based testing, and other powerful innovations are spreading, and how significant they are.


Instead of taking sides, we should think about how to use digital tools well. The reasons for doing so are compelling: (1) We need to transform American schools into higher-performing organizations, whether or not we use technology; (2) Digital technology provides a powerful toolkit, offering unique advantages (such as bridging time and distance, democratizing access to information and services, and leveraging exponential increases in computer power) that have helped transform other organizations, especially those based on information and knowledge; and (3) Many schools already use technology in smart ways to support education goals.

Using a framework of six key education goals rather than just one helps us better understand how schools use technology to meet the multiple aims policymakers have established for them. These six goals enjoy widespread support and have been codified in national and state laws such as the federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act in the 1990s. One of the benefits of using these goals as a framework is clarified thinking and conversations about the important roles technology is playing in schools. Computers, the Internet, and other digital technologies are used to do far more than raise students’ test scores or “increase student achievement.” A school is not like a business that can express its profit or loss as one number, the bottom line. This fact is often ignored in discussions of the role of technology in schools, as well as in the national debate about strengths and weaknesses of the No Child Left Behind Act. Besides increasing achievement, other important goals for education include the following:

• Making schools more engaging and relevant (thereby helping reduce the disastrous high school dropout rates in many districts);

• Providing high-quality schooling for all students (including English-language learners and students with disabilities);

• Attracting, preparing, and retaining high-quality teachers;

• Increasing support for children from parents and the community; and

• Requiring accountability for results (including providing more information about schools to policymakers and the public).

Educators need to consider how digital tools are used to help achieve each of these goals, because transforming schools requires attention to all six, not only one. Consider the following:

Instead of taking sides, we should think about <i>how</i> to use digital tools well.

A simple example of a technology that can be used to help students learn is word processing. Research shows that word processors help students become better writers. There are many other examples, supported by good research, of how digital tools—like “probes” for collecting, graphing, and analyzing data in science and mathematics classes—are used to raise achievement. And the Web is now indispensable for studying civics and current events.

Leveling the playing field is another key goal—for students with disabilities, English-language learners, and others with special needs. Computers enlarge typographical fonts, translate to and from English, convert text to speech, correct mistakes, and help teachers individualize instruction. As one special education teacher said about a school’s laptop program, “It’s like an instructional assistant in my class, because it helps me that much.”

In addition, computers linked to the Internet have dramatically enlarged and improved professional communities. It is easier for teachers to communicate with parents, administrators, and colleagues, near or far. Web sites provide teachers with online courses, video vignettes showing excellent instruction tailored to state standards, and other forms of professional development. State departments of education offer a wide range of online services to teachers and students. Listservs and discussion boards are used by education organizations and school districts.

The Internet also provides parents, principals, and others with up-to-date information about schools and students. A few years ago, there were already more than 1 million logins annually to a Web site operated by the Fresno, Calif., school district that provides information to parents and students about assignments, grades, instructional resources, absences, and other items. One million in just one district! And every month there are millions of visitors to Web sites like GreatSchools.net.

Digital Directions

Digital Directions online keeps you up to date on current trends and best advice for K-12 technology leaders. Read more.

Kentucky is pioneering an online system to help students make better plans for their education and careers. The system links students’ demographic and academic data with their career interests, as well as to information about colleges and financial aid. “We wanted to take our antiquated paper [system] into the real world,” says one official.

Technology usage in schools has changed dramatically in the past decade. There has been rapid growth in the number of online schools, as well as increasing enrollment in programs that provide students with personal computers for use as learning tools. Hand-held devices are employed in tens of thousands of schools, including graphing calculators, probes, and “clickers” allowing teachers and students to rapidly gather and view assessment data from a whole class. Millions of students use computers to take tests and quizzes, providing administrators, teachers, and students themselves with faster feedback to improve teaching and learning and increase accountability. Every day, tens of millions of students use word processors, the Internet, and other digital tools in and outside of school.

Because these changes happened so quickly, it is a challenge to think clearly about schools’ uses of digital tools. Examples like those above are needed to understand the astonishing range of applications and impacts of technology—but examples are not enough. We need to keep in mind the multiple goals established for education and what we expect from schools.

Large numbers of people still believe schools are immovable objects mired in an earlier century.

By using computers, the Internet, and other digital technologies in smart ways, schools are beginning to be transformed into the more modern, effective, responsive institutions that society needs. Although schools have reached a tipping point in using technology to reform the ways they operate, these modifications are not yet widely known or understood. Large numbers of people still believe schools are immovable objects mired in an earlier century.

Businesses that have been transformed through technology realize that investments in human capital are at least as important as investments in digital tools, and that both are needed. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies investments in technology looked at one popular investment in computer-resource planning systems and found that for every dollar large companies spent on hardware, $3 was spent on software, and $16 on “organization capital,” including retraining workers and redesigning practices in the workplace. The proportions may be different for schools, but today’s organizations depend on people, processes, and technology.

It is time to move away from simplistic “either-or” thinking about computers in schools. Instead, we need to focus on all six key education goals and how computers and other digital tools can help us achieve them.


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