Do they   work?  Or is empirical evidence in short supply?


It is often assumed that new technologies will massively improve what happens in the classroom, and  the learning environment and experience of pupils . Give pupils a lap top or ipad and their learning experience will be much better for it. But what exactly ,asks Larry Cuban of Stanford University,  is the pressing or important problem to which an iPad is the solution? Asking that  pretty basic question first uncovers, he says, the confused set of purposes that surround buying and using high-tech devices in classrooms. Here are some reasons given by educators  to Cuban about how technology improves learning   :

*These devices will motivate students to work harder, gain more knowledge and skills, and be engaged in schooling. Engaged students will achieve higher grades. When the  Auburn (ME)  school board authorized the purchase of  iPads for kindergartners, their leaders assured them that reading scores would rise.

*Students will be prepared for an information-driven labour market. Or as one superintendent put it: “Students have to have digital competence, and to be competent, you have to have access. Using current-day technology should be a normal part of what we do. We need to close the gap between schools, education and the real world.”

*High-tech devices will erase the gap in access to knowledge that exists between poor and wealthy. The superintendent who bought 6,000 iPads said:  “It’s an equalizer. There’s no difference in learning advantage from the poorest to the most affluent.”

*Using laptops and tablets will transform traditional teaching. Etc..

The use of technology, apparently, is the answer then to all sorts of education challenges. Or is it? Where exactly is the evidence in support of this proposition and the various associated claims? Cuban reminds us, for example, that research clearly shows that certain practices do, indeed, “work.” Take pre-school education. Study after study done on three and four year-olds who were in preschool programmes and their progress through schools and into adulthood show short- and long-term gains in academic achievement, earnings, and other behaviours . But ,when  it comes to research supporting major purchases of laptops, tablets, and similar devices, such a cumulative body of evidence is ‘missing-in-action’, claims  Cuban.

Occasional studies that do show promising results for new technologies are, according to Cuban, dragged in to cover the near nakedness of research, much like a fig leaf, to justify the high costs of these new devices in the face of little evidence. The fact remains that no one knows for sure whether the new hardware and software appearing in schools works.

So, if this is the case-why such an investment in new technology? Cubans explanation is   to do  pretty much with politics.  He says ‘school boards and superintendents also buy high-tech devices because they want to be seen as technologically innovative and ahead of other districts. In this culture, the value of technology is equal to social and economic progress. Because school boards are completely dependent upon the political support of their parents, taxpayers, and voters to fund annual budgets, being seen as ahead of the game in technology garners public support. Not to adopt new technologies, even when funds are short, means that district leaders are failing their students and against progress.’

I must admit to being baffled about the ipad fad-given that it is difficult to work on and far inferior in performance to mini-laptops if you want internet access and speed. A triumph of design and marketing  over substance.

It does seem that Cuban makes a compelling case-policy and practice should be informed by robust up to date evidence.  But it is also true that our youth are highly proficient in the use of new technologies, and, crucially, enjoy working with them and they allow  for , self-evidently, greater  personalisation of learning and for learners to take more ownership of their learning and to work with greater independence but also to work within networked teams with a global outlook,  all of which must be positive. So why is evidence in support of such  new technologies in the classroom  so  very hard to come by?



  1. The longer I’ver worked in this field, the more I realise that even the most sophisticated bit of kit (the costly shiny things so often described as “cool” by middle aged men who should know better) are no different in any sense from a pencil, in the hands of a child.

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