As the United States newspaper of record, the New York Times helps shape the national debate about a lot of issues, including those related those to technology and learning. That certainly happened a few years ago, when the Times published an article by Winnie Hu suggesting that school districts across the country were abandoning one-to-one laptop programs because they weren’t raising test scores. (For a couple of years after that, journalists around the country called me to ask my opinion as to why so many school districts were abandoning their laptop programs, even though no such phenomenon was occurring). And I expect it will happen again, now that the Times has published an article with an almost opposite conclusion. The new article, by Matt Richtel, suggest that, far from abandoning technology, schools are embracing digital learning, although, again noting that technology is not tied to test score gains.
So, here’s my response to Mr. Richtel.
First, schools are not embracing digital learning nearly to the extent that he suggests. In the business world, technology expenditures brought productivity gains only after all office workers were supplied individual computers. Indeed, there is virtually no walk of life related to knowledge-production among adults–from universities to research centers to businesses–in which those expected to work with information and learn do not have individual access to digital devices. One-to-one laptop (or tablet) programs are still far from the norm in US schools. In fact, since the Maine laptop program was launched nearly a decade ago, not a single other state has duplicated its initiative, and I also know of no large city in the US that supplies laptops to all its K-12 students.
Second, the relationship between technology use and test scores is more positive than Richtel suggests. By focusing in on one exemplar (undoubtedly selected for that reason), Richtel has produced a single example of a high-tech district where test score gains have trailed. No solid data is presented to prove the point that scores are trailing behind other locations, and lack of gains there may be simply due to its being a very high-performing district that has reached its ceiling. In fact, our own national review of some 40 published studies of laptops and learning suggests that a negative effects on test scores are rare. And while studies showing no significant differences between laptop and non-laptop classrooms in test score results are common, the most recent studies frequently find a small positive impact on test score results from laptop use. This has been the case in two of our own recent rigorous comparisons, which have shown positive gains in reading and writing.
Third, test scores are not the be-all and end-all of schools. Does anybody know, or care, what Steve Jobs’ test scores were? We are trying to help our youth be competitive in a nation and world that demands both basic skills and the ability to creatively innovate. Almost everybody agrees that technology programs help the latter, and they may benefit the former in a small way as well. Think, for example, of the award-winning robotics program at Dos Pueblos High School in Santa Barbara started by Amir Abo-Shaeer. Does anybody think that that high-tech program is a waste of money? We need better and more authentic assessments that measure the broad gains that come from use of technology beyond those indicated in multiple-choice test scores.
Finally, in the end it is not the technology itself, but the solid package of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment that improves learning. And that depends on the goals involved. In the area of reading, for example, we are now carrying out research with a very promising form of digital scaffolding that has been shown to significantly improve comprehension, retention, and fluency. In writing, the use of social media for authentic writing has demonstrated success, and can be achieved with very low cost netbooks and open source software.
Richtel is right about one thing in his article: letting technology vendors establish our priorities is not the way to achieve our goals. Rather, when using technology, school districts need to start with the end in mind, and then put together the program to best achieve your goals.
[Final note: for more in-depth discussion of all these issues, see my just-released book: Learning in the Cloud: How (and Why) to Transform Schools with Digital Media.]