Studies of the pros and cons of computers in the classroom have been making headlines for years. One week, newspapers are splashed with stories claiming there is substantial proof that computers help kids learn. The next week, new reports conclude the opposite. With so many conflicting and misleading studies, surveys and polls, it's difficult to know on what's really going on in U.S. schools. How can governments decide whether to fund more technology for the classroom if they can't make sense of the latest research?
Whether computers help students learn is extremely difficult to discern. Depending on where and how studies are conducted, it's easy to come up with conflicting results. But a new study by Educational Testing Service (ETS), a research institute based in Princeton, N.J., is getting some attention for its innovative approach to the problem. In completing the study, ETS became the first to document a relationship between the use of technology and high scores on national standardized tests.
The ETS study, led by researcher Harold Wenglinsky, analyzed fourth- and eighth-grade math scores from the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress -- the federally sponsored exam know as "the nation's report card." Wenglinsky then looked at how technology is used in each school and at the socioeconomic status of the students. By comparing student test scores to how schools use technology, Wenglinsky was able to conclude that computers can boost performance. However, favorable results were only obtained if the school focused on how students used computers, not how often they used them.
"Applications that require students to address real-life situations are linked to higher scores. Among eighth-graders, students using computers for these types of higher-order thinking skills were almost half a grade level ahead of their peers," Wenglinsky said. "But when it came to more popular applications, like drill and practice activities, students that used computers did no better than those that didn't. In some cases, they did even worse. That really suggests that the effectiveness of technology depends on how it is used."
Considering that the nation is now spending approximately $5.2 billion on education technology annually, Wenglinsky said it is imperative that schools learn how to use the tools effectively. A central part of that is teacher training.
"Schools should learn that it is tremendously important that teachers be prepared for the use of computers," Wenglinsky said. "I found that when teachers received adequate training, they were much more likely to use computers for the higher-order thinking skills found to be most effective in the classroom."
Chris Dede, a professor at George Mason University who specializes in emerging technologies for learning, said the ETS study will help educators understand the strengths and limitations of educational technology. That, in turn, will help them understand how to best use technology in the classroom.
"The strengths center around helping us use alternative kinds of pedagogy -- like inquiry learning, models and simulations, collaborative learning and apprenticeships -- that help students master the higher-order thinking skills they'll need for the 21st century," Dede said. "The limits are that if the technology is only used to automate conventional teaching, it's a poor investment, because it's only adding power to a marginal teaching approach."
But if a school's education plan is oriented toward critical thinking skills, Dede explained, technology can be a high-leverage investment.
Wenglinsky said the ETS study also helps stress that the fundamental issue for schools should be learning, not technology.
"Computers should be a component of a seamless web of instruction that includes nontechnical components," he said. "For example, teachers might introduce new topics and convey basic information to their students through general class discussion and lecture, then assign projects and problems that computers as well as other media can be used to address."
Wenglinsky also uncovered interesting equity issues during his study. While he didn't find the gaps he had expected regarding technology access among black and white students -- they had about the same level of access to computers -- he did find that minority students and students in urban areas were being deprived of the most beneficial kinds of computer experiences.
"In the inner cities, computers are being used primarily for drill-and- practice kinds of activities," he said. "I think this is occurring because principals, teachers and educators in those schools are making the assumption that, because minority students might be less prepared than white students, they should be relegated to the less interesting types of rote learning. As a result, they don't get exposed to these higher-order skills and don't perform as well."
Wenglinsky said that, while the way teachers choose to use technology in the classroom depends primarily on their individual preferences, beliefs and capabilities, federal and state policy-makers can encourage them by supporting professional development that emphasizes critical thinking skills.
The ETS study concludes that technology advocates are correct in asserting that technology can be beneficial to student learning. Used properly, Wenglinsky said, technology can lead to gains in academic achievement and even positively influence the social environment of the school, reduce teacher and student absenteeism, and increase morale.
"But it is important that the scope of technology in schools be limited to those areas where it provides benefits and reduced in areas where it does not," he said. "Thus, the notion of technology as a substitute for conventional forms of instruction may overstate the case for technology use."
While new studies of education and technology seem to emerge daily, the ETS study appears to have some staying power. It is now being carefully examined by schools, colleges and governments to help them make more sense of this complicated topic.
"One of the things I often get during my work with technology in the classroom are people asking, 'Why should we do this? What is the evidence? Prove to me this is the right way to go about things,'" Dede said. "The more solid studies we have that provide large-scale evidence and generalize across a range of students, settings and subjects, the better equipped we are to answer those questions."
Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is editor in chief of California Computer News. Email