There are many reasons why school boards buy hardware and software (see here) still the old chestnut that “students will achieve more academically with ________ (put your device or software du jour here) lingers on in the minds of enthusiasts as a sweat-filled dream. Sure, vendors and consultants paid by high-tech companies produce “white papers” or research studies that tout gains in students’ academic performance. No longer authoritative reports, “white papers” have become marketing tools. Like sponsored advertising in the media, such “white papers” want to sell readers on the merits, not the complexities of either teaching or learning in using devices. And there are reports by professional associations that cherry pick individual studies. Yet those policymakers, superintendents, district administrators, principals, and teachers who swear that their decisions are driven by evidence and research embrace a desert mirage whenever they cite a “white paper” or say “research shows” or the “evidence is clear” in buying the newest device or software. Over the years, I have seen fewer such claims by educators but they still exist.
Although some sellers of more technology in classrooms have retreated in their claims that students will get higher test scores if this or that is bought, a new bait-and-switch approach exists. Now, vendor claims are that tablets, for example, and the software loaded on those devices will “engage” students.
Motivating students through new hand-held appliance, i.e., engagement, has become a code word for higher achievement. But “engaged” students may or may not learn what is intended or score higher on standardized test scores (see here). “Engaged” students is surely one ingredient but in the complexities of classroom teaching, other factors enter the equation and need to be weighed. Consider the structure of the classroom, teacher relationships with students, varied ways of teaching, students’ individual grit, and other factors–parents’ socioeconomic status–account for higher (or lower) academic achievement. Anyone who says publicly that student engagement triggered by new hardware and software will produce higher achievement is selling snake oil.
An earlier comprehensive review of journal articles and conference presentations on the use of tablets in schools (see here) concluded that:
upon reviewing a large body of studies and research work, no solid evidence decisively confirms that the iPad has a positive academic effect on the learning outcomes. This is mainly due to the scarcity of pedagogy-wide and long enough research works.
Now comes another comprehensive, independent, and critical review of 33 studies that focused on tablets used in K-12 schools across the curriculum and around the world. See: Hassler_Major_Hennessy_2015._Tablet_use_in_schools_A_critical_review_of_the_evidence_for_learning_outcomes-FC4
Of the 23 studies included in the final tally covering different subjects and different grade levels:
• 16 reported positive learning outcomes;
• 5 reported no difference in learning outcomes; and
• 2 reported negative learning outcomes.
Because of the disparate nature of the studies, sample size, and other factors, the authors pessimistically concluded:
While we hypothesise how tablets can viably support children in completing a variety of
learning tasks (across a range of contexts and academic subjects), the fragmented nature of the
current knowledge base, and the scarcity of rigorous studies, make it difficult to draw firm
conclusions. The generalisability of evidence is limited and detailed explanations as to how, or why,
using tablets within certain activities can improve learning remain elusive.
Many practitioners familiar with the use of new devices in schools have said repeatedly that such studies reveal little because student academic achievement and other important student outcomes are not about gadgets but is about the teacher and how she or he uses these devices in lessons. Unfortunately, such on-the-ground wisdom seldom infiltrates policymaker decisions. The old chestnut of technology improves engagement and achievement continues to live regardless of the evidence. For those champions of tablets and other hand-held devices with their associated software who pride themselves on using only the “best practices” anchored in research and data-driven decisions, well, they best ignore these studies in their “white papers” and find other reasons to boost new devices in schools.