How classroom technology is holding students back

Natalie Wexler:

In fact, the evidence is equivocal at best. Some studies have found positive effects, at least from moderate amounts of computer use, especially in math. But much of the data shows a negative impact at a range of grade levels. A study of millions of high school students in the 36 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that those who used computers heavily at school “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.” According to other studies, college students in the US who used laptops or digital devices in their classes did worse on exams. Eighth graders who took Algebra I online did much worse than those who took the course in person. And fourth graders who used tablets in all or almost all their classes had, on average, reading scores 14 points lower than those who never used them—a differential equivalent to an entire grade level. In some states, the gap was significantly larger.

A 2019 report from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado on personalized learning—a loosely defined term that is largely synonymous with education technology—issued a sweeping condemnation. It found “questionable educational assumptions embedded in influential programs, self-interested advocacy by the technology industry, serious threats to student privacy, and a lack of research support.”

Judging from the evidence, the most vulnerable students can be harmed the most by a heavy dose of technology—or, at best, not helped. The OECD study found that “technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.” In the United States, the test score gap between students who use technology frequently and those who don’t is largest among students from low-income families. A similar effect has been found for “flipped” courses, which have students watch lectures at home via technology and use class time for discussion and problem-solving. A flipped college math class resulted in short-term gains for white students, male students, and those who were already strong in math. Others saw no benefit, with the result that performance gaps became wider.

College students who used laptops or digital devices in their classes did worse on exams. Eighth graders who took Algebra I online did much worse than those who took the course in person.

Even more troubling, there’s evidence that vulnerable students are spending more time on digital devices than their more privileged counterparts. High school students in questionable online “credit recovery” courses are disproportionately likely to be poor or members of minority groups (or both). “Virtual” charter schools—which offer online classes and generally produce dismal results—often enroll struggling students. A national charter network called Rocketship Public Schools, which serves low-income communities, relies heavily on technology, with even students in kindergarten spending 80 to 100 minutes a day in front of screens. One study found that in schools serving relatively affluent populations, 44% of fourth graders never used computers, compared with 34% in poorer areas.

At least one education entrepreneur agrees. Larry Berger is CEO of Amplify, a company that develops digitally enhanced curricula in math, science, and literacy for kindergarten through eighth grade. Berger observes that while technology can do a credible job of imparting information, it’s not so good at demonstrating the “social usefulness” of knowledge. “For that,” he says, “you have to be getting that knowledge in a social context with other kids and a teacher, and ideally a teacher you want to be like someday.” While that may be a problem at schools that use a relatively modest amount of technology, it could be an even bigger one at schools like those in the Rocketship network, where one or two minimally trained supervisors oversee as many as 90 students during “Learning Lab” time. The schools have achieved impressive test results, especially in math, but an NPR investigation in 2016 found a repressive environment at many Rocketship schools. According to some parents and teachers, harsh discipline was used to keep students on task.