Do you remember when literally the most exciting thing to happen in school ever was when your teacher propped open the door to the classroom and slowly wheeled in the top-heavy cart bearing the one monitor the school owned? Well, me neither, because I’m also not old enough to remember those days. Ahem.
At the risk of sounding like a cranky octogenarian, back in my day, kids actually learned something in school. Yes. It’s true. We sat and we listened while the teacher talked and talked and wrote on the board with chalk and talked some more. And while this method is now scornfully referred to as “chalk and talk,” it was all we knew, so we listened quietly with our hands folded on our desks except when we needed to take notes, which we did by dipping our feather pens into our inkwells before walking home, with our books strapped in a belt, for five miles in the snow, uphill both ways. And while that sounds as though I might have gone slightly too far back in the history of our educational system, the 1990s might as well have been a hundred years ago when compared to the methods of teaching today.
The change? Technology—a word we have become so close to that we’ve given it a cute nickname. Tech has become, in the last decade, synonymous with education. Public schools in the United States spend more than $3 billion a year on digital content, and affordable high-speed Internet and free online teaching resources are prioritized for availability in even the most remote rural schools.
When there’s money to be made—and there’s a lot of money to be made here—there are people who are vying to be the ones making it. Ed tech as an industry is booming, with both the corporate conglomerates and the smaller but no less eager start-ups all competing for a slice of the pie. And by pie, I mean the $8 billion-plus yearly market for hardware and software for the classroom. That’s some rich pie.
With so many schools jumping onto the education technology bandwagon, it behooves us to ask the following question: Tech in schools is great for the people who develop and sell it, but is it good for the consumers—in this case, school children? Does technology in school create and foster a better learning environment than classrooms of the past, or does it do more harm than good?
This is quite literally the three-bazillion-dollar question, but (spoiler alert for those of you intent on finishing the rest of this article) it’s a question that, according to the available studies on the subject, is really, really hard to answer. (Read on anyway, because this article is one that the critics are calling “amazingly well-written” and “with an ending that just might surprise you!” so it’s totally still worth your time.) The reason it’s hard to answer is because there is a dizzying number of studies on the subject, with completely opposing conclusions.
For example, a study released by Columbia University discovered that West Virginia’s use of educational technology led directly to significant gains in students’ reading, math and language skills.
Another example is a 2018 meta-analysis of dozens of rigorous studies of ed tech, including experimentation, which indicated that when educational technology is used to individualize students’ pace of learning, the results overall show “enormous promise.” To use less big words, when used to tailor instruction to each student’s pace, ed tech can improve learning.
And if those are the only studies you ever read on the subject, ed tech just sounds super dee-duper. Upward and onward with the computers; burn all the books! But before we embrace the future demonstrated in that short story we all read in fifth grade featuring a lonely little girl and her robot teacher, there are also many studies that decisively counter those positive findings.
For example, an article entitled “Do Classroom PCs Help Kids Learn?” published in USA Today stated, “The Third International Math and Science Study found that the five countries that outperformed US fourth-graders in math did not use computers in their schools very often (one-third as often as we do) and fourth-graders in five other nations who have more access to home technology did not do better in science than did our students.”