Virtual School Meanderings

September 16, 2019

Commentary: Digital Learning Tools Are Everywhere, But Evidence Of Impact Is Not

So this item was featured in almost all of the Education Week newsletters that came out this past week (and was also included in Saturday’s Virtual Schooling In The News).

Digital Learning Tools Are Everywhere, But Gauging Effectiveness Remains Elusive, Survey Shows

Educators are using digital tools to boost student learning more than ever. But few believe there’s good information available about which resources work best. Read more.

First and foremost, it is important to heed the warning of Richard Clark in these situations…

“media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition” (Clark, 1983, p. 445)

[put another way]

“there is strong evidence that many very different media attributes accomplish the same learning goal… [as such] …there is no single media attribute that serves a unique cognitive effect for some learning task, then the attributes must be proxies for some other variables that are instrumental in learning gains” (Clark, 1994, p. 22)

What Dr. Clark is saying here is that it isn’t the technology that is impacting learning, but the changes in how the instruction is designed, delivered, and supported that causes any changes in student performance.  The presence or absence of an educational technology tool has no direct impact on student learning.

The problem that we have with this reality is revealed in the article in several locations.  For example…

In the absence of clear evidence, though, educators say they are testing out digital tools largely through trial-and-error.

“We end up just kind of trying them out to see if they are going to be a great tool,” said…

So let’s just experiment with the kids and sometimes we’ll do things that we are able to use in pedagogically sound manner with positive instructional design and students will benefit, but other times we’ll just a piece of educational technology at them and at best its a waste of their valuable instructional time and at worse it hinders their learning.

Imagine if we did this in health care…  I’m going to give you a treatment.  Dr. Bob next store says it worked great with his patients, but I really don’t know if this will cure you or kill you.  But let’s give it a go and see what happens.  Okay?

Later in the article, it was written:

There are still substantial barriers to using technology in the classroom, the survey found. More than half of teachers—56 percent—cited lack of training as a “significant” or “extremely significant” problem. Nearly half say that some teachers believe non-digital tools are more effective. And 46 percent said the problem was that they weren’t sure which tools to use.

There are a couple of things to unpack here.  First, to use the health care analogy again, I’m going to perform this surgery on you.  I’ve seen others do it in the past, but I haven’t done it myself yet.  Now, I’d like you to count backwards from ten and when you wake up everything will be fine.

Second, if you note the last two sentences in this quoted section.  The sentence “Nearly half say that some teachers believe non-digital tools are more effective.” – both in terms of how it is written and where it is included in the article – implies that this is an inaccurate belief that, with appropriate training, could be corrected.  The sentence “And 46 percent said the problem was that they weren’t sure which tools to use.” – both in terms of how it is written and where it is included in the article – implies that educational technology tools are the most effective, teachers just aren’t sure which ones are the most effective.  In both of these instances, the article author has implicitly taken the position – or bought into the marketing of NewSchools Venture Fund – that educational technology tools are the answer…  That educational technology tools will improve student learning.

While not a direct connection, this issue also ties back to a theme that I have written about in this space before – the issue of whether practitioners actually care about research in the first place?  I’ve argued that most don’t.  They will say that they do, but at the end of the day we make time for things that we value.  And unfortunately the vast majority of practitioners would rather take the word of some corporation trying to peddle their wares or some ideologue pushing an agenda than they would any academic research that is out there.  All you have to do is walk into any school in the US and you’l see ample evidence of this…

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