Does Anyone Have Data That Supports Technology As Having a Net Positive Effect on Student Achievement?

As I work my way through the first months of changes in my life from “not working in a school” for the first time in a decade and a half, I am the first to feel ruffled feathers by this question as I most recently left a position of “Director of Digital Learning.” 

Shouldn’t I know?  I always just assumed Edtech offered a net benefit because it did and does for me…but absent the need to feed the status quo, I’m free to follow my questions wherever the answers lead me.

I think it’s important to say from the outset that I am a supporter of digital learning- at least as I understand it. I have endless anecdotes from my own (tech) classes and coaching about students who (I think/they claimed) benefited greatly from exposure to technology in one form or another whether assistive, academic, etc.. What I am not so sure of is the correlations between Edtech and digital learning being made today as much of the Edtech that gets talked about and implemented in the majority of schools I would term “digital teaching”, not digital learning. 

What I hope to come to a better understanding of in this space, is whether or not we’ve all allowed ourselves to slide into believing something about technology as it’s used in schools as to be something it’s really not. So since we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflection on experience, that’s what this column and perhaps 2-3 posts after it are about- reflecting on over a decade and a half in the classroom and a handful of years at the end as a leadership team member at an international school. 

Interestingly to note, some of the struggles I had as a teacher, a coach and integrationist became clearer once privy to the inner sanctum banter of a school leadership team. No question there are schools with cutting edge technology initiatives and fantastically capable and enthusiastic staff leading them, but unfortunately I think it’s safe to say there is more often than not a dearth of accountable leadership for digital anything in less ambitiously “21st century” schools. This lack of focus results in friction losses at the interfaces, poor infrastructure provisioning, lack of management and mentoring of IT staff, etc., the list goes on…

You may even have to resort to leading a technology integration program from a position of influence only, as instead of every aspect of the digital ecosystem being considered, there is a lot of “default setting” implementation happening and don’t even get me started on the gube roldbergian dumpster fires created and sanctioned as “technology integration” programs and policies. It’s an unthinking approach, proceeding mechanically, disregarding information and clues (“Okay, so now we’ve had about 3 minutes for constrained “discussion” about tech in the staff meetings this quarter, so moving on…So, regarding who peed on the boys bathroom floor…if anyone has any…)

At one point I was fortunate to be at a school that employed digital learning integration support and even put a “tech” person on the leadership team, but even still, there was much less team support for digital learning initiatives as there were for traditional “teaching and learning” shibboleths.  And it makes sense, as even the best generalist administrators are not well versed in any kind of depth of insight regarding technology integration. That’s okay– it’s just important to point out because there is a lot of decision making going on and diagnosing of issues happening with very little training or experience behind it.

Why this matters is because digital learning, digital teaching, edtech and IT, etc., are all thrown around interchangeably and they are not the same. A digital “Kleenex” if you will. There is an “Edtechochamber” of tech industry types, evangelists and a small percentage of heavily tech invested coaches, admin and teachers who support the use of “Edtech” and everything gets megaphoned together.

It’s repeated in a lot of school marketing as all having to do with improving student learning. Combined like this, marketed with fervor, one presumes that there is true “game changing” technology being implemented and integrated, but a curious thing is- you don’t often see any data supporting these claims about Edtech’s ROI, or certainly not ROI in terms of student achievement/learning for which it’s being claimed to be in the service of. 

So my question is simple:

Where is the evidence that Edtech, (regardless of what it’s called) provides a net benefit for student learning?  

John Hattie’s visible learning studies, (if of course you believe them at all as more and more with the chops to say so, do not), purport to show that in the last 50 years, technology’s effect size on student performance puts it in Hattie’s category of “strategies to ignore.” Does anyone have anything; a link, a PDF, a study suggesting otherwise they can point to? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

I would so love to see a deluge of studies come forward that I have simply missed. I want to see the data that shows that the kind of integration that’s being done in classrooms today around the world is a net benefit for “student learning”.  Anecdotes on a small number of classrooms in a school/district or stats on improved teacher efficiency, (Gaining time doesn’t mean the teachers repurpose the time on students of course!) aren’t what I’m looking for.  

If we can’t measure the positive effects of “Edtech” on student learning, (or maybe we shouldn’t if it’s digital teaching, not digital learning?) then what exactly are we doing to students in schools with technology?  How do we know?  I’m not convinced we’re getting what we think we’re getting, and I am open to hearing about what I have not yet seen.

In order to ask and wonder “What is needed next as we grapple with which types of digital learning positively impact students and how and when they should be integrated?”, my next posts will summarize my review of Sonny Magana’s 2017 book (that leans heavily on Hattie’s Visible Learning research) laying out what he calls the “T3 Framework for Innovation in Education”.

On his research, Magana says “I’ve been researching the “Wicked Problem” of low-impact technology use in schools for four decades and have recently discovered a sequence of learning strategies that unlock students’ limitless learning capacity. I call it the T3 Framework for Innovation. The T3 strategy sequence was shown to reliably double student learning and achievement.” As well, Magana invites readers “…to learn how to work less and teach better…” and finally, to “Rock and Roll!”

See you next time for more on that.

About Matt Brady

Matt Brady has been creating digital ecosystems that organize, inform and inspire for two decades. He writes as a curatorial journalist- connecting related stories across disciplines often beyond “Education”- to examine and understand educational leadership in a more adaptive and predictive way. His side project is conceptualizing and building an autodidactic launchpad for his daughter and her friends.
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2 Responses to Does Anyone Have Data That Supports Technology As Having a Net Positive Effect on Student Achievement?

  1. Esmeralda says:

    I have been teaching 2nd grade (generally 7 years old) for the past 12 years. With a decade observing the same age group of students, while the world changed digitally around them, I like to think I have some “expertise” from the field. “At the core, learning is a process that results in a change in knowledge or behavior as a result of experience. Understanding what it takes to get that knowledge in and out (or promote behavioral change of a specific kind) can help optimize learning.” – Berkeley.edu.com. Technology is just a tool to be used. Bells and whistles are great as long as the plain vanilla system is operationally sound.

    • Matt Brady says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Esmeralda, and my hats off to you on a dozen years worth of classroom teaching. What I took away from your comment was that perhaps technology is often (intentionally or not) substituted for “operationally sound” core learning systems, when in fact this is asking too much for a what is just one of many tools that teachers can use to effect the same end. I would agree with that 100 percent as poor use of tech can in fact compound and amplify any deficiencies in the underlying pedagogy.

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