International comparisons show that Australian schools are among the most computer-enabled schools in the world in terms of the number of school devices and the time they are used.
A few years ago, my daughter invited a French exchange student from her class to our house for dinner. I asked her what she thought was the main difference between her French school and her Australian school. Her first reaction was – the computer. “At my school in France, we had a room with a computer where we could learn programming and other skills,” she said. “In Australia, there are computers everywhere in schools and everything you do is done with computers.”
Where is the evidence?
Given the ubiquity of digital technologies in our schools, one might be surprised to find that there is little evidence that the adoption of these technologies is associated with increased school efficiency. Reviews of the research literature tend to conclude that there is little or no evidence that computer-based instruction improves learning outcomes or student engagement.
There is also no evidence that technology adoption in schools leads to increased efficiency at the school or system level. This is not to say that educational technology has no impact on schooling, but as Michael Fullan reminds us, change does not equal progress. The ubiquity of computer-based technology in classrooms, staff rooms, offices, and homes has undoubtedly transformed the everyday experience of students, teachers, educational leaders, and administrators, fueling billions of dollars in hardware, Software, infrastructure, support services and training.
We know there are success stories out there, and we know that some of the biggest companies in the world are very focused on educational technology. We also know that proponents of technology have accurately linked edtech to the types of approaches that research tells us should improve learning outcomes, such as personalized learning, differentiation, and student-centered approaches.
The research’s answer is that while technology has the potential to improve outcomes, its implementation in systems, schools and classrooms is not always optimal, leading to a mix of good, bad and neutral outcomes. This would explain in part why there are many studies on specific educational technology programs showing improvements at the local level, but little evidence that technology adoption has been successful at scale. This may also explain why there is relatively strong evidence of the usefulness of technology in meeting the needs of students with less effective traditional and mainstream educational methods and systems, including students with special educational needs.
These observations have led to increased research focus on attempting to understand and develop the skills and knowledge teachers and school leaders need to effectively select and use technology. While there has been some progress in research in this area, unfortunately, the focus on teacher professional learning and competency development is not always reflected in the priorities of education systems and schools or in the approaches of technology companies.
In high-performance systems, educational technology tends to lie explicitly within broader national goals
As part of a recent review of the national education system by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), I helped set international benchmarks for the effective use of educational technology. This is based on a review of the research literature and evidence from international best practice research.
The first conclusion of this review is that, in high-performing systems, the use of educational technology in schools tends to lie explicitly within broader national goals surrounding the development of an advanced information technology sector and a knowledge-based economy. In high-performance systems, there are long-term plans and commitments around the adoption and integration of educational technology and strategies for the effective integration of technology into learning systems.
Purposefully integrate technology to optimize teaching and learning outcomes
For technology to work in schools, it must purposefully support improved learning outcomes. When adopting technologies, we should be able to define their purpose, understand their role in learning systems, and identify success metrics and evaluation processes.
Crucially, we need to understand that, in most cases, technology adoption represents the replacement of some existing educational provision with something new. We must always adopt technology in education from an improvement perspective.
Technology Valuation Framework
I’ve been working with colleagues at ACER to develop a framework for schools to assess the impact of technology at the school level. The Technology Assessment Values Framework is designed as a capacity development program for schools, teachers and school leaders. It helps focus their attention on key issues for adoption and evaluation, including:
- What is the purpose of this technology?
- What will it do?
- What are the costs (and opportunity costs)?
- How to define success?
- What is the decision-making process for continuing, modifying, or abandoning the program?
It is hoped that using this framework in decision-making will help develop schools’ ability to think purposefully about technology adoption and use, and become more discerning and demanding consumers of educational technology.
The future role of edtech
Twenty years ago, Larry Cuban bemoaned the huge amount of money being spent on technology with no evidence of its impact on student learning, and many other pressing, unmet needs. Ten years ago, Emeritus Professor Philip Hughes reversed that, arguing that there were too many problems in education for us to ignore the potential of technology to bring about change.
More recently, Professor Neil Selwyn has drawn our attention to what he calls technological determinism in education: technology is progressive, advanced and inevitable, and if education does not master it, it will be left behind. He believes that this helps explain why so much technology is being adopted in educational settings without a clear purpose or means of assessing its impact.
The great challenges facing education identified in the early 2000s remain: how can we best prepare students for life, work and further study in the 21st century; and, how can we ensure that every learner can be the best ?
It remains to be seen what role technology can play in addressing these challenges. If we are to make a positive contribution, all of us—educators, systems administrators, technology companies, researchers—must recalibrate our thinking and expectations: technology serves learning, not education racing to keep up with technology pace of.