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The Great Debate: Effectiveness of Technology in Education

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I sometimes wonder why there is debate on the effectiveness of technology in education. The whole point of a debate is to examine issues in such a way that decisions can be made. However, in this case, we can hardly say, "Remove all technology from education!" Or, "Don't add any more because we are not getting an adequate return on our current investment--technology is not improving the quality of education." What would we put in its place?

Just the debate concept alone raises a plethora of questions because of a lack of clear definitions of terms and a context for discussion. If we view new technologies and media as potential tools of the trade for education and if we are to progress, they are essential. Let's examine the debate and some principles to guide your approach for integrating technology into instruction in such a way that it will at least have a chance to be effective.

Undefined Terms and Contexts
Certainly, if we look at what happens in schools, the effectiveness of technology depends upon the appropriate selection and implementation of that technology to meet teaching and learning goals. However, the debate is broadly stated, so we can equally look at what happens outside of schools.

What do we mean by effectiveness? Is it associated with achievement on a standardized test, results of a well designed research study, preparing youth to enter the workplace, or the changes in thinking and humanity brought about by the enabling capabilities of technology, or something else? Effective for whom? We might think of effectiveness in the context of various groups in developed countries where technology is more readily available; however, consider a broader context of effectiveness for individuals in more undeveloped nations where technology use creates unheard-of opportunities for education. We might also think in a more narrow context of effectiveness for individuals with special needs (e.g., learning- or physical-disabled, non-English or non-native language speaking), or just the average guy on the street. We can associate effectiveness with contexts such as types of educational applications, specific subject areas, and a range of grade levels, including preschool.

The list goes on.

How are we defining technology? The word is so broad, encompassing any application of scientific advancements to benefit humanity. Shall we limit the debate to hardware and software innovations in the information age? Do we mean the computer, Internet, and digital tools that our youth are using? Do we debate more narrowly on specific technologies found in classrooms (e.g., calculators, whiteboards, handhelds/PDAs/iPods, laptop and desktop computers, specific educational software applications), or broadly on the technologies that have changed the way we communicate, live, and work globally?

For that matter, what do we mean by education? Is it just preparing youth so that they can eventually compete in a global economy, or should we also be placing a premium on other qualities? The former, as indicated in a recent national survey (U.S. Students, 2007), calls for schools to teach more than basic skills, incorporating "21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills, computer and technology skills, and communication and self-direction skills into their curriculum" (para. 3). This is specific, and I agree. However, in terms of the latter, I also agree with Neil Postman, author of The End of Education (1995), who stated that "education is not the same thing as schooling, and that, in fact, not much of our education takes place in school" (p. ix). Schooling should instill children with a sense of global citizenship, healthy intellectual skepticism and appreciation of the role of mistakes, respect for American traditions, appreciation for its cultural diversity, and awareness that controlling the language with which we address the world advances humanity.

Fueling the Debate
To add fuel to the debate, "All technological change is a Faustian bargain" (Postman, 1995, p. 192). Each change is filled with both good and ill, and we should at least be aware of certain principles with regard to any potential implementation. According to Postman:

  1. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is a corresponding disadvantage.
  2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population.
  3. Every technology has a philosophy, which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.
  4. A new technology usually makes war against an old technology. It competes with it for time, attention, money, prestige, and a "worldview."
  5. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.
  6. Because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different technologies have different intellectual and emotional biases.
  7. Because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different technologies have different political biases.
  8. Because of their physical form, different technologies have different sensory biases.
  9. Because of the conditions in which we attend to them, different technologies have different social biases.
  10. Because of their technical and economic structure, different technologies have different content biases. (Excerpts from pp. 192-193).

Thus, it appears that for any potential implementation of technology in education, consideration should be given in a debate on effectiveness to intellectual, emotional, political, sensory, social, and content biases that come with the change.

Changing Thinking
If technology changes everything and we desire to incorporate those aforementioned 21st century skills into the curriculum, then we as educators also need to consider how technology changes thinking. According to Robert Kuhn (2000), an expert in brain research, few people understand the complexity of that change. Technology is creating new thinking that is "at once creative and innovative, volatile and turbulent" and "nothing less than a shift in worldview."  The change in mental process has been brought about because "(1) information is freely available, and therefore interdisciplinary ideas and cross-cultural communication are widely accessible; (2) time is compressed, and therefore reflection is condensed and decision-making is compacted; (3) individuals are empowered, and therefore private choice and reach are strengthened and one person can have the presence of an institution" (sec: Concluding Remarks).

If we consider thinking as both individual (internal) and social (external), as Rupert Wegerif (2000) suggests, then "[t]echnology, in various forms from language to the internet, carries the external form of thinking. Technology therefore has a role to play through supporting improved social thinking (e.g. providing systems to mediate decision making and collective reasoning) and also through providing tools to help individuals externalize their thinking and so to shape their own social worlds" (p. 15).

The new tools for communication that have become part of the 21st century no doubt contribute to thinking. Thus, in a debate on effectiveness or on implementation of a particular tool, we must also consider the potential for creativity, innovation, volatility, and turbulence that Kuhn (2000) indicates.

The Chance of Effectiveness
While the debate rages on, educators will continue to implement technology. I agree with Robert Kozma, emeritus director and principal scientist at SRI International, who stated in a recent debate (The Economist, 2007) that "technology can make a particularly significant contribution when coordinated with the training of teachers to integrate technology into their teaching, with applications that draw on the unique capabilities of technology, and with supportive curricular, assessment, and school contexts that advance complex problem solving, creative thinking, and life-long learning--skills that are needed to support an information society and knowledge economy" (sec: Con Opening Statement). However, it's not the medium, but instructional methods that cause learning.  Educators need to think in a systematic way about how and when to incorporate any new pedagogical strategy, including media, into instruction.

If technology has any chance to be effective, its use must be a regular, integral part of an instructional program and not viewed as an add-on (Deubel, 2001). You need to know the educational need, problem, or gap for which use of new media might potentially enhance learning. Your chance for an effective implementation would increase, if you are also able to answer "yes" to one or more of these remaining questions, suggested by Joel Smith and Susan Ambrose (2004, p. 23):

  1. Would the application of new media assess students' prior knowledge and either provide the instructor with relevant information about students' knowledge and skill level or provide help to students in acquiring the necessary prerequisite knowledge and skills if their prior knowledge is weak?
  2. Would the use of new media enhance students' organization of information given that organization determines retrieval and flexible use?
  3. Would the use of new media actively engage students in purposeful practice that promotes deeper learning so that students focus on underlying principles, theories, models, and processes, and not the superficial features of problems?
  4. Would the application of new media provide frequent, timely, and constructive feedback, given that learning requires accurate information on one's misconceptions, misunderstandings, and weaknesses?
  5. Would the application of new media help learners develop the proficiency they need to acquire the skills of selective monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting their learning strategies?  Some call these metacognitive skills.
  6. Would the use of new media adjust to students' individual differences given that students are increasingly diverse in their educational backgrounds and preferred methods of learning?

The Debate Goes On
Finally, in our neverending great debate, Postman (1995) reminds us that being against technology makes no more sense than to being against food. We need both. "But to observe that it is dangerous to eat too much food, or to eat food with no nutritional value, is not to be 'antifood.' It is to suggest what may be the best uses of food.... It's about how technology creates new worlds, for good or ill" (pp. 191-192). We'll continue to fuel the debate with proof of effectiveness from analysis of single research studies. And when we become disappointed by their mixed results, we'll continue to conduct meta-analyses in hope that by grouping studies we can prove a point. Who knows--the next one might be on effectiveness of the new Web 2.0 technologies. Even if there is no clear winner of a debate, at least we've given educators fuel to reflect on the good or ill of their implementation of technology or lack thereof. We know that using technology in any form will not necessarily improve education, but its informed implementation moves us closer to eliminating the "one-size-fits all" approach to teaching and learning.

References

Deubel, P. (2001, Summer). The effectiveness of mathematics software for Ohio proficiency test preparation [Online]. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 33(5). Available: http://www.iste.org/

Kuhn, R. (2000, July). How does technology transform thinking? [Show 111 transcript]. Closer to the Truth. Available: http://www.closertotruth.com/

Postman, N. (1995). The end of education. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN: 0-679-75031-2.

Smith, J. M., & Ambrose, S. (2004). The "newest media" and a principled approach for integrating technology into instruction. Syllabus, 17(11), 22-26.

The Economist Debate Series (2007). Proposition: The continuing introduction of new technologies and new media adds little to the quality of most education. Available: http://www.economist.com/

U.S. students need 21st century skills to compete in a global economy (2007, Oct. 10). Washington, DC: Partnership for 21st Century Skills Press Release. Available: http://www.21stcenturyskills.org/

Wegerif, R. (2002, Sept.) Literature review in thinking skills, technology and learning. Futurelab Series. Bristol, UK: Futurelab. Available: http://www.futurelab.org.uk/

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About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.

Proposals for articles, news tips, ideas for topics, and questions and comments about this publication should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net. She has been involved with online learning and teaching since 1997.

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