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Why Has Technology Failed To Substantially Improve Student Achievement?

Why has technology not enabled students to experience a significant increase in achievement?

To answer that question, let’s first look at the business world. During the early days (1975-1986) of computers, studies from various businesses showed no gains in productivity, and the notion of the “productivity paradox” surfaced. As the economist Robert Solow quipped: "We see computers everywhere except in the productivity statistics."

But then, in the early 1990’s, business figured it out. Business realized that simply putting an existing paper-and-pencil process on a computer would produce modest or incremental gains, at best. But if the process were changed to take advantage of the new opportunities afforded by the computer, then big gains in productivity were possible. In fact, according to the CRA website, “Recent research has demonstrated a major surge in U.S. productivity between 1995 and 2000 due almost entirely to IT.”

Shoshana Zuboff, in her book In the Age of the Smart Machine, talked about automating versus informating. The former is just putting an existing process on a computer, while the latter is about changing the nature of the process, the task, to exploit the computer’s affordances. Dell, for example, didn’t use computers to keep track of inventory; rather, Dell got rid of inventory and used the computer to schedule deliveries to support their newly invented just-in-time manufacturing process. In 2015, Dell is just another manufacturer of computers, but from 1996 to 2006 it was the leader because it pioneered online configuration and ordering of computers as well as online management of its supply-side processes.

Let’s use the above analysis from business to understand K-12’s situation.

K-12 has been using the computer to automate direct instruction, the pedagogy that has dominated K-12 for the past 120+ years. In automating direct instruction, the computer has been and is being used to present information and drill learners. As Schuler, et al. pointed out, more than 80 percent of the apps in Apple’s iPad store are some form of digital flash card. While drilling learners via an iPad may be more fun for the children, drilling is still drilling, and the gains from using iPads have been modest – incremental at best.

There you have it, sports fans! Just as business realized only incremental gains when automating existing business practices, K-12 has realized only incremental gains in automating direct-instruction pedagogy.

Learning from business, if K-12 wants discontinuous, substantive improvement in student achievement, then it needs to change its pedagogical practices to better exploit the affordances of the computer. Easy peasy! K-12 needs to implement an inquiry pedagogy! And, while preliminary, data obtained from a Singaporean school that employs inquiry and 1-to-1 mobile devices does support the claim that substantial improvement in student achievement is possible. Now, a deeper analysis of those data requires its own blog post – coming soon!

But before we end this post, we must use the above analysis to look at “personalized learning.” Indeed, isn’t personalized learning just automating direct instruction – but instead of a teacher delivering the information, a computer delivers the information?  Please, look at the pictures that depict personalized learning: situation1, situation2, situation3, situation4.

Interestingly, while schools employing personalized learning don’t appear to be reporting dramatic gains in student achievement, there does appear to be a substantial reduction in instructional costs. For example, Carpe Diem schools, which practice personalized learning/computer-delivered direct instruction, point out that it only costs $5300 to educate a student, which is a substantial reduction from teacher-delivered direct instruction.

While automating direct instruction doesn’t appear to have increased student achievement, it has substantially decreased the cost for current levels of student achievement. Is reducing the cost of education the right benefit of using technology in the classroom? We welcome your comments! 

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at