Does Using Technology Add Value To The Classroom?

I posted earlier describing my skepticism about the benefits of using technology in the classroom. Though I help students and their families use technology a lot through our home computer project and our after-school ESL Computer Lab, along with other opportunities, I don’t really use it much in my own classroom. In my earlier post I emphasized that I thought the key was the teacher, not the tools.

A very thoughtful comment was left by Dorothy Burt, and I read it at just about the same time I was putting an experiment in place for the next school year. Her comment helped me further develop my thoughts.

A more accurate statement of my position is probably to say that it’s the “teacher and the curriculum” that are the key, not the tools. I believe that pretty much any teacher, (with training and support) can help raise student achievement with an engaging curriculum — with or without technology. We have an example of that in our school with an extraordinary ninth and tenth grade English curriculum that doesn’t incorporate technology but has been very successful on many levels, including student/teacher engagement and student academic achievement.

So, yes, I believe that an engaging curriculum without technology can work great. And, yes, I believe that an engaging curriculum involving heavy technology use can be great, too.

So, given (in my mind, at least) that both curriculums can work well, can an engaging curriculum using technology be more successful than one that doesn’t use it consistently?

I suspect not, but I’m open to exploring the possibility and being wrong. And it looks like I’ll be exploring it very intentionally next year.

I’ve made a proposal to my school that I teach two separate classes of the same subject (two U.S. History, Geography, World History, or Economy/Government classes for English Language Learners, or two Intermediate English classes). In one of the classes I would use the same engaging curriculum I’ve done before and has had very positive results.

In the other class each student would have laptops, at least for the time they were in the classroom, with a wireless connection to the Internet. I would develop an engaging curriculum maximizing the use of technology for that period.

We’d have a series of assessments for each class, and compare the results at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the year.

School staff seem pretty enthusiastic about the idea, and it obviously sounds interesting to me.

What do you think? Am I missing something?

21 thoughts on “Does Using Technology Add Value To The Classroom?

  1. Coincidentally, the same day this post appeared the Explorations in Learning blog wrote about a college instructor who appears to have a done similar study and found that the students with laptops scored lower:

    Some key questions, of course, include:

    * What kind of instructional methods and curriculum did she use?

    * How many students were in the class?

  2. Using technology in instruction is definately not as simple as giving a student a laptop and an internet connection. First you must have taught these students how to use the internet to their advantage… in the publishing, editing, and informational realms.
    The use of technology in the classroom is supposed to be engaging, but the long term use is the real goal. This study may not show anything at all, but in the long run, these students will be better equipped for the world around them when they get out into the real world.

  3. I agree, almost down the line, with your position here. One “tool” however, that is often overlooked, but which many of my fifth and sixth graders only learn though my explicit and diligent instruction is basic word processing skills. Writing instruction is far more powerful, I believe, when it’s implemented with instruction on the basics of any word processing program. This “tool” frees up lots of time and energy so that students are doing meaningful revisions and careful editing, instead of laboriously recopying handwritten drafts.

  4. Hello,

    So what’s missing here is what you might *do* with the technology. I don’t that anyone has ever argued that just having access to computers makes any real difference, but tech can allow us to teach and to learn in ways that just weren’t possible before.

    I really agree that it is the teacher and the curriculum that make the difference — and that still nudges us to ask how a teacher’s role can (and should) change or how the curriculum can be enriched when kids have access to infinite information and amazing collaboration tools.

    The study that Mrferlazzo linked to is a perfect example of how NOT to use computers – -as glorified note takers — while the mode of teaching (lecture — as if the teacher is still the main source of information available to students) stays exactly the same (and in fact, is pretty outdated. Not too many universities advocate lecture/note taking as an effective instructional strategy any more, so it’s not surprising that kids found ways to distract themselves. I would too!).

    So, will you have them do web-based archival projects as in the Primary Access Project at UVA? Or digital video projects as done in the City Visions, City Voices project at SUNY Buffalo (I’m hearing that their kids are blowing the top off of the Regents exams) ? Or have your students create podcasts or wikis or interview distant experts live via the video feed of Skype? Or collaborate with a class across the country via blogging?

    Or, to follow up on Amy S.’s suggestion of doing word processing — will you have them write using Google Docs so that they can collaborate/peer review/ edit/share drafts of their work along the way? Or maybe even ask a distant expert to easily access and comment on their drafts?

    Or have them put drafts of their projects up on VoiceThread for comment and feedback?

    I think that if you did go in any of these directions, you’d be wise to remember that once kids start catching on to cool tools that other kids are using in class, they’re going to access those things too. Unless you get the “control” group to sign agreements to stay off the web in and out of class, you won’t have two distinct groups once kids start telling each other what they’re doing, because everyone has access to those same tools on the web now. It’s a whole different world than when kids learned mainly from the books that the school owned and controlled.

    Have fun with the experiment!

  5. I appreciate everyone’s comments so far.

    Woody’s point that, whether or not the assessments are different, students in the technology-enhanced class might very well emerge with more useful skills in the real world is important to consider.

    And I agree with Amy that using technology to improve writing and writing instruction will need to be an essential part of the curriculum I use.

    I thank Jane for offering some great ideas on incorporating the laptops in class. And she raises a valid question about how to ensure the comparison assessements would be accurate. I do have a concern about one comment she made about everyone having “access to those same tools on the web now.” Yes, they do, if they have access to a computer and to the Internet. I was just having a conversation with our principal about this on Friday. Often times there’s an assumption made that everyone has that type of access. However, in our inner-city high school when I take informal polls of my “mainstream” students I find that only about one-third of them have computers and Internet access at home. In my English Language Learner classes the percentage is closer to ten percent (or would be, except now at least more of them get computers and home DSL through our Family Literacy Project). I suspect that these percentages are not much different from other inner-city schools.

  6. I forgot to mention, in relation to Amy’s comment on writing, that I’ve recently read that Maine’s laptop initiative reports that student use of laptops has resulted in a marked improvement in writing assessments. I plan on looking carefully at those results.

  7. Teaching the same content in two diffent sets of conditions, one with and one without supplemental technological opportunites, sounds like an interesting experiment. Are you planning on journaling your experiences? What about writing an academic paper? This sounds like a great opportunity.

  8. Yes, I plan on writing about it in some capacity, but haven’t decided how yet.

    I also want to clarify that the curriculums I generally use do include supplemental technology, but only about twice a month or so. I will plan on continuing to do that, so it won’t be devoid of computer use. However, I anticipate that the other class will use laptops daily.

  9. Absolutely fair point about not assuming that kids have access to technology at home — I was thinking more about lunch room conversation, working together in the library, informal sharing in school.

    I’d love to hear more about the family literacy program that is providing computers and DSL for ELL students. How is that funded?


  10. I think it is important to remember that in every class there is a wide range of learning styles and learning challenges. I believe that this means there are some students in every class who benefit more than others from access to technology tools. The beauty of making a range of technology available is that it helps us address the reality that one size does not fit all.

    To speak from personal experience, I am convinced that I would have been far more successful as a high school student (in the 1960’s) if I would have had access to today’s digital storytelling options, the technology now available for creating graphics of all kinds, and some of the interactive websites that help to make sense of high school math and science. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would have been far more engaged as a learner if today’s technology had been readily available to me way back then. On the other hand, I believe that some of my classmates would have benefited to a lesser extent.

  11. Technology is great, but I don’t think it has the great educational effect some would want us to believe that it has. I have used Scholastic’s Read 180 program, 1/3 of which is computer based. The results were great, but other methods get the job done.
    Where technology adds is in the appeal. Our students today are so comfortable with computers and gadgets that the “buy in” factor cannot be missed.

  12. I teach marketing curiculum to inner city students who then use computers to further their classroom learning and to produce a finished product related to the curriculum. This will be the way they will work when employed in the marketing field, and they will need to know how to work independently to produce a finished piece be it a sales presentation, business plan, or an advertisement.

    I have to guide and direct their projects at this point so that they do not get waylaid by the myriad of choices the Internet and computers can offer. This is a big problem many of the teachers in our school face when using technology in their classrooms. The students get away from them.

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  14. While the benefits of using technology in the humanities may be arguable, in math and science classes, tech is not an option, at ANY level.

    I’m thinking particularly of the use of probes to collect data. It both speeds up the process of collection, but also seamlessly provides a way to analyze the resulting data. Having the graphing calculators or computers available, in combination with the probes (temperature, pH, force, motion detectors, etc.) allows use to run labs quicker, more safely, and with the ability to analyze at a higher level of complexity. Also, the fact that the data can be collected more quickly means that, when a lab goes wrong, students can often repeat it.

  15. Linda,

    I probably should have been clearer that I was primarily talking about computer use. I would say, for me, in the Humanities having at least an overhead projector is pretty important.

    I can see your point about the role of technology in science. From my reading of your comment it seems that you are saying that some high-tech must be present at all levels for science and math. I wonder, though, if that is really the case for all levels.

    For example, I’ve taught middle school math and science classes pretty effectively (I think) without any high tech gear at all. I’m not sure high tech would have necessarily made it more engaging or beneficial for the students.


  16. I am very interested in following this “experiment” along next year. I think reflection will be extremely important and should be done regularly to make sure any adjustments or modifications need to be made. I was wondering about the makeup of the class. Will both classes be a mixture of different levels (such as special ed students) or will it be a homogeneous group?

  17. Pat,

    Good question. Both classes will be composed of Intermediate English Language Learners, with the majority being Hmong refugees. I’m not sure about the exact percentages yet, but I would guess that about twenty percent will be Spanish-speaking immigrants.

    I agree that reflection will indeed be important. I’ve actually begun this process now, since I’m teaching a Government class this semester as a “run-through” for the fall. This class will be spending three-to-four days each week meeting in our computer lab. You might find these posts I’ve written about that interesting:


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