“Our students need computers, and teachers need to use them.” This idea is expressed by politicians, school leaders, business leaders, community members, technologists, and various other stakeholders. We hear the rhetoric loud and clear, but the critical educator wants an answer to the questions, “Does using computers make a difference? Do my students learn any more if I use them?”
The research community has turned attention to these questions, and the is unequivocal. “Yes, your students will learn more of you use computers.”
There have been several meta-research studies published in the last few years that support this conclusion. (You may remember from your education research course that meta-research uses the findings of published research as its data source. Because meta-research includes broad populations and diverse methods, it is largely recognized as being among the most convincing type of research. If finding are supported in multiple meta-research studies, then we can be convinced the finding are accurate.)
The Scottish government was sufficiently interested in the role of information and computer technology in education that is commissioned its own meta-research investigating the question, and the resulting report (which can be viewed and downloaded at http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/11/7786) is among the most approachable treatment that has been published recently. The findings are summarized below:
- Access to digital devices and information increases “the speed and depth of learning in science and mathematics” (p. 12). This effect is extended outside of school as well; students who use digital resources away from school enjoy these effects too.
- The use of digital tools can decrease gaps in achievement between high-performing and low-performing students.
- Students who use digital resources show greater skill in creative thinking, collaboration, leadership, and similar tacit skills employers identify as important for today’s workers.
- Digital tools can improve parental engagement.
- Access to digital tools can improve the efficiency of school operations.
Of course, these effects are not automatic; simply dumping computers, netbook, and tablets into schools and connecting them to the Internet will not ensure these effects are observed in schools. Both common sense, our own experiences, and the research tell us so.
The devices we obtain and provide for students and teachers must be properly configured so they are reliable and secure, and they need to be appropriately configured so students can use them quickly and without obstacle. This requires technologists who are open to hearing the feedback of educators and educators who are willing to use systems as designed.
Teachers need support, so they can become competent and confident users of the devices for their own learning and for their own productivity. In my experience, both of these must come before teachers are comfortable using computer for teaching and learning. Mentors and coaches, colleagues and instructors all play a role in providing this support as do handbooks, videos, in-person hand-holding, and large group instruction in all varieties of configurations, locations, and timescales. Educators need good examples. Finally, we need leaders who see the whole picture and understand the many factors that contribute to effective technology-rich schools and classrooms.