Earlier this week, I had a chance to revisit my thoughts on educational technology in the classroom.

“We need to get back to pen and paper,” said a colleague today. The statement was a reflection of some of the conversations going on at the State level. A part of me cringed a bit to hear that, since it suggests educational technology is something folks are backing away from as a cost-effective solution in schools.

Cost Effective?

Then, I realized, educational technology has seldom been the cost-effective solution. Instead, it’s been the solution most people reach for when they want to seem…

  • innovative (change that adds value)
  • engaging (for student learners)
  • exciting
  • fun and thrilling
  • like they are preparing children for a future of unknown possibilities

There aren’t a lot of innovations that work in schools. Maybe it’s time to rethink being innovative and make a beeline back to what works?

A February 2024 report about a research-and-development program inside the Department of Education …shows many interventions made no difference_

The failure rate was 74 percent. Under this program, called Investing in Innovation or i3, the federal government gave out $1.4 billion between 2010 and 2016 to education nonprofits and researchers for the purpose of developing and testing new ideas in the classroom.

only 26 percent of the innovations yielded any positive benefits for students and no negative harms

The truth is, technology is a flash in the pan innovation because it’s always changing. What’s innovative today isn’t tomorrow. It simply becomes part of the woodwork. Or it disappears. Consider Microsoft Zune vs the iPod. It doesn’t matter now, right? The Zune was a failure at launch, while the iPod was an amazing success. But both are now obsolete.

What Did You Learn?

Yet, we learned something from them. And, schools that rushed to bring iPods into schools so kids could create and listen to podcasts, well, someone said to me, “Podcasts aren’t that exciting anymore.”

Podcast Excitement

That’s true, even if there are 3.2 million podcasts as of February, 2024 with 504.9 million podcast listeners worldwide (25.3% of all internet users). Include inactive podcasts, the number jumps to 4.1 million source. Podcasting industry is expected to grow and is valued at $94.9 billion dollars by 2028.

But no one needs to know how to make them in the classroom anymore…right? That may be because podcasts aren’t essential to the work of schools.

When deploying any edtech solution, the question always boils down to some variant of, “How did it accelerate student learning?”

That’s hard to gauge for students in classrooms with edtech. The real issue isn’t the edtech, it’s what it should be accomplishing, the reason why it was brought in as an accelerator.

Technology Accelerator

Does technology accelerate student learning? The evidence is in. The answer is, “No.” It kills me to type that.

The grand experiment (edtech in classrooms) is over. The score is:

  • Paper and Pencil - 1
  • EdTech - 0

In short, pencil/paper is where the magic happens when it comes to long-term information retention. Edtech is not required, just nice to have for students. It’s essential for teachers, though. We have to stop thinking of schools as Technical Training vehicles (“kids need to know how to use the tech of the future”) and focus on nuts and bolts of learning (e.g. Visible Learning Meta X strategies that accelerate actually learning).

Scientific Consensus, anyone?

Wait, you don’t agree? Mind you, I’m not saying technology is worthless. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be available in schools. But now that we know it’s place, a supplemental tool that changes everything except how students learn and retain information over the long-term, it’s time to rethink how money is spent.

For Younger Students

In the final analysis, it shouldn’t be used in younger grades, and use in middle/high school is problematic. You could ban it altogether and students scores would go up.

Consider the following:

…the scientific consensus suggests that educational technology can have a positive impact on student achievement, but its effectiveness is not guaranteed and depends on a range of factors including the quality of implementation, the educational context, and the support provided to teachers and students.

For me, this was a show-stopper:

High levels of technology use in the classroom tend to correlate with lower student performance.

One recent study found that over a third of all technology purchases made by middle schools simply weren’t used. And only 5 percent of purchases met their purchaser’s usage goals. (source)

This one:

Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidizing access to high-tech devices and services…students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics. Source: OECD Publishing - Students, Computers and Learning Making the Connection

All that said, there’s a lot of money and effort put into addressing the range of factors that impact POSITIVE use of edtech in classrooms.

Rush to Save

A lot of folks are asking, “Why bother when less expensive methods get the job done?” And given how deeply embedded tech is people’s lives, it’s natural to ask,

“Why put this (use tech to accelerate learning) when its only minimally effective?

Use tech (including AI) for productivity, reference (online data gathering, “researching”), collaboration, but not to improve student achievement and/or scores.

For that you need teaching using evidence-based strategies.”

A Changing Perspective

My perspective has changed, mostly as a result of increased awareness of high-effect size instructional strategies. Many of those prove effective when used (many educators aren’t aware of their usage, but that’s my experience and anecdotal) and don’t require technology at all except as an supplemental resource (e.g. digital texts, videos, images available on search).

Now before you get after me about John Hattie’s work on high-effect size instructional strategies, let’s keep in mind that Mike Bell’s work in The Fundamentals of Teaching as well as many other folks, like What Works Clearinghouse, Robert Marzano, and other spaces offer solid evidence on what works in schools. And, patterns emerge in the data as to what works, and what is less effective.

One insight? Edtech seldom (if at all) ranks high on those lists.

Now that insight was an opinion back in the day, but now, we have the meats, er, evidence. Yes, the evidence. And anyone with an AI can put it together.

Today, I bet every superintendent out there is asking AI,

“What can I cut from my budget with minimal impact to student achievement?”

With under-utilization of edtech in schools, it’s a prime target for downsizing, especially when usage detracts from student achievement and there is evidence technology doesn’t get used as much.

One supposes that professional learning on high-effect sized instructional strategies AND educational technology would be a priority. Most people only get the message on training about instructional strategies that work, and forget about the technology. But that’s like planning a formal dinner but using those wimpy paper plates with forks that break to serve it.

Alternative, Low-Cost Methods

You can implement alternative methods to edtech (e.g. PBL, cooperative learning, formative assessment, hands-on experiments, experiential learning) without heavy-duty technology investment. Having easy access to edtech makes a difference…but not directly to student achievement.

For fun, I asked AI to come up with this chart comparing traditional paper-and-pencil methods with the educational technology strategies and assign an estimated cost.

It was a lot of fun.

Comparing Traditional with EdTech Approaches

Approaches Description Impact on Student Achievement Estimated Cost
Traditional Paper-and-Pencil Conventional methods involving textbooks, worksheets, and written exams. Effective for certain learning styles and subjects, but may not engage all learners equally. Low to moderate. Costs include textbooks, printing, and paper supplies.
Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) Uses computers to deliver instructional material, assess learning, and provide feedback. Remarkable positive effect in subjects like Physics and moderate impacts in postsecondary statistics education. Moderate to high. Costs include software licenses, hardware, and maintenance.
Digital Games and Simulations Learning through interactive games and simulations, especially in STEM subjects. Positively affects learning achievement, leading to improved performance in mathematics and science. Moderate to high. Development or purchase of educational games and simulations, plus necessary hardware.
Educational Software and Platforms Platforms that offer personalized learning experiences. Associated with better academic achievement, improved school culture, and greater student engagement. Moderate to high. Subscription fees for platforms, plus training for educators.
Mobile Learning Devices Use of smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices for learning. Shows positive impacts on learning performance, allowing for continuous learning opportunities. Moderate to high. Cost of devices, data plans, and digital resources.
Interactive Whiteboards and Classroom Clickers Tools to enhance engagement and participation in the learning process. Can increase student engagement and participation, though effectiveness varies. High. Initial investment in hardware and software, plus potential ongoing costs for updates.
Video Lectures and Podcasts Delivery of content through video and audio formats. Enhances student engagement and success by providing more accessible content formats. Low to moderate. Costs for creating or subscribing to content, plus necessary playback devices.
Online Collaboration Tools Facilitates teamwork and communication through digital platforms. Enhances student engagement by promoting teamwork and communication skills. Low to moderate. Subscription fees for platforms, though many have free versions.
Adaptive Learning Technologies Adjusts learning content and pace to individual needs. Can lead to improved academic achievement by providing personalized learning experiences. Moderate to high. Subscription fees for adaptive learning platforms and systems.
E-books and Digital Libraries Digital access to books and learning resources. Provides a wealth of resources for learning, enabling exploration of information in innovative ways. Low to moderate. Subscription or purchase costs for e-books and access to digital libraries.

Is moderate to high cost of edtech worth the investment when there’s none to little professional development to go with it for teachers and students? The answer is obvious today. What would you keep? What would you stop doing?