Rethinking Technology in Education

Antonine de Saint Exupéry, in his 1931 classic Night Flight, had a wonderful line about early airmail service in Patagonia, South America:

“When you are crossing the Andes and your engine falls out, well, there’s nothing to do but throw in your hand.”


I had reason to think about this quote recently, as I was attending a conference in Santiago, Chile, the presumed destination of the doomed pilot. The conference focused on evidence-based reform in education.

Three of the papers described large scale, randomized evaluations of technology applications in Latin America, funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Two of them documented disappointing outcomes of large-scale, traditional uses of technology. One described a totally different application.

One of the studies, reported by Santiago Cueto (Cristia et al., 2017), randomly assigned 318 high-poverty, mostly rural primary schools in Peru to receive sturdy, low-cost, practical computers, or to serve as a control group. Teachers were given great latitude in how to use the computers, but limited professional development in how to use them as pedagogical resources. Worse, the computers had software with limited alignment to the curriculum, and teachers were expected to overcome this limitation. Few did. Outcomes were essentially zero in reading and math.

In another study (Berlinski & Busso, 2017), the IDB funded a very well-designed study in 85 schools in Costa Rica. Schools were randomly assigned to receive one of five approaches. All used the same content on the same schedule to teach geometry to seventh graders. One group used traditional lectures and questions with no technology. The others used active learning, active learning plus interactive whiteboards, active learning plus a computer lab, or active learning plus one computer per student. “Active learning” emphasized discussions, projects, and practical exercises.

On a paper-and-pencil test covering the content studied by all classes, all four of the experimental groups scored significantly worse than the control group. The lowest performance was seen in the computer lab condition, and, worst of all, the one computer per child condition.

The third study, in Chile (Araya, Arias, Bottan, & Cristia, 2018), was funded by the IDB and the International Development Research Center of the Canadian government. It involved a much more innovative and unusual application of technology. Fourth grade classes within 24 schools were randomly assigned to experimental or control conditions. In the experimental group, classes in similar schools were assigned to serve as competitors to each other. Within the math classes, students studied with each other and individually for a bi-monthly “tournament,” in which students in each class were individually given questions to answer on the computers. Students were taught cheers and brought to fever pitch in their preparations. The participating classes were compared to the control classes, which studied the same content using ordinary methods. All classes, experimental and control, were studying the national curriculum on the same schedule, and all used computers, so all that differed was the tournaments and the cooperative studying to prepare for the tournaments.

The outcomes were frankly astonishing. The students in the experimental schools scored much higher on national tests than controls, with an effect size of +0.30.

The differences in the outcomes of these three approaches are clear. What might explain them, and what do they tell us about applications of technology in Latin America and anywhere?

In Peru, the computers were distributed as planned and generally functioned, but teachers receive little professional development. In fact, teachers were not given specific strategies for using the computers, but were expected to come up with their own uses for them.

The Costa Rica study did provide computer users with specific approaches to math and gave teachers much associated professional development. Yet the computers may have been seen as replacements for teachers, and the computers may just not have been as effective as teachers. Alternatively, despite extensive PD, all four of the experimental approaches were very new to the teachers and may have not been well implemented.

In contrast, in the Chilean study, tournaments and cooperative study were greatly facilitated by the computers, but the computers were not central to program effectiveness. The theory of action emphasized enhanced motivation to engage in cooperative study of math. The computers were only a tool to achieve this goal. The tournament strategy resembles a method from the 1970s called Teams-Games-Tournaments (TGT) (DeVries & Slavin, 1978). TGT was very effective, but was complicated for teachers to use, which is why it was not widely adopted. In Chile, computers helped solve the problems of complexity.

It is important to note that in the United States, technology solutions are also not producing major gains in student achievement. Reviews of research on elementary reading (ES=+0.05; Inns et al. 2018) and secondary reading (ES= -0.01; Baye et al., in press) have reported near-zero effects of technology-assisted effects of technology-assisted approaches. Outcomes in elementary math are only somewhat better, averaging an effect size of +0.09 (Pellegrini et al., 2018).

The findings of these rigorous studies of technology in the U.S. and Latin America lead to a conclusion that there is nothing magic about technology. Applications of technology can work if the underlying approach is sound. Perhaps it is best to consider which non-technology approaches are proven or likely to increase learning, and only then imagine how technology could make effective methods easier, less expensive, more motivating, or more instructionally effective. As an analogy, great audio technology can make a concert more pleasant or audible, but the whole experience still depends on great composition and great performances. Perhaps technology in education should be thought of in a similar enabling way, rather than as the core of innovation.

St. Exupéry’s Patagonian pilots crossing the Andes had no “Plan B” if their engines fell out. We do have many alternative ways to put technology to work or to use other methods, if the computer-assisted instruction strategies that have dominated technology since the 1970s keep showing such small or zero effects. The Chilean study and certain exceptions to the overall pattern of research findings in the U.S. suggest appealing “Plans B.”

The technology “engine” is not quite falling out of the education “airplane.” We need not throw in our hand. Instead, it is clear that we need to re-engineer both, to ask not what is the best way to use technology, but what is the best way to engage, excite, and instruct students, and then ask how technology can contribute.

Photo credit: Distributed by Agence France-Presse (NY Times online) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.


Araya, R., Arias, E., Bottan, N., & Cristia, J. (2018, August 23). Conecta Ideas: Matemáticas con motivatión social. Paper presented at the conference “Educate with Evidence,” Santiago, Chile.

Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (in press). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Reading Research Quarterly.

Berlinski, S., & Busso, M. (2017). Challenges in educational reform: An experiment on active learning in mathematics. Economics Letters, 156, 172-175.

Cristia, J., Ibarraran, P., Cueto, S., Santiago, A., & Severín, E. (2017). Technology and child development: Evidence from the One Laptop per Child program. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 9 (3), 295-320.

DeVries, D. L., & Slavin, R. E. (1978). Teams-Games-Tournament:  Review of ten classroom experiments. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 12, 28-38.

Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2018, March 3). Effective programs for struggling readers: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.

Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (2018, March 3). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.


2 thoughts on “Rethinking Technology in Education

  1. “Applications of technology can work if the underlying approach is sound. Perhaps it is best to consider which non-technology approaches are proven or likely to increase learning, and only then imagine how technology could make effective methods easier, less expensive, more motivating, or more instructionally effective.”
    –good point. There is a phase change somewhere between 2 and 5 students where you go from Tutoring to Teaching. Methods that work beautifully for a tutor with one or two students much be made “easier, less expensive, more motivating, or [even] more instructionally effective” if you want the to work with 5-500 children. Ed Tech can help do that but “only if the underlying approach is sound.

    One example is ST Math, great methodology, large effect size generally. But many schools still end up paying for it and their students barely play it. But with a different approach you can go from ≤20% average completion to ≥75% in a year, getting large gains while you’re at it:

    Your tournament story from Chile is a great example of creating Flow, it seems to me: clear goal-choice-feedback-next-step-meaningful work. Works with or without computers!


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