Can Computers Teach?

Something’s coming

I don’t know

What it is

But it is

Gonna be great!

-Something’s Coming, West Side Story

For more than 40 years, educational technology has been on the verge of transforming educational outcomes for the better. The song “Something’s Coming,” from West Side Story, captures the feeling. We don’t know how technology is going to solve our problems, but it’s gonna be great!

Technology Counts is an occasional section of Education Week. Usually, it publishes enthusiastic predictions about the wonders around the corner, in line with its many advertisements for technology products of all kinds. So it was a bit of a shock to see the most recent edition, dated April 24. An article entitled, “U.S. Teachers Not Seeing Tech Impact,” by Benjamin Herold, reported a nationally representative survey of 700 teachers. They reported huge purchases of digital devices, software, learning apps, and other technology in the past three years. That’s not news, if you’ve been in schools lately. But if you think technology is doing “a lot” to support classroom innovation, you’re out of step with most of the profession. Only 29% of teachers would agree with you, but 41% say “some,” 26% “a little,” and 4% “none.” Equally modest proportions say that technology has “changed their work as a teacher.” The Technology Counts articles describe most teachers as using technology to help them do what they have always done, rather than to innovate.

There are lots of useful things technology is used for, such as teaching students to use computers, and technology may make some tasks easier for teachers and students. But from their earliest beginnings, everyone hoped that computers would help students learn traditional subjects, such as reading and math. Do they?

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The answer is, not so much. The table below shows average effect sizes for technology programs in reading and math, using data from four recent rigorous reviews of research. Three of these have been posted at www.bestevidence.org. The fourth, on reading strategies for all students, will be posted in the next few weeks.

Mean Effect Sizes for Applications of Technology in Reading and Mathematics
Number of Studies Mean Effect Size
Elementary Reading 16 +0.09
Elementary Reading – Struggling Readers 6 +0.05
Secondary Reading 23 +0.08
Elementary Mathematics 14 +0.07
Study-Weighted Mean 59 +0.08

An effect size of +0.08, which is the average across the four reviews, is not zero. But it is not much. It is certainly not revolutionary. Also, the effects of technology are not improving over time.

As a point of comparison, average effect sizes for tutoring by teaching assistants have the following effect sizes:

Number of Studies Mean Effect Size
Elementary Reading – Struggling Readers 7 +0.34
Secondary Reading 2 +0.23
Elementary Mathematics 10 +0.27
Study-Weighted Mean 19 +0.29

Tutoring by teaching assistants is more than 3 ½ times as effective as technology. Yet the cost differences between tutoring and technology, especially for effective one-to-small group tutoring by teaching assistants, is not much.

Tutoring is not the only effective alternative to technology. Our reviews have identified many types of programs that are more effective than technology.

A valid argument for continuing with use of technology is that eventually, we are bound to come up with more effective technology strategies. It is certainly worthwhile to keep experimenting. But this argument has been made since the early 1970s, and technology is still not ready for prime time, as least as far as teaching reading and math are concerned. I still believe that technology’s day will come, when strategies to get the best from both teachers and technology will reliably be able to improve learning. Until then, let’s use programs and practices already proven to be effective, as we continue to work to improve the outcomes of technology.

 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.

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