I recently saw a 1954 video of B. F. Skinner showing off a classroom full of eager students using teaching machines. In it, Skinner gave all the usual reasons that teaching machines were soon going to be far superior to ordinary teaching: They were scientifically made to enable students to experience constant success in small steps. They were adapted to students’ needs, so fast students did not need to wait for their slower classmates, and the slower classmates could have the time to solidify their understanding, rather than being whisked from one half-learned topic to the next, never getting a chance to master anything and therefore sinking into greater and greater failure.
Here it is 65 years later and “teaching machines,” now called computer-assisted instruction, are ubiquitous. But are they effective? Computers are certainly effective at teaching students to use technology, but can they teach the core curriculum of elementary or secondary schools? In a series of reviews in the Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE; www.bestevidence.org), my colleagues and I have reviewed research on the impacts of technology-infused methods on reading, mathematics, and science, in elementary and secondary schools. Here is a quick summary of my findings:
|Mean Effect Sizes for Technology-Based Programs in Recent Reviews|
|Review||Topic||No. of Studies||Mean Effect Size|
|Inns et al., in preparation||Elementary Reading||23||+0.09|
|Inns et al., 2019||Struggling Readers||6||+0.06|
|Baye et al., 2018||Secondary Reading||23||-0.01|
|Pellegrini et al., 2019||Elementary Mathematics||14||+0.06|
If you prefer “months of learning,” these are all about one month, except for secondary reading, which is zero. A study-weighted average across these reviews is an effect size of +0.05. That’s not nothing, but it’s not much. Nothing at all like what Skinner and countless other theorists and advocates have been promising for the past 65 years. I think that even the most enthusiastic fans of technology use in education are beginning to recognize that while technology may be useful in improving achievement on traditional learning outcomes, it has not yet had a revolutionary impact on learning of reading or mathematics.
How can we boost the impact of technology in education?
Whatever you think the effects of technology-based education might be for typical school outcomes, no one could deny that it would be a good thing if that impact were larger than it is today. How could government, the educational technology industry, researchers in and out of ed tech, and practicing educators work together to make technology applications more effective than they are now?
In order to understand how to proceed, it is important to acknowledge a serious problem in the world of ed tech today. Educational technology is usually developed by commercial companies. Like all commercial companies, they must serve their market. Unfortunately, the market for ed tech products is not terribly interested in the evidence supporting technology-based programs. Instead, they tend to pay attention to sales reps or marketing, or they seek opinions from their friends and colleagues, rather than looking at evidence. Technology decision makers often value attractiveness, ease of use, low cost, and current trends or fads, over evidence (see Morrison, Ross & Cheung, 2019, for documentation of these choice strategies).
Technology providers are not uncaring people, and they want their products to truly improve outcomes for children. However, they know that if they put a lot of money into developing and researching an innovative approach to education that happens to use technology, and their method requires a lot of professional development to produce substantially positive effects, their programs might be considered too expensive, and less expensive products that ask less of teachers and other educators would dominate the sector. These problems resemble those faced by textbook publishers, who similarly may have great ideas to increase the effectiveness of their textbooks or to add components that require professional development. Textbook designers are prisoners of their markets just as technology developers are.
The solution, I would propose, requires interventions by government designed to nudge education markets toward use of evidence. Government (federal, state, and local) has a real interest in improving outcomes of education. So how could government facilitate the use of technology-based approaches that are known to enhance student achievement more than those that exist today?
How government could promote use of proven technology approaches
Government could lead the revolution in educational technology that market-driven technology developers cannot do on their own. It could do this by emphasizing two main strategies: providing funding to assist technology developers of all kinds (e.g., for-profit, non-profit, or universities), providing encouragement and incentives to motivate schools, districts, and states to use programs proven effective in rigorous research, and funding development, evaluation, and dissemination of proven technology-based programs.
Encouraging and incentivizing use of proven technology-based programs
The most important thing government must do to expand the use of proven technology-based approaches (as well as non-technology approaches) is to build a powerful hunger for them among educators, parents, and the public at large. Yes, I realize that this sounds backward; shouldn’t government sponsor development, research, and dissemination of proven programs first? Yes it should, and I’ll address this topic in a moment. Of course we need proven programs. No one will clamor for an empty box. But today, many proven programs already exist, and the bigger problem is getting them (and many others to come) enthusiastically adopted by schools. In fact, we must eventually get to the point where educational leaders value not only individual programs supported by research, but value research itself. That is, when they start looking for technology-based programs, their first step would be to find out what programs are proven to work, rather than selecting programs in the usual way and only then trying to find evidence to support the choice they have already made.
Government at any level could support such a process, but the most likely leader in this would be the federal government. It could provide incentives to schools that select and implement proven programs, and build off of this multifaceted outreach efforts to build hype around proven approaches and the idea that approaches should be proven.
A good example of what I have in mind was the Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) grants of the late 1990s. Schools that adopted whole-school reform models that met certain requirements could receive grants of up to $50,000 per year for three years. By the end of CSR, about 1000 schools got grants in a competitive process, but CSR programs were used in an estimated 6000 schools nationwide. In other words, the hype generated by the CSR grants process led many schools that never got a grant to find other resources to adopt these whole school programs. I should note that only a few of the adopted programs had evidence of effectiveness; in CSR, the core idea was whole-school reform, not evidence (though some had good evidence of effectiveness). But a process like CSR, with highly visible grants and active support from government, illustrates a process that built a powerful hunger for whole-school reform, which could work just as well, I think, if applied to building a powerful hunger for proven technology-based programs and other proven approaches.
“Wait a minute,” I can hear you saying. “Didn’t the ESSA evidence standards already do this?”
This was indeed the intention of ESSA, which established “strong,” “moderate,” and “promising” levels of evidence (as well as lower categories). ESSA has been a great first step in building interest in evidence. However, the only schools that could obtain additional funding for selecting proven programs were among the lowest-achieving schools in the country, so ordinary Title I schools, not to mention non-Title I schools, were not much affected. CSR gave extra points to high-poverty schools, but a much wider variety of schools could get into that game. There is a big different between creating interest in evidence, which ESSA has definitely done, and creating a powerful hunger for proven programs. ESSA was passed four years ago, and it is only now beginning to build knowledge and enthusiasm among schools.
Building many more proven technology-based programs
Clearly, we need many more proven technology-based programs. In our Evidence for ESSA website (www.evidenceforessa.org), we list 113 reading and mathematics programs that meet any of the three top ESSA standards. Only 28 of these (18 reading, 10 math) have a major technology component. This is a good start, but we need a lot more proven technology-based programs. To get them, government needs to continue its productive Institute for Education Sciences (IES) and Education Innovation Research (EIR) initiatives. For for-profit companies, Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) plays an important role in early development of technology solutions. However, the pace of development and research focused on practical programs for schools needs to accelerate, and to learn from its own successes and failures to increase the success rate of its investments.
Communicating “what works”
There remains an important need to provide school leaders with easy-to-interpret information on the evidence base for all existing programs schools might select. The What Works Clearinghouse and our Evidence for ESSA website do this most comprehensively, but these and other resources need help to keep up with the rapid expansion of evidence that has appeared in the past 10 years.
Technology-based education can still produce the outcomes Skinner promised in his 1954 video, the ones we have all been eagerly awaiting ever since. However, technology developers and researchers need more help from government to build an eager market not just for technology, but for proven achievement outcomes produced by technology.
Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (2019). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Reading Research Quarterly, 54 (2), 133-166.
Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2019). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (in preparation). A synthesis of quantitative research on elementary reading. Baltimore, MD: Center for Research and Reform in Education, Johns Hopkins University.
Morrison, J. R., Ross, S.M., & Cheung, A.C.K. (2019). From the market to the classroom: How ed-tech products are procured by school districts interacting with vendors. Educational Technology Research and Development, 67 (2), 389-421.
Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. (2019). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Available at www.bestevidence.com. Manuscript submitted for publication.
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.