Investing in Technology:
The Payoff in Student Learning
ERIC Identifier: ED479843
Publication Date: 2003-09-00
Author: Barnett, Harvey
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology Syracuse NY.
Imagine this moment in your life as a school administrator. A skeptical school board
member, prospective parent, or local public official visits your school and, after a tour in
which you point out the wonderful new computers, scanners, digital cameras, and other
technology which you've acquired over the past few years, says to you, "You've clearly
made a tremendous investment in technology. How do you know this investment will
pay off in terms of student learning?"
This ERIC Digest reviews some significant research on technology use in the classroom
that attempts to answer this question and indicates the conditions under which
technology is most likely to have a positive impact on student learning.
RESEARCH ON THE USE OF TECHNOLOGY IN THE CLASSROOM
Educational researchers have studied two major ways in which students use computers
in schools. The first is learning from computers. Here the computer acts as tutor. The
computer presents information to the student and the student responds. Simple drill and
practice programs and more comprehensive Integrated Learning Systems, such as
Jostens and Computer Curriculum Corporation, are examples of this category.
Researchers have also focused on how students learn with computers. Here, students
use computers and other technologies to write, analyze data, develop presentations,
and do research.
LEARNING FROM COMPUTERS: COMPUTERS AS TUTORS
Let us look at two longitudinal studies on how students learn from computers.
The studies in West Virginia and Florida show that students can gain an advantage
when technology is deployed to bolster and complement the traditional work of teachers
and that the effects of learning from computers are lasting. These results are obtained
where there is on-going teacher training and where computers are available for use in
- West Virginia Basic Skills study (Mann, Shakeshaft, Becker & Kottkamp, 1999;
West Virginia Study Results, 1999).
West Virginia began implementing computer technology one grade at a time, starting
with first grade. Each year the state added a grade until reaching Grade 6. Each year
included extensive teacher training. Schools had the option of placing computers in
classrooms or in a lab. Schools were also required to select from suites of software that
matched West Virginia's content standards. Researchers followed students from first
grade to sixth grade, and beyond. The researchers found the following when students
used computers as tutors to receive information:
- On statewide tests, students who learned from computers showed consistently
higher gains. The researchers were able to determine that 11% of the gain was due to
the use of technology.
- Students did better when the computers were in the classroom rather than a lab.
- The advantages of computer use extended through high school, where students
learning from computers had better grades, took more advanced placement courses,
and were more likely to graduate than those who did not use computers.
- Project CHILD from Florida (Butzin, 2000)
Project CHILD placed computers in classrooms and, like the West Virginia project, provided extensive
teacher training and had students use software that was aligned with the state's content
standards. The Project CHILD researchers found that when students used computers
as tutors to receive information
- Computers contributed to higher scores for students in both low- and high-achieving
- Students had better discipline
- The boost that technology gave students was sustained over time, which was also
the case in the study of computer use in West Virginia.
LEARNING WITH COMPUTERS: COMPUTERS AS TOOLS
What does the research say about the effects of technology when it is used as a tool
rather than a tutor? How is learning with computers different from learning from
computers? The application of technology here is even more powerful, as the following
In a study sponsored by Apple Computer that spanned ten years, researchers, who
were from institutions of higher education and not Apple employees, analyzed Apple's
Classrooms of Tomorrow project, known to many by the acronym ACOT (Fisher, Dwyer
& Yocam, 1996; Sandholtz, Ringstaff & Dwyer, 1997). In ACOT classrooms, technology
was pervasive and available anytime a student needed to write, analyze data, develop
presentations, and do research. Teachers received intensive training and were given
time to examine their beliefs about instruction and learning. Researchers arrived at four
The ACOT findings are reinforced by a recent study of the Challenge 2000 Multimedia
Project conducted by SRI International (Penuel, Golan, Means & Korbak, 2000). In the
Multimedia Project, teams of K-12 teachers were trained to develop curriculum-based
multimedia projects with students. The teachers received intensive on-site support.
- Students routinely used higher-order thinking skills far beyond what was expected
for their grade level.
- Students demonstrated enhanced ability to collaborate with peers to develop
projects and reports.
- Students demonstrated increased initiative. They maintained time on task for longer
periods and often continued their work during recess, before school, and after school.
- The use of technology coupled with teachers having time for reflection led, over a
period of three to five years, to substantial changes in teacher beliefs about teaching
In the final evaluation of the 5-year long project, the researchers asked students in
project and non-project classrooms to complete an authentic assessment task. All
students were given a set of resources and data about homeless students and the
problems such students face in attending school. In small groups, students had to study
the information, formulate a set of recommendations for their school leaders on how
their own school might better serve the needs of homeless students, and create a
prototype of a brochure for advocating their position. The brochures were evaluated
using a rubric especially developed by SRI to help measure the impact of the use of
What did SRI's researchers find? Students in Multimedia Project classrooms
consistently out-scored their peers in the non-project classrooms in the areas of
understanding content, adapting their message to their intended audience, and applying
principles of design in the format and layout of their brochures.
Together, these studies point out how powerful technology can be when it is employed
as a tool for research, data analysis, and communication. Does that mean we abandon
the use of computers for simply acquiring specific facts and rudimentary skills? Of
course not. We have to remember that it is never a question of either learning with
computers or learning from them, but rather a balance between instruction and
construction based on the objectives of the lesson.
IMPACT ON LEARNING
Whether students learn from computers or with computers, the research cited above
indicates the following conditions under which computer technology is most likely to
have a positive impact on learning.
- Access: Computers will enhance learning only when students have easy access to them
in their classroom. Using computers once or twice a week will have negligible impact on
- Integration: Computers make their greatest impact on student learning when their use is
tightly linked to content standards and integrated into ongoing classroom work, rather
than taught as a separate or stand-alone subject.
- Broad-based reform: The computer is just one tool in a broad-based reform effort to
improve student learning. Just as computer use needs to be integrated within the
on-going instructional program, so technology planning needs to occur within the
context of the entire school or district strategic planning process.
- The long term: Like any other reform effort, computer use is not a one-time event. It is
not simply a matter of "buy them, install them and sit back to enjoy the difference they
make." It will require a long-term effort on the district's part to fund, support and assess
- Professional development: Having a swimming pool does little good if no one can swim,
and learning to swim well is not done in a couple of after-school workshops. To
empower teachers and students to learn with computers, districts will need to plan for
ongoing staff development that takes place in large groups, one-on-one, and online.
- Teaching style: For technology to have the impact research says it can, many teachers
will have to learn more than new technology skills; they will need learn new instructional
strategies and new roles. Districts will need to ensure that teachers have the opportunity
and support to transform their approach to teaching.
- Balance: Like any reform effort, one does not throw out the baby with the bath water.
There is always a balance. Yes, teachers need to teach facts; but they also must help
students acquire and use the intellectual and workplace skills demanded by the 21st
- Vision: As the research on effective principals demonstrates again and again,
leadership is the single most important factor affecting the successful integration of
technology in education. Principals and superintendents must have a vision of how
technology will support student learning and teacher productivity.
The research reviewed in this ERIC Digest demonstrates that technology can make a
difference in how and what students learn. Technology is one piece of the puzzle that
can support educational change, but technology will have little impact without
accompanying reform at the classroom, school, and district level.
Harvey Barnett is a Senior Research Associate in the Technology in Education program
at WestEd. He has served as a consultant to state departments of education for
technology planning and policy issues. He has also served as principal of Stevens
Creek School in Cupertino, California, one of the first Apple Classroom of Tomorrow
(ACOT) project schools in partnership with Apple Computer Inc., and as Director of
Technology for the Cupertino School District.
This publication is funded in part with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of
Education under contract number ED-99-CO-0005. The content of this publication does
not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education nor
does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply
endorsement by the U.S. government. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
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