Throwing Money at Education Technology Isn’t the Answer [Opinion]

America is a lavish spender on education.

In 2013, education-related spending represented the largest expenditure from state governments, totaling $599.2 billion. The government is spending huge amounts on education technology as part of a nationwide push to prepare digital learners for the demands of the 21st century. Pick any state, and you will find at least one new policy containing the much-hyped phrase “digital literacy.”

State Programs

Many states are being proactive about ed tech. Oregon, for example, passed a bill in 2013 allowing students to bring their personal electronic devices to school. In Utah last year, the legislature passed a bill authorizing its education task force to make any policy decision needed to deliver a digital learning device for every student in the state. Florida, too, passed a $40 million bill in support of a plan to implement technology in every classroom over the next 50 years.

If today’s children are our future, then we are on pace for some expensive years. Spending this much may be acceptable if we knew exactly which outcomes we were looking for, or if we had confidence in the decisions we should make to get us there. But unfortunately, we do not. Before we make an effort to solve existing problems, we need to have a solid idea about what 21st-century learners, teachers, and classrooms should look like. Then we need to align those requirements with the ever-changing demands of the marketplace.

While we don’t have a lot of hard data, we do have a number of real-life stories about the misallocation (and in some cases outright waste) of resources, many of which reveal just how little we know for certain about the effective implementation of education technology interventions.

Where has the money gone?

In 2013, an internal audit conducted in the district of Fort Worth, Texas, identified around $2.7 million misspent in ed tech funding. In Hoboken, New Jersey, hundreds of laptops are sitting idle in a storage closet after the project that aimed to give every student at Hoboken Junior Senior High School a personal computer failed. Allison Powell, the VP for state and district services at the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) characterized the Hoboken laptop problem as a common occurrence: “Probably in the last few months I’ve had quite a few principals and superintendents call and say, ‘I bought these 500 iPads or 1,000 laptops because the district next to us just bought them,’ and they’re like, ‘Now what do we do?’”

Ed Tech Interventions

At this stage, we don’t know which kinds of spending are effective and which are wasteful. As with any investment, one has to ask whether benefits outweigh costs, but there is an alarming dearth of cost-related studies in education generally — and in education technology specifically.

Cost-effectiveness in educational interventions is still an emerging field, and conducting relevant studies is no easy task. Researchers lack reliable data regarding the implementation and effects of technology used in schools. This is a side effect of the fact that money is often haphazardly dumped into school districts rather than being carefully allocated.

In the absence of careful planning to address specific problems in education, money spent on tech is not the solution. In “Throwing Money at Schools,” Eric Hanushek explains that “there is no consistent relationship between school expenditure and student performance.” Hanushek wrote this in 1981. Fast-forward to 2015, and the relationship between education technology expenditures and student performance remains uncertain.

Merely handing out digital devices will neither lead to automatic learning gains at the individual level nor push our classrooms into the future. In fact, implementing technology without carefully considering student needs and existing curricula can even hinder learning outcomes.

When do ed tech interventions work?

In his study of the relationship between education technology and student achievement in mathematics, Harold Weglinsky found that using computers for challenging activities such as game-based simulations has a positive impact on math achievement scores, whereas using high-tech devices to drill students on basic skills has a negative impact on those scores.

The National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS) describes creativity, innovation, research and information fluency, critical thinking, and problem-solving as necessary skills that need to be addressed for effectively implementing technology in learning.

What are cost-effective uses of ed tech?

The existing body of research on the effectiveness of education technology suggests that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and that technology can only enhance learning when, in Marlene Scardamalia’s words, “computer and media literacy follow naturally from engagement in knowledge creation, with new technologies integral to knowledge work rather than treated as separate subject matter.”

The most cost-effective allocations in education technology occur when, as one group of researchers explain, technology enhances the already-established learning process by offering engagement and the opportunity to participate in groups. Other important factors in successful ed tech interventions include frequent interaction with peers, feedback from instructors, and connections to the real-world contexts.

How should we move forward?

Even if it sounds obvious, it’s worth repeating: Throwing money at computers is not the way to create the learners we want to see. The best we can do at this point is thoughtfully teach kids to use technology to access, analyze, and organize information — and to make them comfortable living and learning in an increasingly digital world.

To accomplish these tasks, we need to stop baseless spending and start considering outcomes-driven research. We need to consider student and teacher needs, and to create lesson plans that will blend technology into the already-digitized lives that the students lead.

For further reading about this topic, check out one education expert's ideas about how to use technology in the classroom effectively, or this infographic about education spending costs around the world.

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