How Can We Measure Technology’s Impact on Education?

September 7, 2011


A recent news article (“In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores,” The New York Times, September 3, 2011 – See: raised questions as to whether adding technology to classrooms improves education.  More specifically, the article notes scant evidence indicating that technology laden classrooms lead to higher standardized test scores.  Given our new tablet computer program, that article has received a lot of attention.


Let’s first reflect upon the comments of two professors of education regarding the importance of student engagement.

According to Larry Cuban, Emeritus Professor of Education at Stanford University, “there is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement.” Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo “says that engagement is a ‘fluffy term’ that can slide past critical analysis.”

It is hard to know where to begin in assessing those statements.  Have these professors visited a classroom filled with engaged students?  Have they witnessed an “aha” moment in a classroom where an engaged student suddenly makes a connection that had hitherto been confusing?  Have they witnessed those moments in the absence of engagement?

I have not done any formal educational research in my career, but I have done a lot of teaching.  Twenty six years in the classroom has pretty well convinced me students learn best when they are working with teachers they know and trust.  Students retain material and make “learning connections” when they are engaged with that material.  One expectation we have of every teacher at Tower is that he or she will do their very best to engage their students as much of the time as possible.  Engagement is not a “fluffy term” at Tower; it is a central ambition!  It is simply common sense to aspire to this kind of engagement in students.

Now let’s look at this question of whether adding technology to classrooms improves education.

Assessing “tools”

Do you suppose that spiral notebooks were evaluated for their contribution to student standardized test scores?  How about no-lead pencils or ballpoint pens?  How about typewriters?  Education has historically taken advantage of new tools inspired by technological advances and integrated them into the program at schools.  To the best of my knowledge, that integration has been completed without assessing whether or not student test scores improve.

Standardized Testing

People must want to assess today’s technology in schools in part because of our society’s (relatively recent) attachment to standardized testing.  Our political system has taught us that standardized testing provides an accurate assessment of educational quality and progress.  Since standardized testing is so effective, goes the argument, then we should assess everything done or used at schools through the same prism.

At Tower, we do not share this faith in standardized testing.  Our students do take standardized tests – the ERB’s beginning in third grade and then the SSAT’s in seventh and eighth grade.  Given the fact that standardized testing will be a part of our students’ futures, it behooves us to help them become accustomed to this kind of assessment.  Also, we can glean some valuable information about individual students and our broader program from the results of the tests.  But we do not use tests to assess the quality of our teachers and we do not use tests to demonstrate the effectiveness of our program.  We do not believe that filling in bubbles on a standardized test can begin to measure – with any kind of holistic accuracy – students, teachers, or a school.

Instead of standardized testing, we ask our teachers to assess each of their students individually.  Certainly, we share our assessment as to how the student is performing relative to grade level standards.  But, and this is essential, we also assess how the student is performing relative to his or her own potential.  We share our observations as to what motivates the student, what challenges him, what inspires her.  We take the time to know each of our students well and we make sure that our teachers have the time to share that knowledge with each student’s parents.


Another reason that explains why people are eager to assess the effectiveness of today’s technology in schools is because it costs so much.  A laptop computer is a heck of a lot more expensive than a ballpoint pen!  Before adding computers to schools, before investing all of that money, it simply makes sense to ensure that these new tools will contribute to student learning.

Hold on, though.  Why now?  Schools have been investing in computer technology for more than thirty years!  (I remember the first “computer” installed in my elementary school when I was in seventh or eighth grade.  We were taught to program the device to do complete relatively simple mathematics functions.  The programs themselves were “written” by punching out dots of paper – think hanging chads in the Florida re-counts of 2000 – on index cards.  Those cards were then inserted into the “computer.”)  In my eleven years at Tower, we have constantly added technology – we had an iMac lab at one point, all teachers were given laptops, SMARTboards were introduced about five years ago.

The urgency that drives people to want to assess the effectiveness of computer technology in schools now is driven, I think, by the fact that more and more teachers are excited by the possibilities provided by the new technology.  That excitement (and the associated costs) comes at exactly the same time as the recession has negatively impacted the availability of funding for education.  Ah-ha!  We can reduce our taxes (or retrain tuition growth) if we just demonstrate that all of this technology is frivolous!

I am happy to report that Tower’s new tablet computer program does not carry with it an increase in annual spending on educational technology.  As we move into a tablet computer program, we have cut back dramatically on anticipated spending on SMARTboards, computer labs, and laptops.

Tablets are different

I should point out that the NYTimes article focuses on what we think of as the last generation of classroom technology: SMARTboards, laptops, etc.   Tower has never moved so aggressively in one particular direction vis-à-vis technology as we have moved to tablet computers.  Some schools equipped every one of their classrooms with SMARTboards; we have a total eight in the building.  Others distributed laptops to all of their students; we never went down that road.  We leapt aggressively into the world of technology in education only when we found a tool that we believe will be genuinely transformative.  For more on this argument, see our website and the associated links on the page discussing tablet computers in the classroom:

Class Size

An essential prerequisite to our tablet computer program is an ongoing commitment to small class size.  The article mentions the change in teaching – from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.  At Tower, our teachers are expected to guide a small number of students – 16 to 18 in a classroom and often as few as 10-12.  That is a completely different assignment than working as a guide for 25 students at one time.  As well, our small class size will allow teachers to ensure that students are using their tablets appropriately.  We have mapped out a wonderful new program in “digital citizenship” that we expect will teach our students those skills.

It is about the teacher & the student!

One of Tower’s strategic priorities is to employ the best of contemporary and traditional approaches to education.  Clearly, our move to tablet computers is a big step in the direction of the contemporary.  At the heart of our program, however, remains the most traditional approach to learning.  Children learn best when they are working with people they trust.  Thus, the relationships our teachers build with our students need to be ones based on trust.  Our teachers will continue to take the time to build those relationships and nurture them.  In the coming days, our teachers and students will have a new tool with which to work – iPads.  It is an exciting new tool – and an expensive one.  But, fundamentally, the iPad remains only a tool.  Instead of trying to measure the tool, let’s support, evaluate, and work to improve what our students and teachers do with it!

What do you think?

About Tower School, Marblehead MA 01945

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