With Computer Science Professor Sebastian Thrun’s recent launch of Udacity, an online teaching venture, there was a great deal of talk in tech and education circles about the potential for online learning and other technologies to radically transform education. Much of the discourse focused on the thousands of people Thrun reached with his online version of CS 221, an artificial intelligence class. Thrun’s fall 2011-12 iteration of the class received generally poor marks from Stanford students, scoring an average rating of 2.5 stars on CourseRank and similarly poor ratings on Axess. Certainly, for many of the online students, mediocre instruction was better than none at all. Yet, regardless of the medium of instruction, the teaching quality and course content remain essential, a fact often lost among advocates of educational technologies.
This anecdote is also representative of a broader reality in education policy today: much talk is devoted to the potential of technology in education, whereas how the technology-based alternatives compare to their more traditional counterparts is given relatively little attention. As a Sept. 2011 New York Times article on the subject concluded, “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.”
Advocates of infusing more technology into education often point to specific cases where technology in the classroom is correlated with stronger student achievement. But for every successful case, there is likely one where technology has had a negligible, if not adverse, effect on achievement; the Times article, for instance, highlights a school district in Arizona that spent $33 million in technologies such as laptops and interactive screens, only to see test scores drop relative to the state average.
Although case studies are prominent in the discussion of whether technology should be further integrated into education in the United States, there is also some research on the subject. A 2010 U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis found that “students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” However, the study cautioned readers on the application of its results: the sample size for K-12 learning environments was extremely small, and the study warned “online and face-to-face conditions generally differed on multiple dimensions, including the amount of time that learners spent on task.” The analysis found that the most effective results were obtained with a blend of online and face-to-face instruction.
Indeed, this Editorial Board envisions the blend model as the most desirable approach to education. Certainly, there are instances in which technology can be useful; online learning is better than no learning at all. But new technologies should neither entirely replace face-to-face learning nor divert significant attention away from the more traditional approach. Simply put, funding realities are such that every dollar that goes into new technologies takes away from teacher salaries, playgrounds or other sought-after expenditures. In addition, debates over whether to integrate new technologies in the classroom can shift critical attention away from perhaps more pressing issues such as, say, high dropout rates.
With these realities in mind, and the fact that research on the causal effects of technology in the classroom is still in its infancy, this Editorial Board believes that school administrators should proceed cautiously in adopting new technologies. This does not mean shirking technology altogether, but rather integrating the use of cheap and effective tools, such as online tutorials like those given through the Khan Academy. Administrators should also not expect technology in the classroom to be an instant fix. A school with costly Smart Boards in every class means nothing if the school’s teachers are ineffective in general or are poorly trained to utilize the technology.
While Thrun is heralding technology as the way forward, Biology Professor Robert Sapolsky, one of Stanford’s top-rated professors, is known to still use an overhead projector and transparencies in lecture. The success of Waldorf schools, which purposefully de-emphasize technology, demonstrates that teachers and content are far more important than technology in determining student achievement. At the same time, new technologies certainly offer unique advantages, especially in regards to distance learning. By increasing attention on teacher quality and curriculum content, while approaching novel technologies through a more pragmatic lens, this Board believes that education leaders can improve student achievement without putting a considerable strain on local budgets.