Guest Column

Shedding More Heat Than Light

by Christopher Dede

For the past three years, the federal government, citing a lack of demonstrated effectiveness, has proposed eliminating appropriations for the Enhancing Education Through Technology program, which provides schools with funding for a wide range of education technology tools and services.

Federal policymakers have taken this position despite empirical evidence (including research funded by the U.S. Department of Education) that documents how appropriately used education technology programs improve student achievement. Now, as justification for their position, federal officials are touting a recent study, “Effectiveness of Reading and Mathematics Software Products” (, that claims educational software has no measurable impact on student achievement.

Imagine a study attempting to measure whether antibiotics have value. In this hypothetical research, primarily antibiotics developed before 1990 are included. The treatment group includes patients who used the antibiotics incorrectly, sporadically or for too short a period of time to produce an effect, while the non-treatment group is allowed to use other forms of antibiotics. Some of the tests used to determine effectiveness show no gains under any conditions, treatment or control. When — not surprisingly — no significant difference is shown between treatment and non-treatment groups, the study’s sponsors proclaim that all antibiotics are proven useless.

The recently released federal study of educational technology is analogous in its methodological flaws to this hypothetical example. Further, despite a $10 million budget, this research had a narrow scope, testing only 16 educational software titles and ignoring completely the many other services, applications and resources that comprise education technology. The study’s authors did state that “it was not designed to assess the effectiveness of educational technology across its entire spectrum of uses.” In fact, this research did not analyze contemporary approaches such as distance education courses and virtual schools, visualizations and simulations, and sophisticated assistive devices for students with disabilities.

Recent studies with better methodology document the effectiveness of various learning technologies:

• In Utah, Missouri and Maine, the eMINTS program provides schools with educational technology tools, curriculum and more than 200 hours of professional development to change how teachers teach and students learn. In classrooms in the same school (one with eMINTS and one without), the student achievement of students in the eMINTS classroom was more than 10 percent higher than the control classroom.

• In West Virginia, students receiving access to online foreign language courses performed at least as well as those in face-to-face versions of the classes, providing access to high quality foreign language teaching for those in rural areas who otherwise would receive no instruction on this topic.

• In a middle school study in Michigan, students participating in the Freedom to Learn program showed increases in 8th grade math achievement from 31 percent proficient in 2004 to 63 percent in 2005, and science achievement increased from 68 percent of students proficient in 2003 to 80 percent in 2004.

• In Texas, the Technology Immersion Pilot, implemented in middle schools, demonstrated that discipline referrals went down by more than 50 percent with the changes in teaching and learning. In one school, 6th grade standardized math scores increased by 5 percent, 7th grade math by 42 percent and 8th grade math by 24 percent.

• In Iowa, connecting teachers for sustainable professional development with curriculum interventions resulted in scientifically based research findings in which 8th grade math scores were 14 points higher, 4th grade math scores were 16 points higher and 4th grade reading scores were 13 points higher than control group students.

However, the limitations of its flawed study have not constrained the Department of Education’s zeal to claim this study justifies the department’s lack of support for educational technology. Such a situation comes as no surprise because this federal administration has shown a continuing pattern of selective use of data to support its ideological positions, ignoring evidence that provides a contrary interpretation. Nor are many scholars shocked that a federal agency trumpeting the importance of high-quality research is ignoring its own standards when a flawed study suits its political purposes.

Fitting Questions
A balanced appraisal would instead have examined comprehensive education technology programs that incorporate sound curricula, ample professional development and opportunities to extend learning outside of school. Its research questions could have illuminated whether educational technology can help failing students to succeed by engaging them with the communication, entertainment, personal expression and information-sharing power of the interactive media they use outside of school.

The fundamental issue is how much longer our society will waste funds and time studying whether educational technology works? More appropriate questions are: What types of educational technology are effective with particular kinds of students, content, classroom conditions, teacher backgrounds and instructional objectives? Under what conditions is selective, comprehensive usage of educational technology a better method of educational improvement than comparable investments in other forms of educational intervention, such as reducing class size or increasing teacher salaries?

How can educational technologies help students acquire the understandings and performances needed to compete in the 21st century global economy? These new capacities include fluency in “thriving on chaos” (making rapid decisions based on incomplete information to resolve novel situations); collaborating with a diverse team face to face and across distance through a variety of media; and creating, sharing and mastering knowledge by filtering a sea of quasi-accurate information. The work of many scholars in learning technologies documents that their sophisticated use can help raise our children to this level of accomplishment.

As a parent, taxpayer, teacher and scholar, I urge the federal administration and the Congress to: (1) increase the resources allocated for educational research and development related to learning technologies and (2) restore full funding for the Enhancing Education Through Technology program. Without these types of investments, the many education technology programs producing tangible academic gains will disappear, and our nation’s students will find themselves struggling to survive in a “flat” world in which many competitive nations are investing in rather than scrimping on sophisticated educational technologies.

Chris Dede is the Wirth professor in learning technologies, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 323 Longfellow Hall, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail: