Is This the Key to Reading in America? [Commentary]

Is This the Key to Reading in America? [Commentary]

Is This the Key to Reading in America? [Commentary]

Most readers know my take on the matter, but I thought I would direct your attention to an article published in a recent edition of The Economist that examines the evidence on devices in classrooms. A note for techies: It involves some technical terminology. Do your homework!

The Economist article begins with a discussion of International Literacy and Numeracy Survey, which was conducted in 113 countries, and a set of 46 questions about reading comprehension, reading comprehension and reading behavior in schools. One way to look at the results is to compare reading numbers to reading numbers from a decade earlier.

As I pointed out in a previous commentary, a quick glance at these data shows that the US grew faster than most of the other countries in this survey: our reading test scores increased by more than twice the global average. What is surprising is the stark disparity between these figures and international educational surveys from the 1990s.

As I note in the essay, though, I went further, and followed-up by asking whether there is an actual cognitive benefit associated with using devices in the classroom.

My answer? Check the pile of scientific papers I received from the industry for rigorous studies supporting this hypothesis.

Oh, and note that some of the research used a single device – laptop (hence the “laptop” term in the title of the article).

In my previous essay, I argued that technological intervention and improvements in learning can have an educational benefit for the individual student, by enabling the individual to (1) read more proficiently, (2) understand more complex texts and/or (3) manage the learning process better.

With that said, I agree with the second observation of the article: “not everybody can benefit from such interventions.”

For example, one could argue that a group of students who work outside of the school system for several years (and therefore gain an overall advantage from this) might not necessarily be a group that can be helped with equipment. It is not hard to imagine the downside of students being punished with extra work or principal’s agenda by engaging in more stimulating activities outside of the school day. The psychologist Sam Sonenberg offers a perfect analogy in his work on distracted learning: “When distracted by e-mail, televisions, iPads, games, etc., students may spend less time on the actual assignments they need to do in order to graduate.”

Regarding the education benefit, this seems like a reasonable conclusion: The immediate problem is getting a group of students to engage in an activity that might otherwise be seen as more engaging than watching the news.

One area where the literature on technological interventions is incredibly thin is in the areas of flexible technology in the classroom (e.g., tablets and smartphones) or targeted technology in general (e.g., digital textbooks).

Let’s look at some reports on similar topics:

There are many excellent articles and studies about computers in the classroom in recent years. A growing body of evidence shows that computers can, indeed, help students. And they can also help students when the benefit is self-sustaining: They can also help kids who are not excelling in the classroom (and even help at-risk students).

There is a range of possible interventions that include classroom technology and a related approach called professional learning communities (PLCs).

There is a growing body of evidence that is promising on the educational benefits of computers (and tablets) in the classroom. There are important exceptions, however.

In a recent empirical study, authors concluded that tablets may not be beneficial unless they are implemented with a supporting teacher-training program.

I tend to agree with the finding, and draw a parallel with the early intervention work that I included in my last discussion of this topic. A lot of positive outcomes have been achieved because early interventions are followed by continuing professional development and ongoing professional development for teachers. Only then are computers working productively, and then sometimes not.

Bottom line? Perhaps an insufficient body of evidence exists. In addition, more generally, I cannot make a final judgment on the appropriateness of technology in the classroom. I support the beneficial outcomes observed so far, and at least some of the feedback I’ve received about the essay has been from readers who were intrigued by the concept of social media interventions in education. I remain interested, and will do more research in this area.

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