In-Class Technology

Too Much of a Good Thing?

While teachers, parents, and politicians push for more technology in school, a new study by the Reboot Foundation offers a word of caution. As with much in life, the study suggests, moderation is king.

Most parents—66 percent according to a 2018 report by the global nonprofit, Project Tomorrow—say that regularly using digital tools, content, and resources in classrooms helps children develop essential skills.

Teachers seem to agree. A 2018 ed-tech teacher survey, Teaching with Technology, found that 81 percent of teachers surveyed favored the idea of schools providing devices to students. Teachers’ favorite technologies included laptops (37 percent), Chromebooks (14 percent), and mobile phones (14 percent).

Around the world, in-class technology use reflects these perceptions. The Cambridge International Global Education Census surveyed almost 20,000 teachers and students and found that 48 percent of students worldwide use a desktop computer in class, 42 percent use a smartphone, 33 percent use smartboards, and 20 percent use a tablet. The survey also found that more students in the U.S. use smartboards (59 percent) and smartphones (74 percent) in class than students in any other surveyed country.

“At school, I regularly use the desktop computers in the IT suite,” one 17-year-old U.S. student said on the survey. “There are whiteboards in lessons and I also use my smartphone and a pen and paper during class. I don’t have homework to complete every day, but when I do, I use a laptop or a desktop computer, my smartphone and a pen and paper.”

Those rates of technology use are likely to continue climbing as more states and localities integrate technology into the classroom. In New York for example, voters approved a $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act to fund new school computer servers, interactive whiteboards, tablets, desktop and laptop computers, high-speed internet, and wireless connectivity. Alabama too has approved record levels of education funding, including $199 million for Advancement and Technology. And in San Jose, California, schools are undertaking millions of dollars in debt to procure Chromebooks for students.

But a new study by the Reboot Foundation suggests that we may be wrong about the value of technology use, especially in the classroom. Reboot, a Paris-based research organization devoted to elevating critical thinking, evaluated the performance of students from 90 countries on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The study weighed student performance against how often students reported using technology in class.

The foundation found that internationally, students perform best with low or moderate levels of computer usage per day. In France for example, the study found that students who used the internet moderately, tended to perform best. Those who used the internet for a few minutes to a half-hour in school per day, for example, consistently scored higher on the PISA math assessment than those who spent more time online and those who spent no time online. On PISA’s reading test, French students who used the internet in class every day for more than six hours scored 140 points lower than those who reported no internet time.

In the United States, the study found that, generally, students who reported using a computer in some classes tended to outscore students who never used computers in class. Grade-specific results, however, were less positive. For reading, higher rates of in-class computer usage translated to worse scores on NAEP reading assessments. For mathematics, students who reported using a computer to practice math “once or twice a year” performed five points higher than students who used a computer or digital device “every day or almost every day.” The same trend proved true even in classes where teachers reported receiving appropriate training.

The study also suggests that technology in the classroom may prove more negative than positive for young students in particular. Fourth graders who reported never using tablets in their classes scored one point higher than those who reported using tablets in “some classes” and 14 points higher than those who used tablets in “all or almost all” classes.

“When teachers use computers or tablets to teach, we don’t find that there’s a gain in knowledge or an actual impact on standardized test scores,” Helen Lee Boygues, co-founder and President of Reboot told The Daily News. “And what our analysis shows is that in younger ages, in third and fourth grade, in all subject matters, there was no benefit to using technology to learn. And in reading, we found a negative benefit.”

As lawmakers, educators, and parents continue to make tough calls about where to invest precious education resources, Reboot’s findings suggest that they should be careful not to depend on their perceptions about the value of technology or pin their hopes or dollars on its use in class.

Kristiana Bolzman is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Young Voices Contributor. She studied Politics and Journalism at Hillsdale College, graduated from The Heritage Foundation's Young Leaders program, was accepted as a Generation Liberty Fellow at the State Policy Network, and has served at Fox News and on Capitol Hill. Her research and writing focuses on education reform and the preservation of civil liberties.
Catalyst articles by Kristiana Bolzman