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A Clear-Eyed Look at the Promise of Digital Tools in Learning

This post first appeared in Education Week's Learning Deeply blog on December 12, 2014.

There's something about technology that tends to bring out the hyperbole in otherwise reasonable people. Strike up a casual conversation about the latest advance in virtual reality, say, or robotics, or artificial intelligence, and the next thing you know you'll be tossing around terms like transformationalrevolutionary, and game-changing or, if you prefer your glass half empty, phases like "more dangerous than nuclear weapons."

So when my colleagues and I at Jobs for the Future's Students at the Center initiative set out to commission a paper on digital technology's potential to support deeper learning, we decided that the only way to stand out from the crowd would be to do something really crazy and invite an expert to produce a measured, well-informed report that describes what's actually known about the topic. Naturally, we turned to Chris Dede, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, widely regarded as one of the most reliable voices of reason in the field.

As luck would have it, Dede—along with Barry Fishman, from the University of Michigan—recently completed an exhaustive survey of the empirical knowledge base on digital learning (to be published in the AERA's 5thHandbook of Research on Teaching.  Thus, if anybody can be truly up-to-date in a world that measures change in nano-seconds, it is Dede.

The paper hardly comes across as digital boosterism. In fact, when it comes to the recent history of educational computing, Dede's verdict is blunt: The results have been "disappointing." To date, technology has been used mainly to automate conventional models of instruction, giving teachers fancy new ways to lecture at students, deliver information to them, quiz them on basic facts, and so on. Rather than helping teachers to do better things in the classroom, most digital devices and software have been designed to help them do the same old, ineffective things more efficiently.

But the evidence gives us plenty of reason to be optimistic, too, says Dede. When developers have been careful to ground their work in principles of effective instruction—giving teachers tools they can use to engage students in collecting and analyzing data, researching and debating interesting topics, solving complex problems, collaborating on experiments, testing hypotheses, assessing their own progress, and more—technology-based instruction has shown significant, positive effects on student learning. (See an earlier paper in the Students at the Center series for more research on using digital tools to support powerful learning practices).

Dede's paper doesn't offer a top-ten list of educational software developers; it doesn't give the nod to any particular brand of electronic whiteboard; and it certainly doesn't give school officials reason to think that if they purchase expensive devices, load them with digital content, and hand them out to students, this will somehow lead to greater achievement.

Actually, Dede doesn't come across as an enthusiast for digital technology so much as an enthusiast for good teaching. His cautiously optimistic assessment: if we work patiently to design, test out, refine, and distribute tools that that can make good teaching easier, then we should be able to support effective instruction—and deeper learning—at scale. 

Enjoyed this post? Don't miss our related publication: The Role of Digital Technologies in Deeper Learning, and other topics.