Educational Technology is More Likely to Help Those Struggling Without It
July 24, 2012 3 Comments
Although I often play up the potential of educational technology, my stance admittedly doesn’t come from any unique knowledge or expertise that can’t be found on a website or in a research paper. Instead, my enthusiasm stems from the fact that technology tends to improve extremely quickly, particularly when it comes to algorithms that take inputs from a person and output something tailored specifically to that person (like a movie recommendation, or a math problem). Given this focus on the abstract future, it’s always good to see my suspicions confirmed in the concrete present.
This article examines the effectiveness of a computer-based instructional program (e-PELS) aimed at direct instruction in a collection of reading comprehension strategies. In e-PELS, students learn to highlight and outline expository passages based on various types of text structures (such as comparison or cause-and-effect) as well as to paraphrase, self-question, and summarize. The study involved 1041 fourth-grade elementary students from 21 schools distributed in three regions in central Chile. Participant teachers integrated this program into the Spanish language curriculum, instructing their students during thirty sessions of 90 min each during one school semester. Pretest-to-posttest gains in reading comprehension scores were significantly greater for students instructed with this program than for students who received traditional instruction (d = .5), with particularly strong effects for lower-achieving students (d = .7).
The fact that the effect was stronger for low-achievers is crucial, and I think it highlights something important that we overlook in our analysis of the American education system. When a student struggles in school, were are quick to attribute it to things like low intelligence, poor effort, or insurmountable troubles at home. But different students learn better under different circumstances. A student might have no interest in staring at the teacher or collaborating with the three unfriendly kids who sit nearby, but he might have no problem interacting with a computer screen for an hour. The implication, which is supported by the study, is that students who struggle with standard lessons are more likely to benefit from educational technology.
This also makes sense from a Bayesian perspective. If you believe at the the outset that a certain student is more likely to maximize their learning through a standard classroom lesson, when the student proceeds to struggle with a standard lesson it means it’s more likely that the student will maximize their learning through a non-standard classroom lesson (i.e. one involving technology). This is why it’s so important to build the necessary infrastructure, whether it be in school or out of school, for providing a near-universal option for computer-based instruction. It won’t merely allow another type of learning that may lead to marginal gains, it will allow a non-standard way of learning for those students who have already shown they are incapable of succeeding through the standard way of learning.
Ponce, H.R., Lopez, M.J., & Mayer, R.E. (2012). Instructional effectiveness of a computer-supported program for teaching reading comprehension strategies Computers and Education DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.05.013