What Makes Educational Technology Effective?

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The value of technology in education remains a topic of debate. Finding proof that technology improves learning outcomes for students remains elusive. While technology certainly enables learning modalities that are not possible in traditional teaching and learning environments, this fact alone does not make a strong case for more technology in the classroom. Good teachers, given access to high-quality content and curriculum, can create effective learning opportunities for students with or without technology.

The real value of technology comes from its ability to enable good teaching by reducing the cognitive load on the teacher while at the same time providing access to timely and usable data about what is happening in the learning process.

EdTech’s Parallels to Business Technology
Consider computer systems in the workplace. These systems make it easier and more efficient to complete business processes, and they provide data that improve decision making. Although computer systems can enable opportunities for process improvements, they do not replace quality management and leadership. Instead they replace tasks that previously required manual effort (taking phone calls so customers could purchase plane tickets, for instance) with an automated or computer-assisted process (purchasing plane tickets online). Management still has to have both vision and strategy and the ability to operationalize them effectively—technology cannot do this. Computer systems also provide management and employees with greater access to data about the business. This data allows the business to improve the way it provides a service or markets a product or provides customer support, at the same time enabling better decision making. The same concept applies to technology in the learning environment.

Two Interrelated Ways in Which Technology Enables Good Teaching

  1. Automating manual tasks to increase teacher capacity
    Technology can reduce the cognitive load on teachers by automating tasks that previously had to be done manually. This includes administrative tasks such as taking roll and communicating with parents, but also includes critical teaching practices like formative assessment and checks for understanding. While using technology to streamline assessment (especially high-stakes summative testing) is often disparaged as “the wrong reason” to deploy technology in the classroom, there is considerable value in freeing up teachers from having to manually score or evaluate mountains of student work each day. Technology easily reduces the amount of time that teachers have to spend on grading while providing proximal feedback to students that can be acted upon immediately.
  2. Enabling better access to data
    This feedback speaks to the second function that technology enables: access to data. When teachers are freed from having to manually evaluate and input assessment feedback for student work, and have data immediately available, the learning environment changes in profound ways. It becomes much easier to identify the need for intervention, re-teaching, or enrichment. Well-designed technology-enabled formative assessment can generate data that is both immediately actionable and valuable over time as evidence for content mastery. The reduction in teacher load—providing more time for instruction—combined with immediate access to data that can be used to further personalize instruction, creates a positive feedback loop around activities that are well proven to enhance learning outcomes.

For administrators looking to understand better how technology drives improvements in learning outcomes, it’s important to focus first on creating the conditions that are necessary for transformation. Technology on its own offers little value in the classroom. It is the effect of greater teacher capacity through reduced cognitive load combined with greater access to data about instruction that makes technology valuable in the learning environment.

Critical questions to guide your technology decision-making.
Will the selected program or platform:

  1. reduce the cognitive load on teachers?
  2. enable better access to instructional data?

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