Technology a Useful Tool in Education, But Only if Done Well

When used properly, technology in the classroom can be a a useful tool for improving academic outcomes for children of all grades. One of the most promising approaches to digitally-aided instruction is the concept of blended learning, which allows for splitting classtime between traditional teaching and self-guided learning using computers or tablets.

Well-implemented blended learning curricula are credited with a rise in achievement for students enrolled in charter schools operated by Rocketship Education. Rocketship schools structure their day to allow students to spend 25% of the time in the computer lab taking advantage of online lessons and exercises geared towards their individual grade and achievement level. This kind of customized learning is what helped Daniella Martinez graduate fifth grade with honors this year, and read at the 6th grade level, after being classified as a special needs child who had severe literacy problems. Daniella’s mother Karen said that once she transferred her daughter to one of the five Rocketship schools in the San Jose area, Daniella thrived.

And she isn’t unique. According to standardized test results, Rocketship schools topped the list of elementary schools aimed at low-income students in the state of California.

But it’s not the technology alone that bolsters learning, says Michael B. Horn, executive director of the education practice at Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank that focuses on education and innovation. Districts that see the most advantages use technology for active, not passive learning, giving students control over the pace of their learning. He says that’s proven to be an “exciting way to bolster student learning as it allows us to customize an education for each child according to his or her distinct learning needs.” Horn says blended learning is far more cost effective, since schools can use it to offer advanced courses online that otherwise would be unavailable, especially in core subjects like math and reading.

Mary Beth Hertz, who is the technology integration specialist for Philadelphia schools, said that intelligent use of technology allows for more efficient use of class time. She is a champion of a competing digital-learning paradigm, the “flipped classroom,” that has students reviewing the material they’ll be covering in class at home, and then coming to school ready to ask questions about what they’ve watched. Instead of covering the subject of the lesson in school, the teacher can spend the period filling in students’ gaps in understanding.

The programs also allow teachers to put content, assignments and guided questions at the beginning of a unit and students can move through the material at their own pace, she says. This way, the students learn in the way that works best for them, whether it’s a competitive game, a collaborative activity or a visual approach, says Tom Vander Ark, a partner in Learn Capitol, an education venture fund, and author of Getting Smart, How Digital Learning is Changing the World.