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What Will Move the Needle?

Only one technology has the potential to make an authentic impact on student achievement.

“3D TV improves test scores.” “Whiteboards for all. Great Britain is years ahead. When will we catch up?” “Computing in the cloud changes everything.” “The iPad changes everything.”

So, Ms. Superintendent, how do you choose among a bewildering set of choices? You have to wonder: What will move the needle; what will truly impact student understanding? Sadly, the data on the use of technology in the classroom are not impressive. Indeed, while schools have poured billions of dollars into the purchase of desktop computers, laptop computers, clickers (student response pads), and now electronic whiteboards, to a first-order approximation, the impact of all those technologies on student achievement has been essentially zero.

Time on Task Is Crucial

While we could try to blame the teachers, a favorite American pastime, the real answer is a lack of time on task. In a survey of American schools that we conducted several years ago, we found that almost half of the students in school used computers for no more than 15 minutes a week, on average. Ms. Superintendent, you may well be spending more time brushing your teeth in a week than your students are spending using computers. Frankly, even if there had been a 400 percent increase since our study in time spent on computers, that still wouldn’t be a substantial amount of time, relatively speaking.

By and large, computers are used as supplemental aids to curriculum and instruction. Supplements don’t move the needle; supplements are not going to make a substantial impact on student understanding. For example, while clickers are used periodically during a school day, they are clearly a supplement to the cornerstone textbook, lecture, paper-and pencil learning activities. Yes, clickers reduce the amount of time teachers spend grading—surely a good thing—but in principle, clickers, as supplemental tools, aren’t going to impact student understanding in any deep way.

Making Technology Essential

Our position is that for a technology to truly move the needle and impact student understanding, that technology must be an essential element in the instructional process. Essential means more than just integral. For a technology to be essential, the key is time on task. An essential technology must be used for a substantial period of time during the school day and pretty much every school day. Electronic whiteboards? They are indeed used for a substantial part of the day—by the teacher. Each student only interacts with the whiteboard for a small fraction of the day. So, sorry, electronic whiteboards are not a candidate for an essential technology that is going to move the needle and have a greater impact on student achievement.

Making the Right Choices

From 3D to clouds, from augmented reality to electronic whiteboards, the one and only technology that has the opportunity for being used as an essential element in teaching and learning is one-to-one computing— each and every student having his or her own personal computer, 24/7. Most importantly, that computer needs to be used for a substantial number of the learning activities in a lesson. For example, we can’t use the computer for just Googling or writing papers. That’s using one-to-one computing as a supplement, not as an essential tool. (We are not crazies; there still should be hands-on, physical tasks, such as field trips, experiments, and cutting out paper shapes.)

Ms. Superintendent, when trying to decide on what technology to buy, focus on the ultimate goal: moving the needle, that is, substantially impacting student achievement. Buy technology that is essential for teaching and learning, technology that the students will use for a substantial amount of time since it is woven throughout all elements of the lesson. With that as the criteria, one-to-one computing stands out from the pack very clearly.

Visit Cathleen and Elliot’s Tech Disruptions blog.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow Learning in Ann Arbor, Mich. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder of GoKnow. In the next installment of this guide, they will address the cost and pedagogical issues that enable essential one-to-one computing.