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3 Lessons Learned from Education Technology Research

School district administrators and principals are inundated with salesmen peddling computers and software programs. Many claim that scientific research proves their wares work. Can they be believed? The researchers at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), an organization inside the economics department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scoured academic journals, the internet and evaluation databases and found only 113 studies on using technology in schools that were scientifically rigorous.

1. Computers and internet access alone don’t boost learning

Handing out laptops, providing high-speed internet access or buying most other kinds of hardware doesn’t on its own boost academic outcomes. The research shows that student achievement doesn’t rise when kids are using computers more, and it sometimes decreases. The J-PAL researchers did find that students who have computers use them more, and become more adept at clicking and typing. It remains an open question whether tech-savvy students will be better workers in the future, even if they’re not better students now.

2. Some math software shows promise

Exactly 29 software studies met J-PAL’s standards and 20 of those showed at least some measure of learning improvement (see table 2, pp. 30-37). The ones that tended to show positive results were mostly in one subject: math. Rising to the top were math programs such as SimCalc and ASSISTments. One popular program, DreamBox, showed small gains for students, as well. Only one piece of software that taught reading, Intelligent Tutoring for the Structure Strategy (ITSS), showed promise, suggesting that it is possible to create good educational software outside of math, but it’s a lot harder.

3. Cheap can be effective

Low-cost technological interventions, particularly text message reminders, were surprisingly effective with students and parents. “It’s not necessarily the most expensive or complicated technologies that make a difference,” J-PAL’s Quan told me. “Even text messages can have a measurable impact on academic outcomes. It’s not flashy. Sometimes you don’t need all that flash and gimmick.”

One example is a study in San Francisco where texts reminded mothers to read to their preschoolers. That boosted children’s literacy scores. “We see that texts work when it’s a helpful nudge for something that they want to do,” Quan’s colleague, Escueta, said. “You can’t change attitudes with texting.”