Burden of proof.
In a perfect world, this logical obligation ensures that any entity making a claim must bear the responsibility of proving that claim.
This elevates established knowledge over alleged knowledge, and helps protect people from being overwhelmed by the avalanche of novel ideas and assertions coming at us each and every day.
In law, this means accusers must demonstrate grievance: defendants need never prove they did not commit a crime. In medicine, this means pharmaceuticals must demonstrate efficacy: clinicians need never prove drugs do not alleviate symptoms. And in education, this means tools must demonstrate positive impact: teachers need never prove tools do not improve learning.
Of course, we do not live in a perfect world.
Too often in law, public opinion shifts the burden of proof back to the defendant, leading to wrongful convictions. Too often in medicine, economic incentives shift the burden of proof back to the clinician, leading to avoidable complications. Too often in education, external hype shifts the burden of proof back to the teacher, leading to impaired learning.
And nowhere in education has this shift been more blatant than when it comes to the adoption of computers and internet technologies in the classroom.
In a recent international survey, 92% of students reported having access to a computer at school. In New Zealand, 100% of schools are equipped with high-speed internet, while in Australia the computer-to-student ratio has dropped below 1:1 (meaning there are more computers than students in school). In the United States, yearly expenditure on K-12 learning software exceeds $8 billion annually, while in the United Kingdom schools spend an average of £400,000 on computers every year.
With these numbers, you’d think the burden of proof had been met and that the evidence for the beneficial impact of computers on learning had been clearly established.
A 2015 OECD international review of the impact of computers in education reports:
“The results show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics, or science in countries that invested heavily in [computers] for education ... [S]tudents who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes … And perhaps the most disappointing finding is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.”
After reviewing 126 research studies exploring technology-based education interventions, the global research center J-PAL concluded:
“Initiatives that expand access to computers … do not improve K-12 grades and test scores. [Furthermore], online courses lower student academic achievement compared to in-person courses.”
And recently, Larry Cuban (Emeritus Professor of Education at Stanford University and educational technology researcher for over 30-years) pithily summed up the state-of-affairs:
“The introduction of computers into schools was supposed to improve academic achievement and alter how teachers taught. Neither has occurred.”
The evidence has overwhelmingly shown that computers do little to boost academic performance (although this has done little to quell the excitement over education technology … but that’s another topic for another time).
But why is this the case?
Well, in my newest 'From Theory to Practice' video, I examine an interesting analysis that can help us understand the biggest challenge facing the productive use of computers in the classroom.
The Common Sense Census: Media Use By Tweens and Teens (Common Sense Media Inc, 2015)
Here are some of the questions I tackle in this installment: