National organizations have endorsed, and federal and state policies have encouraged, the incorporation of technology into education. In the context of elementary/secondary education, technology is commonly understood to include a range of computer applications such as word processing, presentation software, spreadsheets, databases, Internet search capability, distance education, virtual schools, interactions with simulations and models, and collaboration over local and global networks (Dynarski et al. 2007). The Enhancing Education Through Technology Act of 2001, a component of the No Child Left Behind Act, emphasized developing technology infrastructure within schools, integrating technology into curriculums, and training teachers in its use. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education released a National Education Technology Plan, touting the transformative potential of technology in teaching and learning and outlining steps to incorporate technology into schools (Office of Educational Technology 2004). More recently, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included $650 million for additional grants through the Ed-Tech state program, which supports various state and local projects related to the use of technology in education.
The applications of technology in education are vast, but this section focuses specifically on instructional technology— that is, technology products and tools designed to assist teaching and learning in elementary and secondary schools. (Technology use can be a competency itself, as well as a tool toward other knowledge acquisition. For a discussion of technology literacy among students and teachers, see sidebar "Student and Teacher Technology Literacy.") It begins by discussing recent research on the effectiveness of technology as an instructional tool. In the context of this research, it then presents data on eighth graders' use of instructional technology in school, updates national estimates of access to computers and the Internet, and examines the prevalence of distance education, an instructional application of technology that can potentially increase students' access to subject matter and qualified instructors.
The Internet offers students access to more, and more recent, information than individual schools can provide, but it is only one potential application of instructional technology to enhance educational outcomes. Computer applications, either alone or in concert with traditional instruction, may improve achievement by tailoring lessons and skill practice to individual students' needs or by offering students additional opportunities to interact with information. Additionally, computerized assessment may provide more precise and efficient feedback on student learning, allowing teachers to adapt instruction to student needs (Tucker 2009).
Research on whether and how these tools improve student achievement, however, continues to yield mixed results. Some computer applications appear to enhance students' achievement on standardized tests, while others do not (NSB 2006).
An NCLB study of the effectiveness of instructional technology failed to find any statistically significant effects of several specific instructional technologies on student achievement (Dynarski et al. 2007). Researchers tested three grade 6 math products in 28 schools and three algebra products in 23 schools. Teachers in selected schools volunteered to participate and were randomly assigned to use or not use the educational software; researchers compared students' test results and other outcomes. No effects on sixth grade mathematics or algebra achievement were observed. During the second year of the evaluation, two sixth grade math products and two algebra products were tested, and again researchers observed no significant effects on student achievement (Campuzano et al. 2009). No science products were tested.
In contrast, a meta-analysis that used statistical procedures to aggregate the results of 42 studies published in peer-reviewed journals found that incorporating instructional technology into teaching and learning had a small, positive effect on achievement when compared with instruction without technology (Waxman, Lin, and Michko 2003). However, the studies included in the meta-analysis were conducted prior to 2003, some based on projects from the early 1990s. Given the fast pace of change in instructional technology, the results may be less relevant than more recent studies. Small-scale recent studies of specific instructional technology applications suggest that educational computer programs and videogames may promote student engagement and learning when they make use of proven pedagogical techniques (Steinkuehler and Duncan 2008; Ketelhut2007; Nelson 2007; Barab et al. 2007; Neulight et al. 2007). In its final report, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2008) recommended that several types of high-quality computer-assisted instruction be considered potentially useful educational tools and that further research be conducted.
According to their teachers, eighth grade students use
computers in science classes substantially more often than in
their mathematics classes. More than 70% of students used
computers in science at least once per month, compared with
less than 40% in mathematics, according to the 2007 followup
of the ECLS-K cohort (appendix table
Until research yields some consensus on the optimal uses of computer-based technology for various subjects, grade levels, and types of students, its contributions to patterns of achievement will remain unclear.
Access to the Internet is nearly universal among public
elementary and secondary schools in the United States. In
2005, 100% of public schools had Internet access, and 97%
of these schools used broadband connections to access the
Internet (Wells and Lewis 2006). Access was nearly universal
not only for schools, but also for classrooms and students:
94% of classrooms in public schools had computers
with Internet access, and the ratio of students to instructional
computers was 4:1.
Moreover, change has been swift: 35%
of schools and 3% of classrooms had Internet access in 1994
Furthermore, equity in Internet access appears to have been achieved. Since the beginning of the century, public schools' access to the Internet has not varied with minority enrollment or student poverty, and by 2005, neither did classrooms' Internet access (Wells and Lewis 2006).
Technology may provide students with access to courses they would otherwise be unable to take by facilitating distance education: instruction in which the teacher and students are in different locations. Distance education may include videoconferencing and televised or audiotaped courses, but Internet courses are the most widespread and fastest-growing mode of delivery (Zandberg and Lewis 2008). While distance courses preclude some experiential learning (e.g., laboratory experiments), well-designed electronic alternatives (e.g., remotely operated laboratories [Nickerson et al. 2007])—may be able to fill that gap. Thus far, several meta-analyses have found no significant difference between the student learning that occurs in online versus regular classroom instruction (Cavanaugh 2001; Bernard et al. 2004; Cavanaugh et al. 2004), suggesting that distance education courses may provide students with access to additional courses without compromising the quality of instruction.
Goals of Distance Education
NCLB describes distance education as an innovative tool to promote access to rigorous academic courses, particularly for students in isolated geographic regions (NCLB Title II, Part D), and the National Education Technology Plan lists distance learning as one of seven major action steps designed to improve student achievement through technology. District administrators cited "offering courses not otherwise available at the school" as the most important reason to provide online learning opportunities (Picciano and Seaman 2007). Schools and districts also provide distance learning options to ease crowding in schools, increase course access for physically disabled students, allow students to retake courses for graduation, expand student access to AP and college-level courses, and tutor students for high-stakes graduation exams (Education Technology Cooperative 2007; Zandberg and Lewis 2008).
Distance education provides one strategy for managing shortages of mathematics and science teachers, particularly in rural or inner-city areas where attracting and retaining them are chronically difficult (Picciano and Seaman 2007). For example, Louisiana has implemented a Web-based algebra course targeted at schools with uncertified mathematics teachers. The course provides students with access to a certified instructor and offers teachers professional development opportunities (Watson, Germin, and Ryan 2008).
Access and Participation in Distance Education
The availability of distance education, most commonly provided by postsecondary institutions, independent vendors, states, and school districts (Picciano and Seaman 2007), has grown substantially over this decade. In 2005, 57% of secondary schools nationwide provided opportunities for online distance learning to their students (Wells andLewis 2006). In 2008, students in 44 states had access to full-time or supplemental online learning opportunities, and 34 states sponsored programs and initiatives. While state-led programs primarily serve secondary students, opportunities for students in grades K–8 are increasingly common (Watson, Germin, and Ryan 2008). Beyond its accessibility, however, it is difficult to draw conclusions about nationwide distance education because programs and policies vary so widely. For example, two states—Michigan and Alabama—now require students to participate in online learning to graduate from high school, while six states do not have online opportunities that are accessible to every student (Watson, Germin, and Ryan 2008). Policies regarding tuition and partnerships with private schools and home-school organizations also vary (Watson, Germin, and Ryan 2008; Education Technology Cooperative 2008).
Participation in distance education has increased dramatically. Primary and secondary school enrollment in distance education across all subjects grew from 317,070 students in 2002–03 to 506,950 students in 2004–05, an increase of 60% (Zandberg and Lewis 2008). In addition, a nationwide survey of school district administrators indicated that approximately 700,000 public school students, about two-thirds of whom were in grades 9–12, were enrolled in courses that involved a substantial proportion of online learning during the 2005–06 school year (Picciano and Seaman 2007). Postsecondary institutions were the leading providers of distance education to secondary students in 2005 (Zandberg and Lewis 2008), and 12% of 2- and 4-year postsecondary institutions reported offering courses, primarily academic high school courses, to elementary and secondary students in 2006–07 (Parsad and Lewis 2008).
Despite these recent reports, national indicators pointing to elementary and secondary science and mathematics education are unavailable. No national data exist on distance course taking in math, science, or any particular subject area. Likewise, data that identify elementary and secondary students among postsecondary distance education enrollments are also as yet unavailable.
State-sponsored virtual schools are growing sources for distance education. In 1997, five states had virtual school programs, which use technology to offer individual courses or supplements to courses taught in traditional schools (Tucker 2007). As of 2008, 29 states had established virtual school programs (Editorial Projects in Education Research Center 2009a). All the members of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) sponsor virtual schools, and their annual surveys indicate that enrollment in these schools has been increasing steadily (Education Technology Cooperative 2008).
Although there are no nationwide data on distance education
course offerings or participation in STEM subjects, the
Education Technology Cooperative at SREB tracks this information
for its member states' virtual schools (table