Skip all navigation and go to page content.

Chapter 1. Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education

Instructional Technology and Digital Learning

Federal and state policies encourage greater use of instructional technology, increasingly referred to as “digital learning” or “digital education.” The Alliance for Excellent Education defines digital learning as “any instructional practice that is effectively using technology to strengthen the student learning experience” (Alliance for Excellent Education 2012). Digital learning encompasses a broad array of tools and practices, including online courses, applications of technology in the classroom, computer-based assessment, and adaptive software for students with special needs. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education released a National Education Technology Plan (NETP) calling for the use of advanced technologies throughout the education system to improve student learning, accelerate implementation of effective practices, and enable schools to use data and information for continuous improvement (U.S. Department of Education 2010). Since publication of the NETP, reports about and initiatives involving digital education have proliferated (Alliance for Excellent Education 2011, 2012; Staker and Horn 2012; Watson et al. 2012; Wicks 2010).

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for example, strongly endorsed the use of educational technology in mathematics education, saying that it is “essential” and “enhances student learning” (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 2011). Findings from a number of studies have shown that the strategic use of technology tools in mathematics and science education, in particular, can support the learning of mathematical and scientific procedures and skills as well as the development of advanced proficiencies such as problem solving and reasoning (Hegedus and Roschelle 2013; Pierce et al. 2011; Rutten, van Joolingen, and van der Veen 2012). Proponents suggest that computer applications and technological tools, either alone or in concert with traditional instruction, may improve student achievement in mathematics and science by tailoring lessons and skill practice to individual students’ needs or by offering students additional opportunities to interact with information through computer simulations or other methods. In addition, computerized assessment may provide more precise and efficient feedback on student learning, allowing teachers to adapt instruction to student needs more effectively (Tucker 2009). Instruction through technology may also motivate students’ interest in mathematics and science.

This section focuses specifically on instructional technology, defined as technology products and tools designed to assist teaching and learning, in elementary and secondary schools. It distinguishes between the use of technology as an instructional tool and online learning, a special form of distance education. The section begins by discussing recent research on the effectiveness of technology as an instructional tool. It then updates national estimates of access to computers and the Internet and examines the current state of distance education, specifically online learning. This section ends with an overview of the research on the effectiveness of online learning.

Technology as an Instructional Tool

The use of instructional technology in K–12 classrooms has been growing at a rapid pace. Many school districts have invested in technology such as computers, mobile devices, and interactive whiteboards. In 2009, NCES surveyed a nationally representative sample of teachers to determine the availability and use of educational technology among teachers in public elementary and secondary schools. Teachers reported having the following technology devices either available as needed or in the classroom every day: LCD (liquid crystal display) or DLP (digital light processing) projectors (36% available as needed and 48% in the classroom every day), interactive whiteboards (28% and 23%, respectively), and digital cameras (64% and 14%, respectively) (table 1-13). Among teachers who reported that these devices were available to them, one-half or more also reported that they used these devices for instruction sometimes or often: 72% of teachers used LCD or DLP projectors, 57% used interactive whiteboards, and 49% used digital cameras (Gray, Thomas, and Lewis 2010).

The 2012 NSSME surveyed teachers about the adequacy of the instructional technology (e.g., computers, calculators, probes/sensors) available to them (Banilower et al. 2013). High school mathematics teachers were the most likely to indicate that their instructional technology resources were adequate (69%), whereas elementary and middle school science teachers were the least likely to indicate so (35%) (Banilower et al. 2013).

Research on Instructional Technology

Despite the rapid growth in the use of technology in classrooms, a substantial base of rigorous research on the effectiveness of technology in improving student achievement is lacking. Few national studies are available and many studies that have been conducted are often of brief duration and are product-specific studies based on small samples and nonrigorous research designs. The Office of Educational Technology has issued a report outlining the problems with current research into digital education and providing a framework for how research evidence can be improved (U.S. Department of Education 2013).

Three recent meta-analyses reviewed studies that compared the mathematics achievement of students taught in elementary and secondary classes using technology-assisted mathematics programs with that of students in control classes using alternative programs or standard methods (Cheung and Slavin 2011; Li and Ma 2010; Rakes et al. 2010). All three studies found small positive effects on student achievement when technology was incorporated into classroom mathematics instruction.[33]

One recent study used a randomized control trial design to examine the effectiveness of a technology-based algebra curriculum in a wide variety of middle schools and high schools in seven states (Pane et al. 2013). Participating schools were matched into similar pairs and randomly assigned to either continue with the current algebra curriculum for 2 years or to adopt a technology-assisted program using a personalized, mastery-learning, blended-learning approach. Schools assigned to implement the program did so under conditions similar to schools that independently adopted it. Analysis of posttest outcomes on an algebra proficiency exam found no effects in the first year of implementation but found strong evidence in support of a positive effect in the second year. The estimated effect was statistically significant for high schools but not for middle schools; in both cases, the magnitude was sufficient to improve the average student’s performance by approximately 8 percentage points.

An earlier national 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 grade 6 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.

Several small-scale studies of specific instructional technology applications suggest that educational computer programs and video games may promote student engagement and learning when they make use of proven pedagogical techniques (Barab et al. 2007; Ketelhut 2007; Nelson 2007; Neulight et al. 2007; Steinkuehler and Duncan 2008). One study found that the use of interactive whiteboard technology was associated with increased motivation in mathematics among elementary school students (Torff and Tirotta 2010). Another study of a popular algebra program found that students randomly assigned to computer-aided instruction using the algebra program scored higher on a test of pre-algebra and algebra skills than students assigned to traditional instruction (Barrow, Markman, and Rouse 2009).

Internet Access

Access to the Internet is nearly universal in public elementary and secondary schools in the United States. In 2008, 100% of public schools had instructional computers with Internet access (Gray, Thomas, and Lewis 2010). Student access to the Internet via instructional computers at school has increased substantially since 2000. In 2008, the average public school had 189 instructional computers compared with 110 in 2000. There were three students per computer with Internet access in 2008 compared with seven students per computer with Internet access in 2000. Mobile devices are also enhancing students’ access to the Internet. Nearly 50% of high school students and 40% of middle school students now own or have access to a smartphone or tablet, marking a 400% increase since 2007 (Project Tomorrow 2012).

Although Internet access is nearly universal, connection speeds and adequate bandwidth are areas of concern (Fox et al. 2012). A 2010 Federal Communications Commission survey of schools with federal funding for Internet access found that most had access to some form of broadband service (Federal Communications Commission 2010). Nearly 80% of survey respondents, however, reported that their broadband connections were inadequate and slow Internet connection speeds were the primary problem. Bandwidth availability and connection speed affect which online content, applications, and functionality students and educators are able to use effectively in the classroom (Fox et al. 2012).

Distance Education and Online Learning

In addition to potentially enhancing learning in the classroom, technology can also enable students to receive instruction remotely through distance education or online learning. Distance education may include videoconferencing and televised or audiotaped courses, but Internet courses (hereafter referred to as online learning) are the most widespread and fastest-growing mode of delivery (Queen and Lewis 2011). Online learning programs range from programs that are fully online with all instruction occurring via the Internet to hybrid or “blended learning” programs that combine face-to-face teacher instruction with online components (Picciano and Seaman 2009; Staker and Horn 2012; Watson et al. 2011).

The United States is experiencing rapid growth in online learning at the K–12 level. The Sloan Consortium estimates that more than 1 million elementary and secondary students were enrolled in online or blended learning courses in 2007–08, a 47% increase from the 2005–06 school year.[34] These estimates are based on two national surveys of public school districts (Picciano and Seaman 2009). Based on this level of growth, the International Association for Online K-12 Learning (iNACOL) estimates that more than 1.5 million K–12 students participated in some form of online learning in 2010 (Wicks 2010). A nationally representative survey of public school districts conducted by NCES in 2009 found that providing courses not otherwise available at their schools and giving students opportunities to recover course credits for classes missed or failed were the top reasons for offering online learning options (Queen and Lewis 2011). The survey found that credit recovery is especially important for urban schools: 81% indicated this was a very important reason for making online learning opportunities available (table 1-14).

Research on Effectiveness of Online Learning

Policymakers and researchers (Bakia et al. 2012; Watson et al. 2012; U.S. Department of Education 2010) cite numerous potential benefits of online learning:

  • Increased access to quality educational resources and courses, particularly for students in rural or other remote locations;
  • Differentiated instruction based on student need and preferred pace of learning;
  • Personalized learning to build on students’ interests and increase motivation;
  • Reduced costs for school facilities as students access educational resources from home or other community spaces;
  • Access to a wider variety of courses, including AP, higher-level math and science, and foreign languages;
  • Credit recovery options to assist struggling students and those who need an additional course to graduate;
  • Access to international experts to increase knowledge and understanding of careers; and
  • Increased access to simulations and virtual field trips.

Despite the many potential benefits of online learning envisioned by policymakers and researchers, few rigorous studies have addressed the effectiveness of online learning compared with that of traditional school models at the K–12 level (Means et al. 2010). A systematic search of the research literature from 1994 through 2008 identified only five studies published between 1994 and 2008 that rigorously assessed online learning at the K–12 level and only one study (O’Dwyer, Carey, and Kleiman 2007) that assessed the impact of technology on mathematics learning in an elementary classroom in the United States (Means et al. 2010). O’Dwyer et al. (2007) used a quasi-experimental design to compare the learning of 231 students participating in the Louisiana Algebra I Online initiative with the learning of 232 students in comparison classrooms that had similar demographics but used traditional instruction. Scores on matched pretests and posttests showed that the online students performed as well as their peers in conventional classrooms. Other recent studies have found some positive effects for online learning, but researchers stress that teacher training and the way in which online components are integrated into the curriculum are important variables that could affect outcomes and need to be the subject of more rigorous research (Norris, Hossain, and Soloway 2012; Tamin et al. 2011).

[33] Effect sizes ranged from +0.1 to +0.2, indicating a difference of .1 to .2 standard deviations, generally considered small effect sizes.
[34] Public school enrollment in K–12 in the United States in 2008 was approximately 49 million students (