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Educational software not delivering meaningful improvements: study

Educational software not delivering meaningful improvements: study

Posting in Education

US Department of Education evaluation throws cold water on educational software packages. Lesson: technology is a tool, just as pencils and paper are tools.

It's been generally assumed that software and high-tech approaches to learning are improving the educational experience. However, studies by the US Department of Education calls the efficacy of some software packages into question.

As described in a recent New York Times article, the federal studies raise questions about the ability of software-based curricula to deliver meaningful improvements in students' test scores:

"The federal review of Carnegie Learning’s flagship software, Cognitive Tutor, said the program had “no discernible effects” on the standardized test scores of high school students. A separate 2009 federal look at 10 major software products for teaching algebra as well as elementary and middle school math and reading found that nine of them, including Cognitive Tutor, 'did not have statistically significant effects on test scores.'”

The educational software sector is a $2.2-billion-a-year industry, and clearly represents the direction many schools are heading.

The software's capability, of course, is based on standardized test results, which is a whole separate controversy in and of itself. As Karen Cator, a former Apple executive who directs the Office of Educational Technology at the Department of Education, put it : the software evaluations should be “taken with a grain of salt” because they rely on standardized test scores -- which cannot gauge some skills that technology teaches, like collaboration, multimedia and research.

But Karen Billings, vice president of the Software and Information Industry Association, raises another important point, which gets down to the heart of the relationship between technology and its users: "Schools often do not properly deploy the products or train teachers to use them."

As noted in previous studies of e-book adoption at the university level, technology doesn't automatically lead to better comprehension or absorption of material. In some cases, it may even inhibit learning.

Billings may be simply defending her clientele, but she gets down to an issue all too frequently seen in businesses and other organizations the past two decades: an assumption that bringing in software and technology will immediately cure a range of ills. Technology is merely a tool, and it alone will not bring about efficiency, effectiveness, profitability, or greater learning skills. It takes committed managers and professionals to put the technology in a context in which it will deliver. Adroit and passionate management, supported by the right IT tools, makes the difference. We're still learning that lesson in business, and are starting to learn it in education as well.

(Photo Credit: Freed-Hardeman University.)

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure