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September 2003

Investing in Technology:
The Payoff in Student Learning

By Harvey Barnett

Imagine this moment in your life as a school administrator. A skeptical school board member, prospective parent, or local public official visits your school and, after a tour in which you point out the wonderful new computers, scanners, digital cameras, and other technology which you’ve acquired over the past few years, says to you, “You’ve clearly made a tremendous investment in technology. How do you know this investment will pay off in terms of student learning?”

This ERIC Digest reviews some significant research on technology use in the classroom that attempts to answer this question and indicates the conditions under which technology is most likely to have a positive impact on student learning.

Research on the Use of Technology in the Classroom

Educational researchers have studied two major ways in which students use computers in schools. The first is learning from computers. Here the computer acts as tutor. The computer presents information to the student and the student responds. Simple drill and practice programs and more comprehensive Integrated Learning Systems, such as Jostens and Computer Curriculum Corporation, are examples of this category. Researchers have also focused on how students learn with computers. Here, students use computers and other technologies to write, analyze data, develop presentations, and do research.

Learning from Computers:
Computers as Tutors

Let us look at two longitudinal studies on how students learn from computers. The first is the West Virginia Basic Skills study (Mann, Shakeshaft, Becker & Kottkamp, 1999; West Virginia Study Results, 1999). West Virginia began implementing computer technology one grade at a time, starting with first grade. Each year the state added a grade until reaching Grade 6. Each year included extensive teacher training. Schools had the option of placing computers in classrooms or in a lab. Schools were also required to select from suites of software that matched West Virginia’s content standards. Researchers followed students from first grade to sixth grade, and beyond. The researchers found the following when students used computers as tutors to receive information:

  1. On statewide tests, students who learned from computers showed consistently higher gains. The researchers were able to determine that 11% of the gain was due to the use of technology.
  2. Students did better when the computers were in the classroom rather than a lab.
  3. The advantages of computer use extended through high school, where students learning from computers had better grades, took more advanced placement courses, and were more likely to graduate than those who did not use computers.
Another important study is Project CHILD from Florida (Butzin, 2000). Project CHILD placed computers in classrooms and, like the West Virginia project, provided extensive teacher training and had students use software that was aligned with the state’s content standards. The Project CHILD researchers found that when students used computers as tutors to receive information
  1. Computers contributed to higher scores for students in both low- and high-achieving schools
  2. Students had better discipline
  3. The boost that technology gave students was sustained over time, which was also the case in the study of computer use in West Virginia.
The studies in West Virginia and Florida show that students can gain an advantage when technology is deployed to bolster and complement the traditional work of teachers and that the effects of learning from computers are lasting. These results are obtained where there is on-going teacher training and where computers are available for use in the classroom.

Learning with Computers:
Computers as Tools

What does the research say about the effects of technology when it is used as a tool rather than a tutor? How is learning with computers different from learning from computers? The application of technology here is even more powerful, as the following studies demonstrate.

In a study sponsored by Apple Computer that spanned ten years, researchers, who were from institutions of higher education and not Apple employees, analyzed Apple’s Classrooms of Tomorrow project, known to many by the acronym ACOT (Fisher, Dwyer & Yocam, 1996; Sandholtz, Ringstaff & Dwyer, 1997). In ACOT classrooms, technology was pervasive and available anytime a student needed to write, analyze data, develop presentations, and do research. Teachers received intensive training and were given time to examine their beliefs about instruction and learning. Researchers arrived at four critical conclusions.

  1. Students routinely used higher-order thinking skills far beyond what was expected for their grade level.
  2. Students demonstrated enhanced ability to collaborate with peers to develop projects and reports.
  3. Students demonstrated increased initiative. They maintained time on task for longer periods and often continued their work during recess, before school, and after school.
  4. The use of technology coupled with teachers having time for reflection led, over a period of three to five years, to substantial changes in teacher beliefs about teaching and learning.
The ACOT findings are reinforced by a recent study of the Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project conducted by SRI International (Penuel, Golan, Means & Korbak, 2000). In the Multimedia Project, teams of K-12 teachers were trained to develop curriculum-based multimedia projects with students. The teachers received intensive on-site support.

In the final evaluation of the 5-year long project, the researchers asked students in project and non-project classrooms to complete an authentic assessment task. All students were given a set of resources and data about homeless students and the problems such students face in attending school. In small groups, students had to study the information, formulate a set of recommendations for their school leaders on how their own school might better serve the needs of homeless students, and create a prototype of a brochure for advocating their position. The brochures were evaluated using a rubric especially developed by SRI to help measure the impact of the use of technology.

What did SRI’s researchers find? Students in Multimedia Project classrooms consistently out-scored their peers in the non-project classrooms in the areas of understanding content, adapting their message to their intended audience, and applying principles of design in the format and layout of their brochures.

Together, these studies point out how powerful technology can be when it is employed as a tool for research, data analysis, and communication. Does that mean we abandon the use of computers for simply acquiring specific facts and rudimentary skills? Of course not. We have to remember that it is never a question of either learning with computers or learning from them, but rather a balance between instruction and construction based on the objectives of the lesson.

Impact on Learning

Whether students learn from computers or with computers, the research cited above indicates the following conditions under which computer technology is most likely to have a positive impact on learning.

Access: Computers will enhance learning only when students have easy access to them in their classroom. Using computers once or twice a week will have negligible impact on student learning.

Integration: Computers make their greatest impact on student learning when their use is tightly linked to content standards and integrated into ongoing classroom work, rather than taught as a separate or stand-alone subject.

Broad-based reform: The computer is just one tool in a broad-based reform effort to improve student learning. Just as computer use needs to be integrated within the on-going instructional program, so technology planning needs to occur within the context of the entire school or district strategic planning process.

The long term: Like any other reform effort, computer use is not a one-time event. It is not simply a matter of “buy them, install them and sit back to enjoy the difference they make.” It will require a long-term effort on the district’s part to fund, support and assess their use.

Professional development: Having a swimming pool does little good if no one can swim, and learning to swim well is not done in a couple of after-school workshops. To empower teachers and students to learn with computers, districts will need to plan for ongoing staff development that takes place in large groups, one-on-one, and online.

Teaching style: For technology to have the impact research says it can, many teachers will have to learn more than new technology skills; they will need learn new instructional strategies and new roles. Districts will need to ensure that teachers have the opportunity and support to transform their approach to teaching.

Balance: Like any reform effort, one does not throw out the baby with the bath water. There is always a balance. Yes, teachers need to teach facts; but they also must help students acquire and use the intellectual and workplace skills demanded by the 21st Century.

Vision: As the research on effective principals demonstrates again and again, leadership is the single most important factor affecting the successful integration of technology in education. Principals and superintendents must have a vision of how technology will support student learning and teacher productivity.


The research reviewed in this ERIC Digest demonstrates that technology can make a difference in how and what students learn. Technology is one piece of the puzzle that can support educational change, but technology will have little impact without accompanying reform at the classroom, school, and district level.


Barnett, H. (2000). Assessing the effects of technology in a standards driven world. Learning & Leading with Technology, 27(7).

Butzin, S. M. (2000). Project CHILD: A decade of success for young children. Technology Horizons in Education Journal, 27(11).

CEO Forum on Education and Technology. (2001). Education technology must be included in comprehensive education legislation. Washington, DC: CEO Forum on Education and Technology.

Fisher, C., Dwyer, D., & Yocam, E. (Eds.). (1996). Education and technology: Reflections on computing in classrooms. San Francisco: Apple Press. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED419484)

Kulik, J. A. (1994). Meta-analytic studies of findings on computerized instruction. In E. Baker & H. O’Neil (Eds.), Technology assessment in education and training. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Mann, D. (1999). Documenting the effects of instructional technology: A fly-over of policy questions. Proceedings of the Secretary’s Conference on Educational Technology, Washington, DC. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED452823)

Mann, D., Shakeshaft, C., Becker, J., & Kottkamp, R. (1999). West Virginia story: Achievement gains from a statewide comprehensive instructional technology program. Beverly Hills, CA: Milken Family Foundation with the West Virginia Department of Education, Charleston. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED429575)

Penuel, B., Golan, S., Means, B., & Korbak, C. (2000). Silicon Valley Challenge 2000: Year 4 report. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Penuel, W., & Means, B. (1999). Observing classroom processes in project-based learning using multimedia: A tool for evaluators. Proceedings of the Secretary’s Conference on Educational Technology, Washington, DC. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED452820)

Sandholtz, J. H. (2001). Learning to teach with technology: A comparison of teacher development programs. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 9(3), 349–374. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ639473)

Sandholtz, J. H., Ringstaff, C., & Dwyer, D. C. (1997). Teaching with technology: Creating student-centered classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED402923)

Sivin-Kachala, J., & Bialo, E. (2000). 2000 research report on the effectiveness of technology in schools (7th ed.). Washington, DC: Software and Information Industry Association.

West Virginia study results. (1999). Santa Monica, CA: Milken Family Foundation.

Harvey Barnett is a Senior Research Associate in the Technology in Education program at WestEd. He has served as a consultant to state departments of education for technology planning and policy issues. He has also served as principal of Stevens Creek School in Cupertino, California, one of the first Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) project schools in partnership with Apple Computer Inc., and as Director of Technology for the Cupertino School District.

ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated.

This publication is funded in part with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number ED-99-CO-0005. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government. Visit the Department of Education’s Web site at: www.ed.gov