Opinion | Screens Are Everywhere in Schools. Do They Actually Help Kids Learn?

Opinion | Screens Are Everywhere in Schools. Do They Actually Help Kids Learn?

As is often the case with rapid change, “the speed at which new technologies and intervention models are reaching the market has far outpaced the ability of policy researchers to keep up with evaluating them,” according to a dazzlingly thorough review of the research on education technology by Maya Escueta, Andre Joshua Nickow, Philip Oreopoulos and Vincent Quan published in The Journal of Economic Literature in 2020.

Despite the relative paucity of research, particularly on in-class use of tech, Escueta and her co-authors put together “a comprehensive list of all publicly available studies on technology-based education interventions that report findings from studies following either of two research designs, randomized controlled trials or regression discontinuity designs.”

They found that increasing access to devices didn’t always lead to positive academic outcomes. In a couple of cases, it just increased the amount of time kids were spending on devices playing games. They wrote, “We found that simply providing students with access to technology yields largely mixed results. At the K-12 level, much of the experimental evidence suggests that giving a child a computer may have limited impacts on learning outcomes but generally improves computer proficiency and other cognitive outcomes.”

Some of the most promising research is around computer-assisted learning, which the researchers defined as “computer programs and other software applications designed to improve academic skills.” They cited a 2016 randomized study of 2,850 seventh-grade math students in Maine who used an online homework tool. The authors of that study “found that the program improved math scores for treatment students by 0.18 standard deviations. This impact is particularly noteworthy, given that treatment students used the program, on average, for less than 10 minutes per night, three to four nights per week,” according to Escueta and her co-authors.

They also explained that in the classroom, computer programs may help teachers meet the needs of students who are at different levels, since “when confronted with a wide range of student ability, teachers often end up teaching the core curriculum and tailoring instruction to the middle of the class.” A good program, they found, could help provide individual attention and skill building for kids at the bottom and the top, as well. There are computer programs for reading comprehension that have shown similar positive results in the research. Anecdotally: My older daughter practices her Spanish language skills using an app, and she hand-writes Spanish vocabulary words on index cards. The combination seems to be working well for her.

Opinion | Screens Are Everywhere in Schools. Do They Actually Help Kids Learn? As is often the…

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