Don’t Assume That Technology Enhances Learning

Students using technology

Photo credit: Jose Martinez’s Flickr page

Educational technology is on the rise. In the last decade, investments in EdTech companies have skyrocketed, totaling over 1 billion dollars in 2012. As a result, instructors are faced with a steady stream of new technology tools to use in the classroom. We’ve written about how some of these tools can be used to encourage active, engaged learning. But should every activity have a digital component? Does technology always enhance learning?

Educational technologists debate about how useful technology is in the classroom. In the past, some thought that technology would completely replace the role of the teacher. This has not occurred. Now some argue that the role of the instructor is to be a facilitator, strengthening the connection between students and technology.

On the other hand, J. Michael Spector, who has written hundreds of peer-reviewed articles in the field, takes a provocative perspective about technology in education. He says in his article An Overview of Progress and Problems in Educational Technology that “Many people have an implicit faith that technology will generally make things better, including education. Such faith is ill−founded.” He goes on to say that technology can either enhance learning or impede it. The difference depends on how technology is used.

How can instructors ensure that technology is achieving its desired outcome? Get student feedback. Plot student learning achievements when they complete activities with and without a tech tool. Don’t assume anything. This may be the biggest challenge. When creating a digital learning environment, an instructor should not assume that it feels realistic to students. The activity should relate to students’ lives, and students should be able to create personal meaning from the lesson. But what seems realistic to the instructor might not be relatable for students.

Teachers also cannot assume that setting up online discussion forums creates rich social interaction among students. Often the opposite is true: Technology is socially isolating because digital discussions aren’t face-to-face. Again, ask for student feedback about the discussion tools, and monitor the forum to make sure students are using it to share ideas and enhance learning.

Technology should only be used when it facilitates learning. Determining if it makes learning easier or harder is work for the teacher. It means that sometimes you’ll have to tell a class that you’re testing something new and you want feedback. If you preface the assignment with that statement, students are often more willing to tolerate technology frustrations (and are more willing to report them to you). When they’ve completed it, ask them if the activity would have been more fun in the classroom, or if face-to-face collaboration with peers would have been simpler.

The latest, most eye-catching educational technology tool might not be appropriate for your classroom. Or maybe it would be perfect. But don’t assume that because it is popular or because it works for you that it will also work for your students. They bring different experiences and knowledge to the assignment than you do. Ask your students what they think. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn from a quick survey.

Written by Matt Taylor


Spector, J.M. (2001). An overview of progress and problems in educational technology. Interactive Educational Multimedia, 3, 27–37.

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