Before We Spend Millions On Unproven Technologies . . .

There’s an enormously important article about the science of learning that will appear in the December 2012 issue of the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. The article itself is behind a paywall, but I’m going to post some chunky excerpts from the article that will give you a sense of what the authors (researchers Henry Roediger and Mary Pyc) are saying. They begin:

“Many [technological] products have been offered to improve education, with an estimated annual cost of $2.2 billion. Yet a survey from the Department of Education in 2010 showed either no or only modest gains from expensive educational products compared to similar classes that used standard textbooks.

Of course, new educational products are often not sold on the basis of solid research results showing their effectiveness, but on marketing, personal testimonials, small case studies and the like. The one guaranteed outcome is large profits for the companies that make the products; educational gains for students are more doubtful.

Nonetheless, some companies (Intel) and some in the U.S. Congress argue that one goal should be to put a computer in every child’s hands in the U.S. That step would be enormously costly. Would children be able to successfully use the computers to improve educational achievement? What studies show this to be the case?

We suggest large-scale trial experiments should be undertaken before taking such expensive steps to show their effectiveness. Much more research is needed to show how and when computer-based education is effective so as not to waste funds. As it is, teachers are being laid off, schools are being closed, and so cost-effectiveness is at a premium.

The gold standard of educational innovation for any kind of new educational technique should be a strong research base showing that the new method produces positive results relative to standard practice. We do not doubt that someday computer-based education will meet this criterion, but we do not seem to be there yet.

Perhaps we should save our money until controlled field experiments produce strong results. We argue that there is much low-hanging fruit to collect before dreaming of sky-high bonanzas that may turn out to be false.

The turn to expensive educational interventions is in some ways not surprising: the problems confronting school officials are enormous, so educators seek help any place they can. Because the problem is huge, the assumption seems to be that all solutions will be correspondingly expensive.”

This need not be the case, the authors note. In this article, “we discuss methods arising from the laboratories of cognitive and educational psychologists that have been shown to produce positive effects on learning. The three basic principles we recommend in this article are ones for which there is strong basic (laboratory) research but also research with educational materials and, in some cases, evidence from research in the classroom.

The specific techniques that fall under each of the general principles are, for the most part, dirt cheap (little or nothing to buy) and can be incorporated into standard classroom practice without too much difficulty.

Yet, outside of educational and cognitive psychology, the techniques are practically unknown. Some teachers and students hit upon these methods on their own through trial and error, but in our (admittedly haphazard) survey of teacher training programs and the curricula of education schools, new teachers are unlikely to be taught about these effective techniques.”

Roediger and Pyc make a head-slappingly obvious (yet often overlooked) point: Why are we spending millions upon millions of dollars on unproven technologies, when there are so many empirically-proven techniques from cognitive science and psychology that are going virtually unused?

As I say, Roediger and Pyc’s article is behind a paywall, but three of the techniques they focus on—spacing, interleaving, and retrieval practice—are covered in this New York Times article I wrote.

One Response to “Before We Spend Millions On Unproven Technologies . . .”

  1. Suzanne says:

    Larry Cuba, Stephen Krashen, Dianne Ravitch all pundits in their fields speak to these points in a variety of ways and for a few decades now.

    One point they all make is that if you fix poverty you fix what’s ailing schools.
    There’s a substantive body of literature on it.

    Why tech companies aren’t fixing poverty is obvious.

    Education is a social institution. Arguably second to institutions like states and churches. It’s always been an ideological battleground, with the current dominant ideology being neoliberalism.

    With this in mind, it makes sense why the obvious is not obvious. In other times it was called propaganda.

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