Does Technology Make a Difference?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: September 4th 2012

Computer learningThis summer I had someone ask me to convince them that technology is making a difference in the quality of education for our children. They wanted to know how we were accountable for our investments in technology and, in particular, computers. In essence, were we getting good “bang for our buck” so to speak. During the discussion, I said to them that I wasn’t sure this was the right question. We talked more but over the summer I thought a lot about that question and it helped me probe my own beliefs about why I would say it’s the wrong question. I thought I would take the time to blog about the topic as a way to delve more into the subject of the role of technology in our schools.

I believe that the origins of the question – how do we know that technology is making a difference? – came out of the times when these devices were relatively new and were indeed costly. Network infrastructures, internet access, the cost of hardware and software purchase, installation and support were all were huge cost items and were fairly new to districts. At the time, as teachers and schools we were inundated with questions about the use of computers, the relevance, the cost, and the future. Computers remain a major cost for districts but they are not new anymore, they are simply part of business. The explosion of technology’s impact on society over the past 30 years has seen devices move from a tool to be “like the air we breathe” – they are everywhere and more than ever becoming an essential part of life.


Online Learning

With that context, the question that has always been there is how do we evaluate the quality of our learning environments and the quality of our schools? The fact that technology is part of those environments in support of learning does not necessarily mean that we should single it out as an isolated entity for evaluation on its impact on learning. Twenty years ago when it was new – yes. Today – I’m not sure. The reason I say this is that I feel it distracts us from the main question which has been unyielding – how do we create engaging and supportive learning environments for our students?


For those who still want to ask about technology because of its cost – I think about the costs incurred by districts in learning resources in any given year. As a secondary principal – we spent about $40,000 a crumbling dollaryear on textbooks. Every year, we had to deal with loss/damage in the range of about $5000. I don’t think this was highly unusual. I never once had someone phone me or inquire whether textbooks were making a difference in education and the quality of student engagement. In British Columbia, no doubt we spend tens of millions of dollars in a year on learning resources. That’s a big number by anyone’s books (no pun intended). When I was a principal, and as a district leader, there were few questions about whether some specific items in that list of learning resources were having a positive impact on learning. But there were always questions about how we provide tools and resources that teachers need to engage students in learning.

Over the years, in times of declining enrolment, I have been a part of many conversations about school organizations and structures and what makes an effective school. Many people want to point to some specific configuration or structure as being more effective than another. The reality of the research is that if you want to find an article that says that something makes a difference – you can easily do that. You can also find contrary articles that say the opposite. In the world of school structures, we know that there is a substantial body of research that tells you what makes an engaging school, but that research doesn’t dictate a structure, it dictates qualities the of these cultures of excellence.

The research on learning is solid – we know that the biggest difference maker is the teacher. I have no doubt that the role of the teacher is changing dramatically because of technology. That change is about providing students with access to content in ways that link to life outside of school. If we want to evaluate whether or not technology is making a difference, I still think that question should be embedded in the larger question of how we create rich and engaging learning environments for children. However we go about creating those rich environments, I know that is money well spent when students are engaged and the learning is relevant to them in their lives not only now, but in the years to come.