Interactive technology that allows students to create and explore substantially improves academic achievement, particularly for underprivileged youth, according to a review of more than 70 studies on the use of technology in the classroom.

“Through the use of technology, students see content in many forms as it comes alive with maps, videos, hyperlinks to definitions, additional content and more,” according to the report, Using Technology to Support At-Risk Students’ Learning, released Wednesday by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE). “Well-designed interactive programs allow students to see and explore concepts from different angles using a variety of representations.”

But the authors of the report warn that the technology must be the right kind. Technology that emphasizes practice drills can negatively affect students while simulations, games and the ability to create new content enhances learning, they found. Districts should  have a plan for how they will use technology before they make a purchase, said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and one of the report’s authors, said some of what is in the report “is common sense if you watch your own kids.”

“But a lot of the use of technology has been the drill and kill kind,” she said. “There is a lot of confusion in the field. I hope it is a helpful report for people who are trying to figure out how to use these technologies in ways that can work.”

In one example highlighted in the report, several 9th-grade English classrooms with large numbers of students with behavioral problems, including many who had failed English, were given opportunities to use technology to practice skills and create new content. On state English tests that year, those classrooms outperformed advanced placement sections that studied the same material without technology.

“It gives them an atmosphere of active learning,” said one of the teachers of the 9th graders who used technology. (The researchers did not provide school or teacher names as a condition of their research.) “They are involved in their learning at all times, they make their own learning decisions, and they buy into [the classroom] … With the assistance of technology I am able to differentiate my instruction to meet the needs of individual students; they know that and want to be a part of that kind of atmosphere.”

Wise said that the report underscores the point that replacing teachers with technology is not a successful formula. Teacher assistance “seems to be mandatory for the online learning of underprivileged students,” the report states. The best situations, the authors said, combine structured learning with project-based activities that allow students to solve problems or develop products, on their own or with other students.

“Teachers can see if students are grasping things or if they are dealing with misconceptions or false ideas,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the authors of the report. “Sometimes it’s skill development work. Other times it’s just getting kids over a hump – a glitch they have encountered.”

“There are unusual people and unusual kids who are independent learners and will solve their own problems and make their way through it,” Darling-Hammond said. “But that is rare.” It’s hugely important that interactive technology is paired with a similar style of teaching , she said, where teachers facilitate the discussion of ideas and support project work. “Teachers can see if students are grasping things or if they are dealing with misconceptions or false ideas. Sometimes it’s skill development work. Other times it’s just getting kids over a hump – a glitch they have encountered.”

The report also says that a speedy Internet connection and one computer per student are necessary for technology to be effective. The report notes that “teachers in high-poverty schools were strikingly more likely to say that a lack of resources or access to digital technologies among students was a challenge in their classrooms (56 percent vs. 21 percent).”

Darling-Hammond said that California is lagging behind the rest of the nation in providing technology to schools, though she expects that to improve as schools obtain the high-speed Internet and computers needed for students to take the new state tests based on the Common Core standards.

“In the land of technology and invention, we should be able to provide that kind of access to our kids, particularly the kids who need it most so they can gain skills and change their path in the future,” she said.

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