Embrace Technology or Wait for a Research Base?

A group of researchers have formed a new project aimed at improving the use of tablets as math education tools. As the New York Times reports, the Next Generation Preschool Math (NextGen) project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, strives “to develop and evaluate apps, teachers’ guides and tools for tracking children’s progress.” A lot of people are making good apps right now, but I am particularly appreciative of the work these researchers are doing:

Scientific research on the educational value of apps is nearly nonexistent. The NextGen project is trying to change that, through a painstaking process that includes not just software development but also testing, data gathering, observations of classroom dynamics, interviews with teachers, assessments of children’s learning and controlled comparisons.

Tablets are becoming ubiquitous in schools, and at a remarkable pace. The first iPhone hit the market in 2007. A mere 6 years later, a survey of early childhood educators indicates “nearly 3 in 10 classrooms have an iPad or other tablet,” as reported in the article cited above. That is a quick change for professionals in any field. For teachers, it is lightning fast; schools are often particularly slow to change.

Scientific research, on the other hand, must move slowly. It requires sound experimental design, thorough evaluations, peer-review processes, and repetition. That rigor is well worth the trouble. Science has brought us to a better understanding of how best to teach children, as it will continue to do. But it takes time, perhaps enough time that a fast-changing technology could become obsolete before its evaluators disseminate their conclusions.

Therein lies the dilemma. As a teacher, I can embrace technology as it emerges, trusting the intuition that there is great value in using technology in my classroom. But in doing so, I must rely heavily on my own common sense and rationality, knowing that they will at least occasionally be mistaken. Or, I can set aside my iPads for a while and wait for research to determine which practices have an evidence base. At the moment, it is hard to find middle ground between those two choices.

I look forward to the days when we have a better grasp of how best to use technology in education. I am grateful that dedicated researchers, like those at NextGen, are doing their part to gets us there.

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