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educational technology
A Reboot Foundation report finds a negative tie between the use of tablets in school and fourth-grade reading scores. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

A mounting body of evidence indicates that technology in schools isn’t boosting student achievement as its proponents had hoped it would. The latest research comes from the Reboot Foundation, which released a study in June 2019 that shows a negative connection between a nation’s performance on international assessments and 15-year-olds’ self-reported use of technology in school. The more students used technology in schools, the lower the nation ranked in educational achievement.

In the United States, the results were more complicated. For younger school children, the study found a negative tie between the use of tablets in school and fourth-grade reading scores. Fourth-grade students who reported using tablets in “all or almost all” classes scored 14 points lower on the reading portion of a test administered by the federal government than students who reported “never” using classroom tablets. That’s the equivalent of a year of education or an entire grade level. Meanwhile, some types of computer usage among older students could be beneficial. Eighth graders who reported using computers to conduct research for projects had higher reading test scores than those who didn’t use computers for research.

“We see a lot of spending everywhere on tablets, computers, counting the ratio of computers per student,” said Helen Lee Bouygues, who founded the Reboot Foundation in 2018. Bouygues wants schools to pay more attention to how they are using technology.

“Technology is not bad in general,” she said, “although I would argue for younger children, it’s questionable whether it has benefits.”

Reboot aims to increase the teaching of critical thinking in schools and by parents at home. Bouygues said she started the foundation in reaction to the rapid spread of fake news on the internet and the inability of citizens to distinguish reliable sources from propaganda. She said she wanted to learn if technology was a problem for younger students and commissioned data analysts at an outside research firm, the Learning Agency, to conduct this quantitative analysis.

The study found that the more hours American students spent daily on computers doing English language arts, the lower their reading scores. That was true for both fourth-grade and eighth-grade students and across school poverty levels. Math scores didn’t deteriorate as much as computer usage increased. Previous research has generally shown more promise for education technology in math than in reading.

Related: The ‘dirty secret’ about educational innovation

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) first detected a negative relationship between computer usage in schools and student achievement on its 2012 tests known as PISA, or Program for International Student Assessment, which are taken by high school students around the world every three years. But computer usage in schools was still novel then. The current Reboot Foundation study replicates those findings using 2015 PISA test data, showing that the worrisome trend persisted with increased computer use in classrooms.

Mild computer use, however, might be beneficial. The Reboot study found, for example, that French students who reported using the internet at school for up to 30 minutes daily scored 13 points higher on the PISA math assessment than students who reported not spending any time on the internet during class. But reading scores turned sharply negative for students who spent more than a half hour on the internet daily. This pattern —  a bit of technology may be beneficial but a lot is not — was also seen among eighth graders in Reboot’s analysis of U.S. student data.

It’s unclear, from this analysis, whether computer usage in schools is causing student performance to rise or fall. The study wasn’t able to see what happened to student test scores before and after the introduction of technology and compare those with similar students who continued to toil with pencil and paper. These sorts of simple comparisons between technology use and test scores might be misleading if weaker, lower income students are more likely use computers in the first place.

Reading scores are lower for fourth graders who use tablets frequently at school, but not for eighth graders. Source: Reboot Foundation

Indeed, the researchers found that American students in high-poverty schools, where more than three quarters of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, use computers slightly more than students in wealthier schools. There was insufficient student survey data for the United States on the 2015 PISA so the researchers scrutinized another highly regarded test, the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Among low-poverty schools, 44 percent of fourth graders never used computers. Among high-poverty schools, 34 percent of fourth graders never used computers.

Even among similar students, with the same level of poverty, the researchers found that those who used technology more for certain activities had lower test scores. Indeed, the achievement gap between those who use computers more and those who use computers less was largest among low-income students, hinting that the group that’s most likely to be using technology is possibly the most harmed by it.

Related: Lower test scores for students who use computers often in school, 31-country study finds

Computer usage in U.S. schools ranges widely but very few students are using it for many hours a day, which seems to produce the most negative test results.  In fourth grade, 41 percent of students say they spend less than 30 minutes a day on the computer for English work and 34 percent say they use a computer for half an hour. In eighth grade, computer use increases, with only 38 percent of students spending less than 30 minutes a day for English work. Another 29 percent use it for half an hour and 21 percent use it for one hour.

When I first started covering education in 2011, philanthropic foundations were funding projects to introduce technology to schools. Some were founded by tech entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates and Adam Dell. Reboot, based in Paris and funded by Helen Lee Bouygues, a former consultant at McKinsey & Co. and her husband, French industrialist Bruno Bouygues, is emblematic of a pushback against that early wave out of concern that technology is changing education and society for the worse.  Reboot’s mission to promote the teaching of critical thinking highlights a popular buzz phrase in education that can encompass everything from logic skills to the ability to analyze and evaluate information.

“With the expanded use of digital technology,” said Helen Lee Bouygues, “it becomes more important to teach critical thinking so that we don’t fall into traps of buying into fake news.”

This story about the Reboot Foundation study on education technology was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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