Archives For no significant difference

I have been working on finding ways to use technology to enhance learning since the early 1990’s so when I read the Students, Computers and Learning Making the Connection research report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED) I was disappointed and also encouraged.

Disappointed – It Isn’t Working

After so many decades of working toward getting computers and related technology into our classrooms and school systems it is disappointing to see the research that shows:

Overall, the evidence from PISA, as well as from more rigorously designed evaluations, suggest that solely increasing access to computers for students, at home or at school, is unlikely to result in significant improvements in education outcomes. Furthermore, both PISA and the research evidence concur on the finding that the positive effects of computer use are specific-limited to certain outcomes, and to certain uses of computers. (OECD, 2015 p. 163)

While the report confirms that we have solved the acquisition problem of getting technology into our student’s classrooms it also reveals that:

…students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics (OECD 2015, p. 5).

The report’s authors admit that there are many questions that the report has left unanswered but perhaps the following statement may point to the core of the problem that we are seeing when we use technology in the wrong way:

If students use smartphones to copy and paste prefabricated answers into questions, it is unlikely to help them become smarter. If we want students to become smarter then a smartphone, we need to think harder about the pedagogies we are using to teach them. Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching (p. 6).

I was initially planning to cut the quote after “…pedagogies we are using” because I get annoyed with authors who are quick to blame teachers for the challenges we are facing in using technology to enhance learning. Most teachers are working tirelessly to improve their student’s lives but because they are mired in a system based on 19th & 20th-century practices when they add 21st-century technology to the mix it is no better than bolting a jet engine to a horse cart (Papert, 1993). Perhaps more troubling is that we are still using the 19th-century Thorndikian information transfer model and the recipe and regurgitation of information through a steady diet of standardized curriculum and testing. It doesn’t matter how much technology you add to this mix if you are using a digital worksheet, form, or test you are still simply asking your learner to regurgitate information.

We have known for a very long time that just adding technology to the classroom does not have any significant impact on learning. In the early 1990’s Thomas Russell and several other researchers pointed to the results of a meta-analysis of the research into technology use in distance education and found that there is no difference between technology-based instruction or classroom instruction (1999).

This no significant difference phenomenon is found in study after study. For example, in 1998 the ETS reported a negligible positive relationship between computer use and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in math for 4th graders and a slightly more positive result for 8th graders (Wenglinsky, 1998). A more expansive multi-year study that involved hundreds of schools and thousands of students by the U.S. Department of Education (Dynarski, et al., 2007) found that “test scores were not significantly higher in classrooms using selected reading and mathematics software products” (p. xiii).

The research over the years confirms that substituting, augmenting or replacing (i.e. SAMR model) passive information transfer paper-based models with digital models of instruction does not improve the learning. Researchers like Hattie (2008) and Fullan (2015) have shown that focusing on the technology as a way to bring about change in the learning environment will not work – the focus needs to be on building the learning first and then using technology to enhance the learning.

What will work?

So if bolting technology onto our antiquated classroom and augmenting the 19th-century information transfer model of standardized curriculum and testing doesn’t work than what does? According to the OECD (2015) report:

Technology can support new pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants with tools for inquiry-based pedagogies and collaborative workspaces. For example, technology can enhance experiential learning, foster project-based and inquiry-based learning pedagogies, facilitate hands-on activities and cooperative learning (p. 6)

The OECD (2015) report also pointed to John Hattie’s research into what contributes to student achievement and confirms that:

Computers were more effective when they are used to extend study time and practice, used to give students control over the learning situation (pacing of material) and when used to support collaborative learning (p. 163).


So this finally leads me to explain why I am encouraged by the OECD report. When we look at the recommendations in the report like active learning, hands-on experience, student control and project-based learning it just confirms that giving learners choice, ownership, and voice through at authentic learning opportunities or what we have labeled the COVA approach can actually make a difference.

If we focus first on creating a significant learning environment in which we give our learners choice, ownership, and voice through at authentic learning opportunities then when we add technology to help with creation, communication, and collaboration we will be able to make a greater difference in our learner’s lives.


Dynarski, M., Agodini, R., Heaviside, S., Novak, T., Carey, N., Campuzano, L., … Sussex, W. (2007). Effectiveness of reading and mathematics software products findings from the first student cohort: report (p. 140). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences,. Retrieved from

Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2015). Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.

OECD (2015), Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. Basic books.

Ruiz-Primo MA, Briggs D, Iverson H, Talbot R, Shepard LA. Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science. 2011;331:1269–1270.

Russell, T. L. (1999). The no significant difference phenomenon: A comparative research annotated bibliography on technology for distance education: As reported in 355 research reports, summaries and papers. North Carolina State University.

Wenglinsky, H. (1998). Does it compute? The relationship between educational technology and student achievement in mathematics. Princeton, New Jersey: ETS Policy Information Center. Retrieved from