Can technology improve student learning?

September 10, 2015

By Tamar Breslauer

How can current research inform the technological choices used in the classroom? How do different types of students use technology? Does technology help the weaker students? Daniel Mallinson and Zachary D. Baumann, in “Lights, Camera, Learn: Understanding the Role of Lecture Capture in Undergraduate Education” published in PS: Political Science & Politics, examine these questions. They explore how and why different students in a single classroom use, or choose not to use, recorded lectures. The authors find that international students make use of the recorded lectures more often, but they also find that increased usage does not translate into better grades. In addition, international students tend to use the recorded lectures for different purposes than domestic students. While international students noted that they used the recordings as a way to revisit lecture content, domestic students, instead, more frequently used the recordings to review for examinations. Over 50 percent of the students did not believe that the recorded lectures were as useful as looking through a textbook or attending the class itself.

When comparing the grades in the course, those students who used the recorded lectures the most also performed more poorly than the average. The authors write that, “Across many of the categories, both average and above-average students were using the technology. Consistent with earlier findings, however, poorer-performing students were consuming the most.” [emphasis added] (Mallinson 2015, 481). Did the use of the technology hurt the students rather than help? The authors propose several factors to explain this trend including: (1) perhaps students did not attend the lectures at all and tried to replace the missed content with the technology, and (2) perhaps the students would have performed even worse had the technology not been available.

Larger studies that have tried to determine the role of technology in improving student learning have demonstrated a similar problematic pattern. Other researchers have found that technology often does not help the students who need the help the most. For example, using a data set of 500,000 students, Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars show in the CCRC Working Paper “Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas,” that all of the students’ grades suffered when they used online technology, but those who suffered the most were men, black students, those with lower GPAs, and, oddly enough, younger students. Xu and Jaggars also published their work in the Journal of Higher Education in an article titled, “Performance Gaps Between Online and Face-to-Face Courses: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas.”

Is it possible that technology reinforces, rather than mitigates, the problems affecting struggling students? Could a reliance on technology create more inequities in the classroom? What is appropriate to assume about students’ access, familiarity, and comfort with technology?

Tamar Breslauer, NAFSA’s Senior Research Specialist, looks for interesting questions in the areas of global learning, internationalization and the contexts in which these exist and shares her findings through NAFSA Research Connections. To discuss the questions raised in this research and to share your reactions with others, please visit the NAFSA Research Connections discussion forum.