By Daniel Maxwell

Educational technologies are becoming increasingly common in schools, and teachers are become more confident applying digital technologies in the classroom – but as the pace of this progress intensifies, an important question regarding these technologies is often being overlooked. What exactly is the purpose of educational technology?

It is all too easy to get caught up in using educational technologies; schools have invested heavily in technology, and teachers often feel obligated to use them. Furthermore, an increasing number of recent meta-analysis studies show us that educational technology can indeed make a positive impact on student attainment… but should we be doing more with educational technology than simply helping students improve their scores in traditional assessments?

It is important for teachers to reflect on the purpose of educational technologies, not only because it puts the use of these technologies in perspective, but also because it raises greater questions about the actual purpose of education in modern society. What are we educating 21st Century students for?

To produce equitable societies?

To produce citizens for effective democracies?

To prepare students for the work force?

To prepare students with critical thinking skills for a complex new world?

Educational technologies have the ability to support all of these objectives by dramatically increasing access to education, tackling educational inequalities, encouraging life-long learning, promoting creativity, enhancing communicative and collaborative abilities, engaging students in critical, higher order, problem-based inquiry, and providing simulations to develop advanced cognitive thinking skills.

However, recent studies show that while educational technologies may offer tremendous potential, the majority of teachers are only using the internet and digital technologies to search for information and present content. It appears that we are still a long way from having students fully benefit from the opportunities which educational technology offer, such as the development of creativity, critical thinking and other higher order skills.

A 2010 report by Gray, Thomas, and Lewis, “Teachers’ Use of Educational Technology in U.S. Public Schools,” which questioned over 4,000 teachers across the US, found that while the majority of teachers made frequent use of the internet for general instructional or administrative purposes (word processing software, 96%; managing students records, 80%; searching the internet for information, 94%) and all students made use of the internet to search for information, only 20% of teachers used the internet for specialized instruction. Only a small percentage of teachers provided students with opportunities to use creative technologies.

A report from the Pew Research Center, “How Teachers Are Using Technology at Home and in Their Classrooms,” came to similar findings, with most students (95%) using technology simply to search for information online, while more interactive online learning activities such as using wikis, participating in online discussions, and editing information were less common.

By questioning the purpose of educational technologies, educators can break beyond the narrow confines through which educational technologies are too often being deployed and begin to realize the potential which educational technologies and digital technologies now offer.

A good starting point for teachers searching for inspiration on ways to deploy educational technologies more effectively is the 2004 report, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Technology in our School: ACT Policy Report,” which envisions greater use of technology in the classroom. The ACT report argues that “technology has expanded from use primarily as an instructional delivery medium to an integral part of the learning environment,” and it outlines four distinct purposes for technology usage in schools:

• To teach, drill, and practice using increasingly sophisticated digital content.

• To provide simulations to develop cognitive thinking and to extend learning.

• To provide access to information and enhanced communications through the Internet

• As a productivity tool employing application software such as spreadsheets, databases, and word processors to manage information, solve problems, and produce sophisticated products.

Today’s students inhabit a world very different from the one previous generations grew up in, and the skills which young people need to navigate and succeed in this environment have drastically changed. Teachers working in modern schools have access to resources that can help students develop the skills essential for 21st century learners, but doing so requires teachers to not only embrace technology, but also realise the full of these potential of these resources.

It is time that schools moved away from simply using educational technologies to improve student attainment in traditional assessments and instead utilize these resources as a platform from which students can focus on developing higher order thinking skills to ensure they are as well prepared as possible for the demands of life in the 21st Century.