For the past 5 years, I have written a regular column for Phi Delta Kappan magazine on current issues in education as they are played out in Canada. My January 2003 column was titled "Recycled Promises." It took aim at an article contained in a glossy magazine that had been inserted into my daily newspaper. A little Web sleuthing revealed that the magazine had been distributed to those least in need of handouts: households in neighborhoods where average annual incomes exceeded $87,000. The article that caught my eye promised to provide the answer from "research" to the question "Does technology really make a difference in student achievement?" The imprimatur of the government of Canada appeared throughout the magazine, a sign that my tax dollars were funding the dissemination of educational research to the movers and shakers, the opinion leaders, the folks who matter--or at least the folks who invest.
However, my excitement cooled when I saw the familiar Apple logo all over the article, which was called "Classroom Computers = Remarkable Results" (Apple Computer, Inc., 2002/2003). The lead's direct question about technology's contribution to student achievement was parried by a cleverly indirect answer: "At Apple, we believe the effective integration of technology into classroom instruction can and will result in higher levels of student achievement" (Apple Computer, Inc., 2002/ 2003, p. 41). Note how skillfully "research" had been transformed into a belief system and how conveniently the future tense had been substituted for the past and present. Technology "can and will" rather than "has and does." The future requires no footnotes.
The promised summary of research findings condensed six (American) studies into a half page of big font and broad generalizations: "Studies have shown that students with routine access to technology learn.., basic skills faster and better when they have a chance to practice them using technology" (Apple Computer, Inc., 2002/2003, p. 42). Apple's summative report on its Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) project (Sandholtz, Ringstaff, & Dwyer, 1997, page unspecified), was cited as the source for this assertion. Coincidentally, this was one document I knew well because I had previously addressed its particular claims and tracked ACOT's substantial influence on thinking about information and communications technology (ICT) in schools (Robertson, 1998). I had examined this report from both pedagogical and political perspectives, including why a project such as ACOT would be funded, in part, by the New America Schools Development Corporation. New America Schools Development Corporation's members include AT&T, IBM, and the American Stock Exchange, each committed to the shared goal of "better alignment of American schools with American business objectives" (Robertson, 1998, p. 131).
Student achievement was discussed in some of the early ACOT publications, including Number 7, ACOT Evaluation Study: First and Second Year Findings (Baker, Gearhart, & Herman, 1990). The explicit purpose of this study was to evaluate achievement among students exposed, in ACOT's words, to "unlimited access to technology." (I have searched, unsuccessfully, for research on the impact on student achievement of providing students with two years of "unlimited access to teachers," although the proposition is intriguing.)
Presumably, the standardized achievement tests that were administered to students in both ACOT and control classrooms as part of this study yielded data, although Apple chose not to report the results. Instead, the authors (or head office) prepared this rather artfully worded summary:
Results showed that ACOT students maintained
their performance levels on standard measures of
educational achievement in basic skills, and they
sustained positive attitudes.... The ACOT program
was at least as effective in promoting commonly
measured student outcomes . …