THE BLOG

Technology or Teachers?

02/19/2014 09:57 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2014

The White House recently announced a nearly $1 billion private sector commitment to ConnectED, an initiative that President Obama launched last summer to connect 99% of the nation's students to high-speed Internet by 2017. The hope is that greater connectivity can play a significant role in improving student achievement and preparing young people to thrive in a workplace dominated by information technology.

Educational outcomes in the U.S. considerably lag those of many other advanced countries. In 2012, to name just one recent example, the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment ranked student performance in the U.S. (as measured by standardized tests) below the OECD average in math and science, and just slightly better than average in reading. Singapore, meanwhile, scored second overall. How come? Here is how Singapore's Ambassador to the U.S., Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, explains the excellence of his country's educational system:

We take pride that more than 90% of our students are in schools where their learning is not hindered by a lack of educational resources like computer software and instructional materials. This is possible because of centralized curriculum design and three successive information and communication technology master plans implemented across all our schools to support our teachers who use a range of teaching approaches, including leveraging technology, so as to enhance our students' learning. Beyond developing a strong foundation in literacy, numeracy, and sciences, we have also emphasized the development of character and values in our students. Teachers, parents, and the community each play important roles in developing the full potential of our children. We recognize our teachers as members of a professional force, and we also value the support and confidence of parents and the community as our partners in education.

There is no silver bullet that will enable the U.S. to catch up, and it has been clear for some time, moreover, that simply throwing money at schools is not the answer. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, funding per student is four times higher today than it was roughly 40 years ago, but this has not kept average student achievement from plateauing.

Given the importance of information technology in the 21st century, and the development of innovative educational methods which revolve around broadband access, it makes sense that greater connectivity would improve learning outcomes. Internet access itself is not a problem--almost all schools in the U.S. are connected to the Internet, and over 90 percent have a broadband connection. However, an estimated two-thirds--including not only primary and secondary schools, but also colleges and universities--subscribe to speeds lower than 25 Mbps. In Finland, by contrast, only roughly 40% of students in grade 8 alone attended a school subscribing to a speed this low. Meanwhile, Singapore has launched a plan to provide nationwide access to broadband at speeds of 1 Gbps or more.

Can the faster broadband speeds the Obama administration is pushing for help boost educational achievement? It seems that the jury is still out on this question. Some studies, including reports completed by the Department of Education and the International Society for Technology in Education, suggest that access to broadband has a positive impact on student outcomes, from better grades to higher achievement on standardized tests, especially among low-income households. But there is almost as much evidence indicating that greater access to the Internet has no effect--or even a negative effect--on learning. A 2006 University of Chicago study which examined the rollout of expanded Internet access in the late 1990s concluded that it had little impact on learning outcomes. In 2010, the Urban Institute found that increased access to broadband in North Carolina was actually associated with a small negative impact on math and reading test scores.

At first glance, these unfavorable findings might be surprising. But considering the endless possibilities for distraction and procrastination that the Internet offers, they could almost be expected. In fact, a study completed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that students attending schools which blocked access to YouTube and other non-educational sites performed comparatively better. Like all technologies, broadband is a double-edged sword. The administration can push for greater connectivity, but as long as kids are looking to play Candy Crush, it's far from clear that this emphasis will result in the educational gains for which it hopes.