Friday, April 10, 2009

The Tendency to Neglect Questions of Efficiency in Educational Technology Research

Yet another paper that I submitted early this semester (Spring '09) at George Washington University...

In the course of completing many learning activities that take place in an elementary school classroom, there are usually some steps that could be referred to as constituting a kind of “clerical overhead”, duties and actions that fall outside of the explicit realm of students directly engaging in a learning activity. Clerical overhead accrues to both teachers and students, and some of it unquestionably constitutes an irreducible positive educational component in and of itself, such as a teacher grading a set of handwritten student essays (gathering vital formative assessment information) or students tracking their progress with the week’s homework on personal checklists. However, for both teachers and students, some clerical overhead represents something to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible so that real teaching or learning activities can commence. Examples of such overhead might include: a teacher’s manual grading of multiple choice quizzes, or young students taking an inordinate amount of time to simply go around the room and gather supplies for an activity. For teachers, it is a zero-sum game: the more they can reduce the duration of such overhead tasks, the more time they can spend in high-quality lesson preparation and teaching with students. In my discussions with teachers this year, the most prevalent frustration expressed to me is that excessive administrative and clerical overhead undermines their ability to be effective teachers. While reduction of substantial parts of this overhead may not be addressable by educational computing technologies, some parts of it may well be.

A simple question that is often asked in industrial settings is, “Given that a task might be done with or without a specific technological toolset, what is the incremental time savings accrued through use of the toolset?” Within industry, such a time-oriented productivity analysis tends to be of prime importance and is rarely neglected. But in my very limited survey of educational computing research, I am finding questions such as this only indirectly addressed, if they are addressed at all. For example, a study on usage of handheld student-response devices (used peripherally with a popular interactive whiteboard system) focused on questions of student achievement and attitudes associated with usage of the devices (English, 2006). Besides offering a flawed, “apples and oranges” quantitative comparison to assess student achievement, the study failed to focus on questions of student/teacher productivity in usage of the devices. The comments from teachers that were included in the study hinted that there may have been significant savings of a teacher’s time when multiple-choice tests were administered to the class via the hand-held devices, and then instantly and automatically graded by the associated software installed on the teacher’s computer. How much time might be saved per week by a teacher that is facile with this technology, time that would not have to be spent sitting and grading objective tests, but that could instead be used for higher-level teaching tasks, such as explorations of advanced ways to differentiate lessons or to develop creative trans-disciplinary tie-ins? Not only did this study not consider the question, it also did not recommend that a future study look at the question. Are the authors unaware that such a question regarding possible reduction of “clerical overhead” might be asked, or is such a question deemed appropriate for industrial assembly lines but inappropriate for educational computing research?

To investigate further, I rather randomly stumbled into the current issue of the Journal of Educational Computing Research and reviewed an article on the hot topic of one-to-one computing in schools (Lei & Zhao, 2008). Since most schools that might be considering an “upgrade” to one-to-one computing likely already have computers (either present in the classroom or in separate computing labs), I expected that some of the study might focus on the incremental benefits that accrue to the students of a school in switching from a less-pervasive computing presence to a more-pervasive one. A part of such an analysis would almost surely focus on efficiencies afforded a student who no longer needs to reserve computer time or wait their turn to access a computer. Quite simply: How much more quickly would a student with their own notebook computer be able to accomplish certain basic computing tasks, as opposed to a student in a shared-computer situation? But once again, this study focused exclusively on questions of effectiveness of learning – certainly not a bad focus, but an incomplete focus, ignoring simple but potentially important questions of efficiency.

As mentioned above, the observations made here are based upon a very small sampling of educational computing research done over the course of my first three active weeks in the GWU ETL program. My intention is to use this focus paper as scaffolding for further investigations in the field of educational computing research, particularly focusing on the question of whether the exclusion of time-oriented productivity analysis is indeed widespread within the field, and whether any authorities in the field are in agreement with me in identifying this as a problem.


English, Lauren J. (2006, September). ACTIVote: Can It Activate Our Students to Learn? Action Research Exchange, 5(2). Retrieved February 4, 2009, from

Labaree, David (1998, November). Educational Researchers: Living with a Lesser Form of Knowledge. Educational Researcher, 27(8). Retrieved January 22, 2009, from

Lei, J., & Zhao, Y. (2008, January 1). One-to-One Computing: What Does It Bring to Schools? Journal of Educational Computing Research, 39(2), 97-122. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ820002) Retrieved February 8, 2009, from ERIC database.

Newby, Timothy (2006). Educational Technology for Teaching and Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Roblyer, M.D. (2006). Integrating Educational Technology in Teaching. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Woolfolk, Anita (2008). Educational Psychology. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

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