Adding a T to the three R's

Science Magazine Cover 2January2009
Posted January 2, 2009

Originally published in Science Magazine as an introduction to a special issue, "Education & Technology."

A student in Scotland investigates the effects of pollution on the Yangtze River in China. Students in Colorado learning from classroom discussions register their progress using clickers, or individual response systems. And when they're not in school, an astounding number of students spend their off hours playing technology-based games, either in immersive environments that millions of users share or individually on a cell phone. Opportunities abound for squeezing in a bit of learning along with the game-playing.

Although technology can be grand fun, the gee-whiz effect is only part of the story. Its real value lies in the underlying learning effects. Technologies that emphasize peer interactions can aid a collaborative approach to learning, as when soldiers build team function across distances using interactive training simulations. And technologies that place knowledge in the context of what a student already knows can aid learning. But technology is not a magic bullet for education: A fancy bit of electronics distributed without context and support may leave the laptop functioning as a doorstop.

Nor is it easy to know what works. A peer-reviewed national science education digital library initiative, supported for nearly a decade by the U.S. National Science Foundation, has made scant progress in getting the technology into the classroom and training teachers to use it. And when today's students are immersed in technology, how does one tease out the impact of such interventions? Even a proven success can be undermined by the ever-changing nature of the ways in which we communicate: Today's best practices may soon be embedded in antiquated technology.

In this special issue, we have collected a range of articles in the research, opinion, news, and book review sections that examine how education is changing in the face of technology. Related videos and podcasts feature interviews with some of the authors. As examples, we explore what one can learn from video games, how large-scale testing might be improved by technology, where cognitive science meets education, and what resources are being developed to facilitate a more effective use of technology.

There are both exciting opportunities and challenges in this fast-moving field, and we view this special issue as only the beginning of our exploration of the frontiers of learning for the next generation of scientists—and citizens.