Don’t Start with Technology: Start with Education Practices That Work

In the Middle East, technology is being widely introduced in classrooms as a result of national programs that focus on information and communications technology (ICT). The Ministry of Education (MOE) in the United Arab Emirates, where I recently visited, have emphasized digital instructional materials and set the goal of all students in upper secondary schools having computers as part of their Vision 2021 national education agenda (MoE, 2000). Saudi Arabia (where I also had the privilege to visit) initiated the five-year, 5 billion Saudi Riyal Watani project in 2006. This project will provide technology in classrooms to link students, teachers, and educational directorates via the Internet across the Kingdom for sharing ideas, instructional content, and communications.

The Middle Eastern countries (as many other countries across the globe) have aggressively increased technology in schools, despite the lack of evidence supporting the positive impact of classroom technology on student learning. In fact, the 2015 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on classroom technology and learning reported that countries making big investments in classroom technology showed, “no appreciable improvements” in reading, mathematics, or science performance on global tests (OECD, 2015). Problems with the integration of technologies in schools have been attributed to pedagogy, policy, implementation, and technology; problems that, “hinder their successful implementation and lead to frustration among educators, decision-makers, and learners.” (Eshet-Alkalai & Aydin, 2009).

One of the challenges with implementing technology for learning effectively is the lack of rigorous studies with actionable findings. As countries, such as those in the Middle East, integrate computers and online learning into their education systems, they lack access to clear recommendations about what works. Dr. Barbara Means of SRI International and a team of experts conducted a meta-analysis for the United States Department of Education in 2010 on evidence-based practices in online learning (USDOE, 2010). The report highlighted the paucity of rigorous studies from which to draw actionable findings.

One mistake many new technology educators make is to start with technology. They will provide all students or teachers with computers, laptops, or other technology. They will hope that by putting technology into the schools, learning will improve. The transition from traditional face-to-face, paper-based instruction to digital learning, however, is not about the technology. Focusing first on technology in making the transition is not the way. The focus must be on learning first. For technology to improve learning, the learning is key.

If the focus must be on learning, educators need to ask and answer questions about learning at the start of the digital transformation. We know that education interventions based on strong learning science research are more likely to drive positive learning outcomes than interventions without a science foundation, whether implemented with or without technology. Therefore, answering the learning questions first is important. Then, and only then, can we shift our focus to technology. Only after the learning questions are solidified, should technology strategies be deployed.

When implementing technology in schools, answer these three questions during the planning stage:



The role of technology in deepening learning is its’ ability to make the learning more effective and/or more efficient. Using technology to make proven educational practices more effective or more efficient will optimize our ability to impact student learning. In most cases, technology does not introduce a brand new way to learn. Instead, it enhances already proven educational practices. 

Take the example of student reading fluency. If we want technology to improve students’ reading fluency, we need to start with the questions about learning and then turn our attention to the technology. The answers to the first two questions posed for reading might look like:

  1. The learning we want is student ability to read text aloud with speed, accuracy, and expression. We want students to adeptly decode words and read with appropriate intonation and expression, so that they can attend to what the words mean as they read.
  2. Daily reading and increased text exposure are interventions that have been clearly linked to improved student reading performance and progress. Specifically, decades of research has proven that students who read regularly have better reading fluency, are stronger readers, perform better on standardized tests in all content areas, and their content knowledge exceeds students who read less often (Adams, 2006; Cunningham and Stanovich 1991; Krashen 1993; Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987; Stanovich and Cunningham 1993; Stanovich, 1986). In other words, reading exposure works; regular reading leads to better learning.

Only after the learning questions are answered should technology be considered. Then, the question is how to use technology to deliver the proven intervention of reading practice in more efficient and effective ways.

One way in which devices can improve reading fluency is to offer students an efficient way to practice. Currently, teachers have students individually read aloud while they, the teachers, hand score for reading speed, accuracy, and expression. Because instructional time is limited and each teacher needs to score all the students in the classroom, students do not get regular practice, at least not with teacher feedback.

Speech scoring technology exists such that a student can read a passage into a cell phone, landline, or tablet and the speech can be scored immediately for reading elements, such as fluency, words correct per minute, expression, etc. By scoring the speech automatically and not requiring the teacher to score speech of one student at a time, technology improves the efficiency with which students can practice reading fluency.

Using speech recognition and scoring technology can improve the effectiveness of reading fluency as well, especially for students who get nervous when they have to practice aloud with their teacher. With technology, students can practice reading fluency in private and receive feedback without having to deal with anxiety that might come with reading aloud in front of another human.

As Middle Eastern countries invest time and resources to bring technology into classrooms--moving to one-to-one computing, offering eLearning and online learning, and strengthening their students’ information and communication technology skills--they will benefit from investing heavily in identifying and defining the learning that is needed. If the goal is to drive the digital transformation, they should not start with technology, they should start with the learning. The technology can, and will, follow.

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  1. Adams, M. J. (2006). The promise of automatic speech recognition for fostering literacy growth in children and adults. In M.C. McKenna, L.D. Labbo, R. D. Kieffer, & D. Reinking (Eds.), International Handbook of Literacy and Technology, Volume 2. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  2. Cunningham, A. E., and K. E. Stanovich. 1991. Tracking the unique effects of print exposure in children: Associations with vocabulary, general knowledge, and spelling. Journal of Educational Psychology 83(2): 264–274.
  3. Eshet-Alkalai, Y. & Aydin, C. H. (2009, April). A bridge over troubled waters: Learning technologies in the Middle East. Editorial in the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. Retrieved May 20, 206 from
  4. Krashen, S. D. 1989. We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: Additional evidence for the Input Hypothesis. Modern Language Journal 73: 440–64.
  5. OECD (2015), Students, computers and learning: Making connections, PISA, OECD Publishing, Retrieved 5/21/2016 at
  6. Ministry of Education and Youth (2000). Education Vision2020: Pillars, Strategic Objectives, for United Arab Emirates Education Development. UAE: Ministry of Education and Youth.
  7. U.S. Department of Education (USDOE), Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, Washington, D.C., 2010.

What works in learning with or without technology-

Constructed learning from where students are.