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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technology Integration Research Review: Evidence-Based Programs by Subject

Technology integration is a broad umbrella; applications and strategies vary by academic discipline. Edutopia's research analyst reviews subject-specific research and recommends programs for each.
Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research

In the following sections, we review specific technology integration practices that have been shown to enhance teaching and learning in four academic subject areas:

You may also skip to the section on Additional Evidence-Based Programs for Learning for more on tech for collaborative discussion, assessment, customizing instruction, and teaching digital literacy.

Schools That Work:

At Bravo Medical Magnet High School, students like Dea Flores focus on STEM subjects to prepare for college and career (left). A robotics project helps students learn about engineering (right). Learn more about this school.

Credit: Ethan Pines

Technology for Learning Reading

According to a meta-analysis of reading technology models, including 84 rigorous studies and over 60,000 K-12 participants, the largest impacts on K-12 reading achievement come from comprehensive models that integrate computer and non-computer instruction in the classroom and provide extensive support for teachers' professional development (Cheung and Slavin, 2012). Such comprehensive models include READ 180, Writing to Read, and Voyager Passport. For example, in READ 180 classrooms, "each period begins with a 20-minute shared reading and skills lesson, and then groups of five students rotate among three activities: 1) computer-assisted instruction in reading, 2) modeled or independent reading, and 3) small-group instruction with the teacher" (Cheung and Slavin, 2012, p. 19).

A body of research supports the role of educational television in developing early reading skills (Center for Children and Technology, 2004). Early-reading teachers may find it beneficial to integrate mobile apps and activities developed for educational television programs Martha Speaks or Between the Lions, which independent evaluations have shown improve vocabulary and early-reading skills (Rockman et al., 2010; Prince, Grace, Linebarger, Atkinson, and Huffman, 2002).

Technology for Learning Reading
Effective Programs Impacts Tech-Integration Practices
  • READ 180 (grades 3-12): Groups of five students (in classes of 15) rotate among small-group instruction, independent or modeled reading, and computer activities.
  • Voyager Passport (grades K-3): Daily lessons include self-paced reading adventures.
  • Writing to Read (WTR) (grades K-3): This multimedia, computer-based program is based on the premise that children can learn to read by first learning to write anything they can say.
  • Increased reading achievement (Cheung and Slavin, 2012)
  • Integrating computer and non-computer activities into a core reading approach
  • Extensive professional development support
Promising Programs (limited evidence) Impacts Tech-Integration Practices
  • Between the Lions* (grade K): Teachers receive materials and training to integrate episodes, related books, and hands-on activities reinforcing episodes' themes or skills.
  • Preschool lesson plans and television series
  • Classroom materials
  • Martha Speaks* (grades preK-1): Children were asked to play the Martha Speaks mobile app.
  • Improved vocabulary (Rockman et al., 2010)
  • Educational mobile app (Note: $2.99)
(*) Promising programs are supported by case studies but are not yet tested by rigorous research. Research evaluating digital learning practices has not kept pace with the rapid growth in online tools and resources.

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Technology for Learning Math

Interacting with the physical environment by manipulating objects such as tiles, colored squares, or circles improves understanding of math concepts by allowing learners to experience relationships between objects and events, which helps to build abstract conceptual understandings (Martin and Schwartz, 2005). Using virtual manipulatives improves understanding of math concepts and attitudes toward math, and blending physical and virtual manipulatives also has been shown to improve math learning (Li and Ma, 2010). Web-based libraries of virtual manipulatives and accompanying math tutorials and interactive tools can be found in the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, as well as the Shodor's Interactivate page.

The research on digital games to promote math learning is currently too limited to support any definitive claims (Young et al., 2012). However, there are at least two freely available Web-based games that show promising evidence. DimensionM is a multiplayer, online video game in which players can engage in competitions with other players or play alone. Middle and high school students who played DimensionM along with traditional class instruction showed significantly higher math scores on standardized tests than students who did not play DimensionM (Kebritchi, Hirumi, and Bai. 2010; Bai, Pan, Hirumi, and Kebritchi, 2012). Cyberchase is a PBS website and TV series with games and resources for teachers and parents. Independent evaluations suggest that using Cyberchase across TV and Web platforms helps to improve understanding of math concepts (Fisch, Lesh, Motoki, Crespo, and Melfi, 2010). In addition, The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury is a mathematics program developed at Vanderbilt University that uses videos and software to present problem-solving scenarios that integrate different subjects. The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury has shown positive impacts on students' problem-solving skills, math learning, and attitudes toward math (Li and Ma, 2010).

In general, research supports using calculators for learning math during instruction and assessment, and when calculators are integrated for more than nine weeks; however, calculators can negatively impact students' learning if they do not know many multiplication facts (Lemke, Coughlin, and Reifsneider, 2009).

Technology for Learning Math
Promising Programs (limited evidence) Impacts Tech-Integration Practices
  • Virtual manipulatives increased math achievement, conceptual understanding of math, and positive attitudes toward math (Li and Ma, 2010).
  • Interactive Web-based tools that enable students to manipulate virtual objects to learn abstract math concepts
  • Lessons and activities
  • Increased math achievement (Fisch et al., 2010)
  • Free Web-based games and TV series
  • Centered on national standards
  • Resources for teachers and parents
  • Improved problem-solving skills and math achievement (Li and Ma, 2010)
  • 12 DVD lessons
  • Multiple opportunities for mathematical problem solving
  • Connections to science, history, and literature
  • Increased math achievement (Kebritchi et al., 2010; Bai et al., 2012)
  • Multiplayer online game with competitions
(*) Promising programs are supported by case studies but are not yet tested by rigorous research. Research evaluating digital learning practices has not kept pace with the rapid growth in online tools and resources.

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Technology for Learning Inquiry Science

Inquiry science emphasizes activities that build on students' prior knowledge and involve practicing science as well as developing science literacy. Science literacy refers to the skills necessary to evaluate arguments and evidence in order to make informed decisions about issues that involve science, such as climate change, genetically modified foods, stem cell research, and health or personal lifestyle choices. By practicing science, students experience first-hand the real-world tasks involved in scientific research: experiments, variable control, measurement, error, and data transformation.

According to research (Gerard, Varma, Corliss, and Linn, 2011), technology can improve inquiry-science learning over textbook or lab instruction by allowing students to:

  • conduct virtual experiments using dynamic simulations of difficult-to-see scientific phenomena,
  • generate and test models of complex data,
  • collect and analyze data to test predictions, using probeware, scientific data sets, and data analysis software, and
  • gather feedback from different sources to refine work.

Web-based Inquiry Science Environment (WISE) is a free, online platform that engages students in the methods of real scientists and collaborative exploration of science issues through customizable curriculum and activities. WISE has been shown to improve students' science achievement, especially when teachers customize WISE activities (Gerard, Varma, Corliss, and Linn, 2011). Researchers recommend that teachers customize WISE activities by using evidence from student work and teaching experiences to identify effective practices and then integrate these effective practices into future instruction (Gerard et al., 2011). Educators can browse WISE projects by topic (grade levels are indicated) and customize them via the Idea Manager tool. Teachers can also share projects with members of the WISE community. In addition to developing understanding of science practice, WISE discussions help students to develop skills in science argumentation and collaborative research.

The Physics Education Technology (PhET) Project provides an extensive library of free, research-based activities and interactive simulations, widely used by high schools and colleges. PhET features virtual laboratories, simulations of invisible processes, interactive simulations, and embedded game-like challenges. These simulations are designed to address known student difficulties in understanding science concepts. Several studies have shown that using PhET simulations improves mastery of concepts (Finkelstein et al., 2005; McKagan et al., 2008; Perkins, Adams, Wieman, and PhET Team, 2006), particularly when students are free to question their understanding and to change simulation parameters to explore and improve understanding (Wieman, Adams, and Perkins, 2008). Student interviews reveal that the use of analogy and showing the invisible (or unseen mechanisms) facilitate students' construction of their understanding (Adams, 2010). In addition, students feel freer to explore their ideas and ask a greater number of spontaneous questions when interacting with simulations instead of real, physical equipment (Wieman et al., 2008; Wieman, Adams, Loeblin, and Perkins, 2010).

Technology-enhanced science can significantly improve students' inquiry learning experiences when accompanied by professional development programs that engage teachers in comprehensive, constructivist-oriented learning processes and last more than one year (Gerard, Varma, Corliss, and Linn, 2011). In addition, students' science understanding improves when teachers customize technology-enhanced science curricula to address students' unique learning needs and interests (Gerard et al., 2011). Several professional learning communities provide research-based, technology-enhanced science lessons and also support teachers in implementing technology-enhanced science lessons. The National Science Digital Library (NSDL) is an online portal that offers resources for K-12 science classrooms, including lesson plans and interactive simulations, covering all grades and a wide variety of topics. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Learning Center is NSTA's e-professional development portal offering thousands of standards-aligned technology-enhanced science resources, such as SciGuides, which are customizable lesson plans that use Web resources and simulations and provide samples of students' work.

At least two science gaming environments show promise in enhancing science learning. Quest Atlantis is a multiplayer, online, role-playing game, taking place in a virtual world in which students participate in a shared narrative involving a knowledge quest (students use academic knowledge to make decisions). Playing Quest Atlantis has been shown improve students' science learning (Barab et al., 2009; Arici, 2008). Web Adventures, developed by Rice University, use engaging story lines, games, and virtual experiments to engage middle school students in science learning. Web Adventures have been shown to improve middle school students' understanding of science concepts (Miller, Schweingruber, Oliver, Mayes, and Smith, 2002; Miller, Moreno, Estrera, and Lane, 2004; Klisch, Miller, Wang, and Epstein, 2012), bolster interest in STEM-related careers (Miller, Chang, Wang, Beier, and Klisch, 2011), increase their knowledge of health consequences surrounding the use of certain drugs (Miller, Moreno, Willcockson, Smith, and Mayes, 2006), and improve their awareness of risks associated with inhalant and alcohol abuse (Klisch et al., 2012; Klisch, Miller, Beier, and Wang, 2012).

Additional promising programs for technology-enhanced science learning include Design Squad Nation, a PBS video series of TV shows and video blogs, and Wildlab, a Web-based collaborative program using mobile technology to explore, discover, and share the natural world. Wildlab has a Web-based curriculum that engages students in collecting and analyzing data to support real-world ecology research. The Design Squad Nation video episodes model students engaging in real-world science and engineering projects and are accompanied by free curricula available on their website. An independent evaluation of the Design Squad curricula found promising impacts on middle school science learning (Paulsen and Bransfield, 2010).

Technology for Learning Inquiry Science
Effective Programs Impacts Tech-Integration Practices
  • Improved science inquiry skills and understanding of related science concepts (Gerard et al., 2011)
  • Open-source, Web-based environment
  • Interactive simulations, graphs, and models embedded in customizable, inquiry-based curricula focused on scientific concepts that are difficult to see

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Technology for Learning History, Government, and Economics

There is limited research on technology integration to support learning of history (Young et al., 2012); however, several programs have received promising preliminary evidence. Civilization is a history-based video game that allows users to modify events over the course of building a civilization and has been linked to helping students gain digital literacy and problem-solving skills, as well as learn historical concepts and retain more information after a history lecture (Squire, Giovanetto, Devane, and Durga, 2005; Arena, 2012). In Roller Coaster Tycoon, students role-play as owners and operators of a theme park, and playing the game has been shown to improve understanding of microeconomics concepts (Foster, 2011). The interactive iCivics, spearheaded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, is a free Web-based education project featuring lessons and games in which students learn about government through interactive role-playing and simulations. Independent evaluations suggest that iCivics improves students' understanding of U.S. government (Curley and Taylor, 2010). The Big History Project is a collaboration between pilot schools, teachers, and educators (supporters include Bill Gates, David Christian, and the University of Michigan) and is currently in beta testing. The recently released history course covers the history of the universe and combines traditional video lectures with animation, texts, and infographics. Big History is available for free to teachers and administrators for educational use, and initial pilot testing has shown positive results in key areas, such as literacy skills.

Technology for Learning History & Social Studies
Promising Programs (limited evidence) Impacts Tech-Integration Practices
  • Increased knowledge of maps, timelines, and historical terms among disadvantaged students; increased retention from history lecture/slideshow (Squire et. al, 2005; Arena, 2012)
  • History-based video game that allows users to modify events
    • Improved conceptual understanding of microeconomics (Foster, 2011)
    • Role-playing, simulation, and strategy game of running a business, played for at least 6 weeks
      • Improved test scores and self-reported understanding of U.S. government (Curley and Taylor, 2010)
      • Role-playing simulation game of U.S. government
      • Pilot testing has shown positive impacts on literacy skills.
      • Covers the history of the universe and combines traditional video lectures with animation, texts, and infographics; free to teachers and administrators for educational use
      (*) Promising programs are supported by case studies but are not yet tested by rigorous research. Research evaluating digital learning practices has not kept pace with the rapid growth in online tools and resources.

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      Continue to the next section of the Tech Integration Research Review, Additional Evidence-Based Programs for Learning.

      Comments (3)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

      Lisa Raffel's picture

      I am very grateful for this thorough review of technology programs, broken down by subject area. I'm also pleased to see the effective and promising distinctions. The ed-tech world is being flooded right now with the commercialism of new programs and apps - so it's essential for us as educators to look for the evidence of what programs are effective. Thank you Edutopia!

      Adam Babcock's picture
      Adam Babcock
      Technology Integration Specialist for Spartanburg High School

      Why isn't GeoGebra up there in Math yet? There have been a couple of studies that show how it is a promising way to create and facilitate inquiry-based activities for math learners

      Vanessa Vega's picture
      Vanessa Vega
      Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research
      Blogger 2014

      Hi Adam, This particular set of recommendations focuses on tech-integration practices and programs that have evidence of impacts on student learning based on independent evaluations and/or peer-reviewed research. Our team has reviewed the peer-reviewed studies and conference proceedings by Hohenwarter and Lavicza which describe the process of training teachers to use Geogebra; however, the results do not address or provide evidence of the impacts of Geogebra on student learning. Geogebra is on our radar, so we'll check on it regularly if any new research emerges. Thanks for your question and for sharing about your experience with Geogebra.

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