Relying on calculators to perform arithmetic has had similar risks and benefits. Automating the time-consuming work of multiplying and dividing large numbers by hand can allow students to spend time and energy on more complex mathematical subjects. But depending on calculators in classrooms can also lead students to forget how to do the operations that the machines perform.
Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.
Some education experts say that the push to equip classrooms with computers is unwarranted because studies do not clearly show that this leads to better test scores or other measurable gains.
But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.
Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.
And often the smaller studies produce conflicting results. Some classroom studies show that math scores rise among students using instructional software, while others show that scores actually fall. The high-level analyses that sum up these various studies, not surprisingly, give researchers pause about whether big investments in technology make sense.
One broad analysis of laptop programs like the one in Maine, for example, found that such programs are not a major factor in student performance.
But the research, what little there is of it, does not establish a clear link between computer-inspired engagement and learning, said Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo.
For him, the best educational uses of computers are those that have no good digital equivalent. As examples, he suggests using digital sensors in a science class to help students observe chemical or physical changes, or using multimedia tools to reach disabled children.