Put Coronado K-8 Math Students First: Make Computers a Known Variable

Image of numbers keypad on a computer keyboard
Modified from photo by Aykut Eke on Unsplash

It is a beautiful sunny October 2022 afternoon in Coronado, and the front door suddenly flings open. In the doorway, my eleven-year-old brother Jonathan appears disheveled as he struggles to forcefully pull his percussion instrument through the lip of the doorway while carrying a huge black backpack across his shoulders. Although his arrival home after school was expected, his dramatic entrance signaled something was wrong.

“How was the math test?” my mom asks gently.

Instead of his normal response of, “Fine,” he collapses and says through tears, “It wasn’t fair, Mom…it wasn’t fair. The test was on the computer again, and it wasn’t working. I couldn’t type fast enough, and I ran out of time. It wasn’t fair. I hate this.”

As the older sister home for college fall break who is known for her math aptitude, it was upsetting to see my younger brother, who is only in 6th grade, so upset about a math test. Still, I understood his frustration and view of unfairness; as a junior in high school, I sobbed during a computerized AP Calculus exam because I could not type fast enough to enter all my work before time ran out. However, I was in 11th grade when my “traumatic” computer math test experience occurred, and it was during the COVID pandemic when Coronado Unified School District (CUSD) school doors were closed. So, hearing my brother’s concerns raised some alarms: Why is a Coronado Middle School 6th grader taking math tests on a computer? Is this how computers should be used in CUSD’s K-8 math classes, which are full of young students who are developing socially and emotionally, and who are just beginning to develop an academic interest in mathematics? I, too, initially embraced computer technology in school, and I believe computers will always play a part in education. However, as a former Coronado Middle School student and Coronado’s Class of 2022 Valedictorian who has learned math with and without computers, I urge CUSD to use caution in how computer technology is being incorporated into elementary and middle school math classes.

Using computers in education is not a new concept, but their specific role has still not been clearly defined within CUSD’s math classes. This is surprising because the push to merge technology and mathematics began over fifty years ago during the 1960’s Cold War, and computers started to appear in classrooms as early as the1980s. Hopes were extremely high back then, with many believing computers would revolutionize the educational system. For the Coronado School District, this meant establishing computer labs in the 1990s, using Department of Defense education grants in 2009 and 2012 to fund laptops for every single student, and participating in President Obama’s 2014-15 “Future Ready Schools” to promote “educating students for the era they live in” (Felix). According to former CUSD Superintendent Jeff Felix, the district even took a “pledge” to make “student learning a focal point” but how to integrate computer technology into the curriculum was never outlined. Now, seven years later after this “pledge” and a year of online learning, there are still no specific research-driven guidelines on how computers should be used to make “student learning a focal point” in K-8 Coronado math classes. This is concerning because the 2019-2020 report from the U.S Department of Education indicated math was tied for the second highest frequency of weekly classroom computer use (Rathbun and Lewis 26). In addition, the reliance on computers seems to have persisted following the pandemic; every Coronado student, including kindergarteners, are now required to bring a school-issued laptop back and forth to school every day. To be fair, Coronado schools are not unique in lacking computer classroom guidelines to implement the math core curriculum. In his February 2022 article “Computer Discourse and Use as Determinants of Student Math Outcomes,” University of Houston researcher Mario Martinez found that Common Core math standards “do not say anything on the use of computers to achieve their ends.” Unfortunately, the lack of technology guidelines could mean excessive, ineffective, and inconsistent computer utilization across Coronado math classes.

Graph indicating the percentage of 6th grade CUSD students who meet the math standars
Fig 1. Smarter Balance and CUSD’s 6th graders

Fortunately, there are research-driven ways to integrate computers in the classroom that can yield positive learning results for math students. First of all, computer technology is helpful when seen as an integrated tool to aid in understanding the grade-specific math curriculum. The key is integration, because computers cannot replace a teacher’s valuable in-person instruction. The COVID pandemic hints at this point as CUSD, a district where 100% of the students had access to computers, went strictly online from August 2020 to June 2021, and only ~47% of 6th-grade students met California’s Smarter Balanced test math benchmarks (e.g., see fig. 1), a 16% drop from the previous school year (“Test Results for California’s Assessments”). While other factors were at play during COVID, the fact that computers were used as the primary tool for education suggests they cannot replace the value of face-to-face teaching. If computers are instead used as collaborative tools where there is supervision and “guided computer sessions,” learning is engaging and does not “encourage passive learning” (Karlsson; Aydin). Additionally, learning benefits are seen when technology is intentionally matched with mathematical subject areas. For example, the Mathematical Association found that student-led computer programming can help lessons about ratios, measurement, functions, natural numbers, angles, and 3-D figures (Aydin). However, incorporating relevant technology into a math lesson requires planning, training, and up-to-date knowledge of available and beneficial math technology. This might be a significant barrier for CUSD because only 36% of U.S. public schools and their teachers report receiving moderate training on computers and software (Gray and Lewis 3). Finally, computer math lessons are the most effective when catered to the individual student. A 2018 meta-analysis study of ed tech showed that “when education technology is used to individualize students’ pace of learning, the overall results show ‘enormous potential’” (Mohammed). In that sense, technology can be a tool for targeting a student’s specific needs in a smaller teaching environment. Thus, computers are a positive addition to the math classroom when used “as directed.”

However, there are limits to computer technology use in the math classroom. For example, in the case of my brother Jonathan, paper math tests can be a more consistent measure of his learning than the computer math tests. In a Boston College Lynch School of Education study, researchers administered the 2001 Math Online test to determine if a performance difference existed between paper and computer math tests for a national random sample of 8th grade students in public and private schools (Bennett et al. 3). The results showed that the “computer-based mathematics test was significantly harder statistically than the paper-based test,” with scores lower than the identical paper test scores (3). The study also showed computer familiarity improved performance within the computer test group. Proposed reasons for lower scores on computer tests include responses requiring “considerable computer skill,” with 30% of students having difficulty entering the answer (25). In addition, 11% of students were interrupted by computer issues (26). Hence, computer math tests can be inequitable and fail to show a student’s math knowledge simply because it is on a computer, making it hard for Coronado teachers to capture a student’s knowledge-level accurately and leaving math students discouraged.

Graph comparing achievement based on those who don't use computers and those who do
Fig. 2. Computer use and test scores from Karlsson, “Computers in Education.”

Unfortunately, the downside of computers is not limited to lower results on routine classroom math tests. Using computers frequently to teach math class decreases overall math achievement. Although the study by Martinez did not precisely quantify computer usage or how the computers were used in math class, his review found that “increased” computers in school did not increase 2015 math achievement scores in 4th grade students as expected. In addition, Karlsson, a Ph.D. student in the Economics of Education, demonstrated an inversely proportional relationship between school computer use and math achievement score when he evaluated the association between test scores and computer use at school and home for 900,000 fourth graders. As illustrated in Figure 2, “pupils who use computers at school, especially those who use them frequently, are found to achieve less than students who never use computers” (Karlsson). Home computer use was also negatively associated, but weekly or monthly use showed a positive effect. The correlation between increased technology use and lower test scores tracks with global studies comparing countries, school computer use, and test scores. In fact, the countries (South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Japan) with the lowest school internet use of no more than twenty minutes per day academically outperformed those countries with higher internet use (Coughlan). Perhaps the most disappointing trend was that the negative association of computer usage to achievement was the most pronounced for “low-performing pupils” as compared to “higher-performing students” (Karlsson); more computer usage makes the learning gaps wider for struggling students. This observance correlates with Martinez’s study where the data suggests computers are not bridges for student inequalities and may even worsen them. Thus, more computers and more computer lessons are not the answer for struggling students, and computer overuse diminishes math achievement for all students.

Beyond the academic consequences, Coronado’s classroom technology could be taking a toll on the overall wellness of its students. Before the surge of computers in the classroom, the Academy of Pediatrics had already linked obesity, poor sleep, “desensitization” to violence, behavior problems, and impaired academic performance to “too much screen time” (Christensen). In addition, a pre-COVID study of over 1,000 children aged four to eighteen found that technology does indeed have a negative “independent effect” on all “four areas of ill-being—psychological, behavior problems, attention problems and physical health,” and include increased depression, anxiety, attention, aggression, and decreased physical wellness (Rosen et al). Following COVID, more studies are “linking” online computer learning technology to “ill-being,” with the “overuse of technology” being the likely source of poorer outcomes in adolescents’ physical, behavioral, attentional, and psychological issues (Gottschalk). Hence, the “susceptibility of the developing brain” cannot be forgotten, even if the correlation between health and technology is still evolving (Gottschalk).

Knowing that computer usage can affect math academic achievement and well-being, where do Coronado schools stand regarding classroom computer use? Unfortunately, CUSD does not know the answer, partly because the U.S. is much less precise with screen time limits for “school-age-adolescence” children than other countries (Gottschalk). For example, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the appropriate amount of screen time for school-age children is simply “consistent limits on time and type” while other countries, who academically outperform U.S students, limit screen time to less than two hours (Gottschalk; “PISA Scores by Country 2022”). This broad recommendation makes classroom screen time an easy factor to dismiss by U.S. school districts and, consequently, not monitor. However, every 6th grade student at Coronado Middle School uses a school-issued computer almost every class period for seven periods, making overuse a real possibility.

Without a doubt, computers have a place in education, and students are expected to understand their use as they move toward their future. However, CUSD administrators must direct how computers are used in K-8 math classes, as school is where students’ minds are developed, math foundations are built, and future math careers are imagined. Knowing the current research surrounding computer technology, CUSD is in a unique position to act by aligning computer classroom use with optimal student learning and well-being; the district is small, with one elementary school and one middle school, and already has a technology support fund with additional monetary support from the Coronado School Foundation (CSF). Therefore, to ensure computer technology is a maximized educational asset in the K-8 math classroom that has minimal negative impact on the developmental growth of students, Coronado Unified School District should develop and implement a computer classroom plan that links computer technology to math subject areas with research proven benefits, limits computer use for routine math tests, allows for teacher training that reflects updated and evolving educational research, and mandates the tracking of classroom computer use and its impact on students.

Supplementing the K-8 math curriculum in topic areas that have a proven computer technology benefit, such as geometry, measurement, ratios, and graphing, is a win-win situation for all Coronado math classes. A historical literature review of computer technology by Aydin divided math tools into three categories: (1) computer-assisted instruction [CAI], (2) student educational programming, and (3) educational tools such as computer algebra systems, spreadsheets, and databases. For CAI, the use is in the form of “drill, practice, tutorial, and simulations,” but there are concerns with decreased social interaction for students, and its use should be limited (Aydin). However, student educational programming using platforms like BASIC and LOGO were a positive math tool for understanding ratios, measurement, functions, natural numbers, angles, and 3-D figures (Aydin). Because it is designed by students using math concepts, it is not a passive-learning experience. The third category of math tools, the educational tools, could be used for graphs, areas under a curve, roots, and solving differential equations (Aydin). However, for any of these math categorial tools to be effective, educators must be “monitoring student use of technology and intervening as necessary to put them on track” and “designing learning situations which include cooperation and mutual learning, including both students-students and teacher-students” (Viberg et al.). By using computer technology with a proven purpose, the classroom remains a cooperative teacher-led learning environment that offers multimodal teaching tools for students who learn in a variety of ways.

Second, paper tests should be encouraged for routine math tests in the K-8 classroom as paper tests are presently the more consistent measure of learning, allowing students to develop academic confidence. While studies such as Bayazit and Askar (2012) and Johnson and Green (2006) found no statistical difference, Keng et al. (2008), Bennett et al. (2008), plenty of other studies like Flowers et al. (2011), Taherbhai et al. (2012), Logan (2015), and the Minnesota Department of Education (2012), did find a statistical difference favoring paper tests (McClelland and Cuevas 78-80). Hence, more “efforts must be made to ensure student performance on CBTs (computer-based tests) is an accurate indicator of content competency” (McClelland and Cuevas 87). Until that occurs, the paper math test should be the preferred evaluation method in the K-8 classroom. Besides capturing the most accurate level of learning, students are afforded more test time to engage and demonstrate critical thinking without the barriers of a keyboard, which requires more time and skill.

However, because new and relevant computer classroom technology research is continually emerging for K-8 math classes, CUSD needs to provide up-to-date training and support for teachers so they can respond and ensure technology remains an effective and positive classroom tool. Technology has become more complex, with online learning tools less intuitive, so teachers need help to incorporate it into the classroom. In “Teachers and Technology: Present Practice and Future Directions,” DeCoito and Richardson recognize that a significant problem with computer learning is the “lack of awareness or familiarity” and offer a teacher’s perspective: “I would need to take workshops or something. That’s the problem. I don’t know… I’m not sure how to use them.” To combat this lack of awareness at Coronado Schools, CUSD should implement frequent training programs to familiarize teachers with the constantly changing technology. Meetings for the program could be held monthly, and at each session, the teachers could receive updates from the district’s technology support department and obtain hands-on training. By being intentional with teacher training, teachers can match technology to mathematical subject areas known to benefit from computer integration. Hence, with up-to-date information and computer technology training, math teachers can confidently modify current strategies and effectively utilize new online math learning tools to benefit students’ learning.

Finally, the school district needs to develop a means of tracking a student’s computer use so that evaluation of potential computer overuse can be readily identified and the ill-effects on students avoided. As noted earlier, the U.S has vague screen time restrictions for school-age children. Part of the issue may be the rapidly growing partnership between education and computers in the U.S and the failure to acknowledge school computer time as screen time. However, ignoring classroom computer time in total screen time is a mistake. With data connecting technology to “ill-being” and overuse related to lower academic achievement, examining a student’s classroom screen team would align with CUSD’s goal of encouraging positive growth of the whole student. To monitor use, the Coronado Unified School district should devise ways to track classroom computer time. Because every student receives a numbered Chromebook, a screen-time tracker program could be installed. In addition, teachers could record computer time for a lesson. With computer technology playing a prominent role in education, tracking students’ classroom computer use is simply the right thing to do for the entire educational community until we know more, and CUSD is the right district to take the lead.

It is a brisk Sunday afternoon in November at the University of Notre Dame, and I am talking to my family back home in Coronado. My brother Jonathan gets on the phone, and I ask him how math is going. He says, “I hate math,” before abruptly handing the phone back to my mom. Please, CUSD, continue to be educational leaders by formulating an intentional technology plan that outlines and tracks usage and provides up-to-date research training for math classes. With your help, my brother and all K-8 Coronado students will build the best educational foundation possible, be inspired to learn about math, and remain healthy individuals. They are the future.

Works Cited

Aydin, Emin. “The Use of Computers in Mathematics Education: A Paradigm Shift from

‘Computer Assisted Instruction’ Towards ‘Student Programming.’” Online Submission, 31 Mar. 2005, eric.ed.gov/?id=ED502604. Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Bennett, Randy Elliot, et al. “Does It Matter If I Take My Mathematics Test on Computer? A

Second Empirical Study of Mode Effects in NAEP.” The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, vol. 6, no. 9, 2008, files.eric.ed. gov/fulltext /EJ838621.pdf. Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Christensen, Jill. “Children and Too Much Screen Time.” Mayo Clinic Health System,

28 May 2021, https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/ hometown-health/speaking-of-health/children-and-screen-time. Accessed 11 Nov. 2022.

Coughlan, Sean. “Computers ‘Do Not Improve’ Pupil Results, Says OECD.” BBC News, BBC,

15 Sept. 2015, www.bbc.com/news/business-34174796. Accessed 07 Nov. 2022

DeCoito, Isha and Tasha Richardson. “Teachers and Technology: Present Practice and Future

Directions.” Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, vol. 18, no. 2, June 2018, citejournal.org/volume-18/ issue-2-18/science/teachers-and-technology-present-practice-and-future-directions/. Accessed 12 Nov 2022.

Felix, Jeff. “Personalized Learning Series: Coronado Unified School District Takes Lead on

Digital Proficiency.” Coronado Times, 3 December 2015, coronadotimes.com/news/2015/ 12/03/personalized-learning-series-coronado-unified-school-district-takes-lead-digital-proficiency/. Accessed 08 Nov. 2022.

Gottschalk, Francesca. “Impacts of Technology Use on Children: Exploring Literature on the

Brain, Cognition and Well-Being.” Oecd, 4 Feb. 2019, https://doi.org/10.1787/8296464e-en. Accessed 19 Oct. 2022.

Gray, L., and Laurie Lewis. Use of Educational Technology for Instruction in Public

Schools:2019–20 (NCES 2021- 017). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Nov. 2021, nces.ed.gov/pubs2021/2021017 Summary.pdf. Accessed 08 Nov. 2022.

Karlsson, Linn. “Computers in Education: The Association Between Computer Use and Test

Scores in Primary School.” Education Inquiry, vol. 13, no. 1, 2022, pp. 56-85, doi.org/10.1080/ 20004508. Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Martinez, Mario Antonio. “Computer Discourse and Use as Determinants of Student Math

Outcomes: Performativity and Action at Work in the Lower School Grades.” Heliyon, Elsevier, vol. 8, no. 2, 2 Feb. 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2022.e08888. Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

McClelland, Tara, and Josh Cuevas. “A Comparison of Computer Based Testing and Paper and

Pencil Testing in Mathematics Assessment.” The Online Journal of New Horizons in Education, vol. 10, no. 2, April 2020, pp. 78-89, www.researchgate.net/publication/341494845_A_Comparison_of_Computer_Based_Testing_and_Paper_and_Pencil_Testing_in_Mathematics_Assessment. Accessed 01 Nov. 2022.

Mohammed, Saro. “Is Technology Good or Bad for Learning?” Brookings, 9 Mar.

2022, www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2019/05/08/ is-technology-good-or-bad-for-learning/. Accessed 01 Nov. 2022.

“PISA Scores by Country 2022.” World Population Review, worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/pisa-scores-by-country. Accessed 15 Nov 2022.

Rathbun, Amy H, and Jerry West. “Young Children’s Access to Computers in the Home and at

School in 1999 and 2000.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, 7 Mar. 2003, nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/ 2003036.pdf. Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

Rosen, L.D., et al. “Media and Technology Use Predicts Ill-Being among Children, Preteens and

Teenagers Independent of the Negative Health Impacts of Exercise and Eating Habits.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 35, pp. 364-375, June 2014, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.01.036. Accessed 08 Nov. 2022.

“Test Results for California's Assessments.” California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, caaspp-elpac.ets.org/caaspp/Default. Accessed 08 Nov. 2022.

Viberg et al. “Integrating Digital Technology in Mathematics Education: A Swedish Case

Study.” Interactive Learning Environments, vol. 31, no. 1, 2023, pp. 232-43, doi.org/10.1080/ 10494820.2020.1770801. Accessed 08 Nov. 2022.