Education Technology and the Development of Higher Order Thinking Skills

Proponents of educational technology appear to be gaining ground in the long running debate over the ability of computers and technology to enhance student learning. Meta-analysis studies from the US, conducted by Soe, Koki, & Chang in 2000 and Bayraktar in 2002, concluded that computer-assisted instruction (CIA) had a positive effect on students’ reading achievement and was effective in science education, and these reports has been supported by more recent research, such as the meta-analysis study from the UK, conducted by Haggins in 2012, which concluded that over the past 40 years digital technologies have been making a positive impact on student learning.

But while many teachers in modern school make increasing use of computers, the internet and educational software, and recognize that technology can improve learning, it appears that we still a long way from having the majority of students being able to fully benefit from the opportunities which educational technology offer towards the development of higher order thinking skills.

Recent studies show that the majority of teachers are still only using the internet and digital technologies to search from information and present subject content while opportunities for students to engage in creative, analytical and productive activities remain minimal.

A 2010 report by Gray, Thomas, and Lewis, ‘Teachers’ Use of Educational Technology in U.S. Public Schools’, which questioned over 4,000 teachers from 2,000 public schools across the US found that while the majority of teachers made frequent use of the internet for general instructional or administrative purposes (word processing software (96%), managing students records (80%), searching the internet for information (94%)) and all students made use of the internet to search for information, only 20% of these teachers used the internet for specialized instruction such as wikis and few teachers provided students with opportunities to develop high-order thinking skills through the use of creative technologies (15%-30%).

how students use technology.PNG

A 2012 report by the Pew Research Centre, ‘How Teachers Are Using Technology at Home and in Their Classrooms” which polled 2,462 teachers across the United States, came to similar findings. The Pew report found that most students (95%) engaged with the internet and digital tools to search for information online. More interactive online learning activities, such as wikis (40%), online discussions (39%), and editing work (36%) were less commonly found in the learning environment.

The survey conducted by the Pew Center also uncovered what appears to be a divide between teachers according to their age groups, with younger teachers (those under age 35) more likely to employ creative activities with collaborative tools and have students participate in online discussions.

While the age group of the classroom instructor may influence the use of technology in the classroom, the degree to which teachers embrace educational technology may be more closely linked to the teacher’s ideological stand point and whether they embrace conservative or progressive educational theories.

Conservative vs Progressive educators

The Pew report also indicates there has been a growing use of mobile technology in classrooms across America, with 73% of teachers reporting that mobile devices were used for learning in their classrooms. However, despite this integration of mobile technology in learning environment, the use of these devices focuses primarily on simply searching for information on the internet or taking notes, pictures and videos during the actual lesson, rather than more creative or productive uses of technology which support the development of higher thinking skills.

how students use cell phones

In order to engage students with technologies which promote higher order thinking skills, such as analyzing, evaluating and creating, it is important that teachers realize the potential which educational technologies and digital technologies now offer.

An report from 2004, produced by Noeth & Volkov for Amecian College Testing (ACT), ‘Evaluating the Effectiveness of Technology in our School: ACT Policy Report’, envisioned greater use of technology in the classroom, claiming, ‘technology has expanded from use primarily as an instructional delivery medium to an integral part of the learning environment’, outlined four distinct purposes for technology usage in schools and colleges;

  • To teach, drill, and practice using increasingly sophisticated digital content.
  • To provide simulations and real world experiences to develop cognitive thinking and to extend learning.
  • To provide access to a wealth of information and enhanced communications through the Internet and other related information technologies.
  • As a productivity tool employing application software such as spreadsheets, databases, and word processors to manage information, solve problems, and produce sophisticated products

The inclusion of educational technologies for the development of cognitive thinking skills, problems solving skills and creativity, further emphasizes the potential of digital technology to enhance higher order thinking skills. However, as the report from 2010 and 2012 clearly indicate, the majority of teachers have yet to fully utilize these resource. As such it appears that teachers may need clearer guidelines regarding the possible applications of technology in the classroom.

The 2009 survey created by National Center for Education Statistics, which categorized 15 educational technology uses deployed by teachers and 14 uses of educational technology for students, provides a good starting point for realizing the range of options which educational technologies offer students and teachers.

teacher and students using technology

While these categories from the 2009 survey provide a starting point for realizing a greater application of educational technology, they, unfortunately, bundle too many uses together and do not allow for any specific details. These categories also lack any indication of whether they provide opportunities for students to develop higher order or lower order thinking skills. As such a more detailed chart, such as the one below many be more useful for teachers wishing to employ more technology in the learning environment to develop higher order thinking skills.

using digital technology to help students develop higher order thinking skills

Another useful aid to inspire more teachers to adopt technologies, which provide opportunities for students to develop higher order thinking skills, are taxonomies which incorporate technology such as the one below.


In order for more teachers to realise and unleash the potential that modern technologies offer students, schools need to provide  educators with sufficient training and opportunities for collaboration, to support the development of approaches to using technology in the learning environment which will more effectively prepare students for 21st Century life.


Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator.

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