< Back to Main Site

EDUCAUSE review onlineEDUCAUSE review online

The Myth about No Significant Difference


© 2006 Diana G. Oblinger and Brian L. Hawkins

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 41, no. 6 (November/December 2006): 14–15

Diana G. Oblinger is Vice President of EDUCAUSE, where she is responsible for the association's teaching and learning activities and for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI). Brian L. Hawkins is President of EDUCAUSE. Comments on this article can be sent to the authors at doblinger@educause.edu and bhawkins@educause.edu.

It seems that someone always wants to know if technology "makes a difference." Sometimes it is a legislator, hoping that technology will reduce costs. Sometimes it is the college or university president, hoping for a competitive edge. Sometimes it is the provost, hoping to prove that students learn more in online courses than in face-to-face settings. Sometimes it is a faculty member, hoping to show just the opposite. One group will claim that using technology produces no significant difference; another will say that technology has transformed higher education.

The problem is that to receive a valid answer, one needs to ask a good question. To get an answer as to whether technology makes a difference, we need to ask: "Difference in what?" For example, asking whether technology makes a difference in student learning implies that learning is a high-tech or no-tech phenomenon. The issue is not that simple. Learning occurs as a result of motivation, opportunities, an active process, interaction with others, and the ability to transfer learning to a real-world situation.

Whether or not technology makes a difference depends on how it is used for motivation. Many students are motivated through connections with experts. Technologies, such as videoconferencing, allow students to interact with experts—on and off campus. Others are motivated by being able to work on real-world problems or by being part of a project team. Students use databases of astronomical data to make their own discoveries. Others join globally distributed teams in taking measurements, sharing observations, and testing hypotheses. A few students have always had the opportunity to interact with experts and work on real-world problems. But today, those opportunities are much more accessible for many more students. Does technology make a significant difference?

Opportunities are also affected by technology. For millions of learners around the world, online learning has provided them with the flexibility to make learning adapt to their schedule, not the other way around. Whether it is a part-time student taking a distance-learning course, an undergraduate fulfilling a prerequisite over the summer so that graduation is not delayed, or a graduate student accessing rich resources to augment an on-campus course, technology provides unprecedented capabilities. Does technology make a significant difference?

Learning is an active process. In fact, the more active the learning is, the more likely the student is to learn. Simulations allow students to learn by doing. Visualizations enable students to see information that may have been hidden in tables of numbers. Students use technology as a key enabler in problem-based learning, searching for background information, conferring with team members, and using the tools of the profession to develop solutions. Does technology make a significant difference?

Learning is also a social process that is not bounded by space or time. Learning ebbs and flows throughout the campus—real and virtual—whether it be part of a class discussion, a conversation over coffee, IMing with a friend, or extracurricular activities. Interaction with others provides almost endless learning opportunities stimulating personal and professional growth. With wireless access, any space can be a learning space. Does technology make a significant difference?

Still, learning may not be enough if that learning can't be transferred to new and unique problems. The ability to transfer learning to a real-world situation enhances the application of knowledge and leads to enduring understanding. Those problems can be simulated using techniques such as augmented reality. Reflection can occur through Web journaling. Achievements can be documented in e-portfolios. Does technology make a significant difference?

Perhaps another, related question should be asked: What is technology? It is all too easy to fall into the trap of using outmoded definitions of technology. Technology is more than presentation software or a browser. The Web doesn't just "bring the world to the desktop." The Web is a medium for participation. Users receive information, but they also comment, collaborate, and create their own content. Anyone can create and publish content on the Web.1 Perhaps we don't find a significant difference when using technology in student learning because we aren't looking in the right places or using the correct definition.

In thinking about the "no significant difference" phenomenon, the CIO and members of the executive team should ask themselves the following strategic questions:

  1. Do we think of technology as a solution in itself or as a means to an end? Using technology does not necessarily produce change. A lecture may be enhanced when the lecturer uses presentation software, but if everything else remains the same—the interaction, the examples, the opportunity to problem-solve—the learning won't change. Colleges and universities should not expect learning outcomes to change if the pedagogical approach does not change. Learning is an active process; technology can provide a wide range of active learning opportunities and can enable those to scale to reach more learners. But adding technology without altering pedagogy is not a solution.
  2. Do we assume that using technology is an either/or proposition? It is all too easy to assume that using one technology replaces another. But in many instances, technologies are blended rather than substituted. For example, research has verified that although students use technology in their personal lives, they aren't interested in replacing human contact with online content.2 When asked, students typically respond that they came to college to be with people—faculty and other students. Being with others is now multimodal, involving face-to-face and online communication, often simultaneously.
  3. Have we identified those processes and activities we want to improve and looked at how technology can facilitate those actions? Students learn through interaction with others. Interaction can occur more often, with more individuals, and over a more extended period of time when it is online rather than face-to-face. Students learn from authentic experiences. Although access to laboratories and instruments is limited, they can be shared via the Web, such as using remote instruments to collect data. Students learn from using the tools of the profession, such as CAD software. Students learn from applying what they know to solve a new problem, such as might occur in a simulation. Students learn through self-expression—whether text, audio, video, or images. Technology can make these learning opportunities more readily accessible and more flexible to accommodate the schedules of busy students—and faculty.
  4. Are we doing the same things with technology, or are we taking advantage of the unique capabilities of technology and redesigning our activities? Although completing a writing assignment using a word-processor is faster and may encourage more revision than when using longhand, it doesn't necessarily change the activity. However, allowing students to listen to a podcast of a lecture while reviewing their class notes and watching an animation on the screen permits the integration of multiple inputs. In the early phases of technology adoption, old uses tended to be replicated with new tools. Perhaps rather than just assembling more data with technology, we should be using technology to interpret that data through visualization techniques. Patterns emerge; insights occur.

Does using technology produce a significant difference? The answer depends on how the question is asked.


1. George Lorenzo, Diana Oblinger, and Chuck Dziuban, "How Choice, Co-Creation, and Culture Are Changing What It Means to Be Net Savvy," EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) white paper, October 2006, http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI3008.pdf.

2. Joel Hartman, Patsy Moskal, and Chuck Dziuban, "Preparing the Academy of Today for the Learner of Tomorrow," chapter 6 in Educating the Net Generation, ed. Diana G. Oblinger and James L. Oblinger (Boulder, Colo.: EDUCAUSE, 2005), e-book, available at http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101f.pdf.

Diana Oblinger

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger President and CEO of EDUCAUSE

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. The current membership comprises over 2,300 colleges, universities and education organizations, including 250 corporations. Previously, Oblinger held positions in academia and business: Vice President for Information Resources and the Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina system, Executive Director of Higher Education for Microsoft, and IBM Director of the Institute for Academic Technology. She was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Michigan State University and served as the associate dean of academic programs at the University of Missouri.

Since becoming president of EDUCAUSE, Oblinger has become known for innovative product and services growth as well as international outreach. For example, Oblinger created the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), known for its leadership in teaching, learning and technology innovation as well as several signature products, such as the 7 Things You Should Know About series. She also initiated EDUCAUSE's first fully online events and its e-book series, including Educating the Net Generation and Learning Spaces.

In collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation she led the creation of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a $30M program focused on improving college readiness and completion through information technologies. Partners include the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Hewlett Foundation.

Oblinger has served on a variety of boards such as the board of directors of ACT, the editorial board of Open Learning, the National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee on Cyberinfrastructure, and the National Visiting Committee for NSF's National Science Digital Library project. She currently serves on the American Council on Education (ACE) board and works with other higher education associations as chair of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Dr. Oblinger has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Employment, Safety and Training and the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Technology.

Oblinger is a frequent keynote speaker as well as the co-author of the award-winning book What Business Wants from Higher Education. She is the editor or co-editor of seven books: The Learning Revolution, The Future Compatible Campus, Renewing Administration, E is for Everything, Best Practices in Student Services, Educating the Net Generation, and Learning Spaces. She also is the author or co-author of numerous monographs and articles on higher education and technology.

Dr. Oblinger has received outstanding teaching and research awards, was named Young Alumnus of the Year by Iowa State University and holds two honorary degrees. She is a graduate of Iowa State University (Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D.) and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.


Brian L. Hawkins

Brian L. Hawkins was president of EDUCAUSE from 1998-2007. Prior to joining EDUCAUSE, Hawkins was senior vice president for Academic Planning and Administrative Affairs at Brown University. In this capacity, he oversaw academic planning, instructional budget management, campus computing, enrollment management, institutional research, summer programs, admission, financial aid, and student registration. Hawkins went to Brown in 1986 as vice president for Computing and Information Services. In 1989, he filled in as senior vice president for Finance and Administration, and then was appointed special assistant to the president for Academic Planning while he spearheaded Brown’s strategic planning processes. In 1997, he served as part of a three-person team standing in for the president of Brown University.

Before going to Brown, Hawkins was associate vice president for Academic Affairs at Drexel University. At Drexel, he was responsible for general academic planning and the first academic program in the nation to require access to a microcomputer, as well as integrating the use of technology throughout the curriculum.

Hawkins is a management professor by training and the author of one book and many articles on organizational behavior. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University and his doctorate from Purdue University. He taught at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and served there as department chairman and assistant dean of the College of Business. His organizational work focused on organizational structure, conflict management, communication, and performance appraisal. He earned tenure as faculty member at both UTSA and Drexel.

Hawkins has combined his academic and business experience to serve as a consultant to more than 350 organizations. In 1983, the governor of Pennsylvania asked him to initiate a corporate, industrial, public, and educational partnership in Southeastern Pennsylvania to create start-up companies and develop new jobs. Nearly two decades later, this program is still thriving.

Throughout his career, Hawkins has served on a variety of boards and committees. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the Forum for the Future of Higher Education and the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Hawkins served as a member of the board of trustees of the University of Richmond and the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) General Assembly and as chair and member of the boards of Educom and CAUSE. He also served on the boards of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) and the International Consortium for Educational Computing. Additionally, Hawkins has been a member of higher education advisory boards for Apple, IBM, NeXT, Sun, and Microsoft and has served on more than 60 advisory panels for various colleges and universities.

He has written extensively, including four books, numerous articles, book chapters, and monographs on information resources, academic planning, and the use of technology in higher education. Hawkins has received two honorary doctorates of science. In 1991, he received the CAUSE ELITE Award, a lifetime achievement award for Exemplary Leadership and Information Technology Excellence. He has served actively on accreditation teams as a chair and member, as well as the standards committee for North East Association of Schools and Colleges. Hawkins has been an invited speaker at professional meetings including the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), Educom, CAUSE, the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), the American Association of Publishers (AAP), the Association for College Research Libraries (ACRL), the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).


Tags from the Community

Stay Up-to-Date

RSS Email Twitter

Share Your Work and Ideas

Issues coming up will focus on new roles in IT and learning environments. Share your work and ideas with EDUCAUSE Review.

E-mail us >

Connect: San Antonio
April 22–24
Register Now

Events for all Levels and Interests

Whether you're looking for a conference to attend face-to-face to connect with peers, or for an online event for team professional development, see what's upcoming.


Digital Badges
Member recognition effort
Earn yours >

Career Center

Leadership and Management Programs

EDUCAUSE Institute
Project Management



Jump Start Your Career Growth

Explore EDUCAUSE professional development opportunities that match your career aspirations and desired level of time investment through our interactive online guide.


EDUCAUSE organizes its efforts around three IT Focus Areas



Join These Programs If Your Focus Is


Get on the Higher Ed IT Map

Employees of EDUCAUSE member institutions and organizations are invited to create individual profiles.



2015 Strategic Priorities

  • Building the Profession
  • IT as a Game Changer
  • Foundations

Learn More >

Uncommon Thinking for the Common Good™

EDUCAUSE is the foremost community of higher education IT leaders and professionals.