OECD report looks at mixed results from using computers in education, stresses the need to get technology right

A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Students, Computers and Learning, questions the value of using computers in education. The report is illuminating and important, but some articles and blog posts covering the report, such as Time to close the laptops - and improve learning, get the key findings wrong. A closer look reveals why. The OECD report compares PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores between countries with different levels of computer use. Among its findings are:

“…where computers are used in the classroom, their impact on student performance is mixed at best. Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.

The results also show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education. And perhaps the most disappointing finding of the report is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services.”

This is an important report from a highly respected organization; these findings and the report’s recommendations should be considered by anyone advocating for or implementing an education technology initiative. But the analysis and recommendations are neither simple nor predictable.

“One interpretation of all this is that building deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking requires intensive teacher-student interactions, and technology sometimes distracts from this valuable human engagement. Another interpretation is that we have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; that adding 21st-century technologies to 20th-century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.

If students use smartphones to copy and paste prefabricated answers to questions, it is unlikely to help them to become smarter. If we want students to become smarter than a smartphone, we need to think harder about the pedagogies we are using to teach them. Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.” (emphasis added)

In the foreword to the report, Andreas Schleicher, the Director of the Directorate for Education and Skills for OECD, says this:

“The findings must not lead to despair. We need to get this right in order to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st-century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world. Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. Why should students be limited to a textbook that was printed two years ago, and maybe designed ten years ago, when they could have access to the world’s best and most up-to-date textbook? Equally important, technology allows teachers and students to access specialized materials well beyond textbooks, in multiple formats, with little time and space constraints. Technology provides great platforms for collaboration in knowledge creation where teachers can share and enrich teaching materials. Perhaps most importantly, technology can support new pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants with tools for inquiry-based pedagogies and collaborative workspaces."

Despite some of the ways the report has been characterized, it does not suggest ending the use of computers in schools. Instead, it points out that technology can be used effectively, but that it often is not well implemented, and our understanding of how best to use technology is still evolving. Most educators already understand this, but still the report is a helpful reminder of the challenges facing teachers and schools that are using, or expanding their use of, technology.