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Computers in schools – do they work?

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Blog - Computers in schools – do they work?

Tuesday 15 September 2015

The OECD (the international organisation which is also responsible for the PISA tests) has just published a major study on the use of ICT and computers in education, Students, Computers and Learning, available from this link http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/students-computers-and-learning_9789264239555-en#page4 . It was widely covered in the media today, for example by the BBC on http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34174796 .  Perhaps somewhat depressing for some, it points to what I have thought for a long time about the role of ICT in schools.

Before we look any further at the report’s findings, let me be clear about one thing.  This study has nothing whatsoever to do with the government’s current push to get more students in schools learning computing as a subject.  Computing is about teaching students how to create computer programs by teaching them the coding which make all computers and all software work.  I have no doubt at all that this is a relevant, challenging and highly worthwhile subject discipline.

This report is far more about the impact, internationally as well as in the UK, of the large number of computers, tablets and other devices which have saturated schools in the past decade or so.  This is a phenomenon we are all familiar with.  Indeed, although the government’s ‘behaviour tsar’ Tom Bennett (he doesn’t like this title but it’s a convenient shorthand!) is quoted by the BBC as saying that teachers have been ‘dazzled’ by computers, it’s not only teachers, actually: many parents and politicians have also found schools where every child has an iPad at all times and in every lesson irresistible.  Schools and heads have won their national reputations on the back of it. It all looks so shiny and cutting-edge – from the outside.

However, the OECD’s large study produces some very much more ambiguous findings.  The impact of computers (by which we mean tablets as well) on learning is very mixed.  There is some evidence that students who have some access to computers at school do a little better than those who have no access at all, but the improvement in performance does not continue the more students use computers.  On the contrary – the report finds that students who use computers a lot make much less good progress in their learning than those who use computers less.

The report compares countries in terms of performance and computer use.  The conclusion is stark: there is no apparent correlation between computer use and performance, in fact the opposite might even be true.  Some of the highest performing Asian countries have the lowest computer use in schools.

The first lesson is simple therefore.  There may be a place for computers in schools, but only a place.  Saturating a school with technology will not, by itself, make it a better school, and investing millions in computers in schools will not automatically make a country’s educational performance better.

We might speculate about the reasons behind these findings.  The report suggests two starting points.  Firstly, it could be that spending too much time on computers at school simply reduces the interactions between teachers and students, in other words teachers teach less when students are on computers instead. Teachers effectively abdicate responsibility in favour of computers and learning suffers as a result.  The second possibility is that computers could be effective for learning, but that either teachers have not yet learnt to use them to best effect, and/or the software being used is poorly designed or just too primitive.  My view is that a bit of all of this is probably true.

One further fascinating insight emerging from the report is that in countries where there is relatively little computer use in school – South Korea and Shanghai are given as examples – there are very high levels of expertise in using computers in everyday life, including using the internet for professional and everyday purposes.  These countries also typically have very good broadband infrastructure.

We might ask how it is that so little emphasis on using computers at school in these countries leads to such strong computer use in society.  The answer leads us, I think, to an important conclusion.  Too often here in the UK we have thought that the way to produce accomplished or professional practitioners in any discipline is to replicate directly what those professional users do at an early stage in the classroom.  So we think the way to produce more research scientists is to do more practical work in science lessons, or the way to produce more people able to have a conversation in French is to have more oral and pair work in language classrooms.  The same misapprehension applies to computer use.  It is misguided to think that the way to produce a more ICT literate society is to spend more time on computers in schools.

Actually, in all these examples, and many others, teaching foundational knowledge comes before and underpins later proficient practice.  The best research scientists have not wasted hours doing experiments which they don’t have the theoretical framework to understand – they have spent the time getting the theoretical framework instead.  Then, and only then, can they do the research and actually stand a chance of extending the boundaries of human knowledge.  Likewise in computer use.  As the OECD report suggests, the evaluation and task management abilities needed to make a proficient computer user can be taught effectively using conventional pedagogy.  They are not necessarily ‘picked up’  just by using computers a lot, just as doing lots of science practicals will not make you a better scientist if you don’t master the theoretical subject content. Neither of course will doing lots of oral and pair work in a French classroom make you better able to have a conversation in French if you have not memorised the vocabulary and, crucially, mastered the necessary grammar, first.

So this report has implications not only for computers and those who see them as a panacea.  As in all other fields, what matters above all in education is direct, carefully planned and demanding teaching, led by a teacher, characterised by careful practice and reinforcement of progressively more difficult concepts, and which aims above all to move learning from the short term to the long term memory.  That lays the foundations for all future performance. As the report says, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot substitute for poor teaching.