OECD report: time for a rethink on Edtech?

By John Helmer September 30, 2015

Computer in wheelie binThis month the OECD published data that showed having more computers in school does not necessarily lead to better educational outcomes. This was reported by some parts of the media in terms that might have made you believe processors emit some kind of noxious, brain-impairing gas.

  • ‘Computer look like an obstacle to learning (Chicago Tribune)
  • ‘Computers “do not improve” pupil results’ (BBC)
  • ‘Schools wasting money on computers for kids’ (CNBC)
  • ‘Don’t bother buying computers for schools’ (The Register)
  • ‘Lack of computers in school may be a blessing’ (Irish Times)

The general tenor of these headlines seems to be that if you really want to drive up educational results in a school, the best thing you can do is park a skip outside and chuck in every piece of technology you can lay your hands on.

Only, the actual report doesn’t say anything of the sort.

Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection* is a landmark report based on data from PISA, the international assessment of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. It represents the most detailed set of data and analysis we have so far on student access to computers, their use of those computers, and learning outcomes as measured by PISA.

It runs to more than 200 pages, packed with tables and analysis. If you feel you lack the time or the stamina to attempt that (or if the cadres of computers at your secondary school rendered you unable to read) try this archived webinar presentation from Andreas Schleicher, Director of the Directorate for Education and Skills at the OECD, and Francesco Avvisati, OECD Education Analyst and principal author of the report.

Andreas Schleicher warns of the danger of disconnecting from technology – something that could potentially result if the negative headlines were taken at face value: ‘Information and communication technology has revolutionised virtually every aspect of our life and work. Students unable to navigate through a complex digital landscape will no longer be able to participate fully in the economic, social and cultural life around them’.

(In fact, Schleicher is a passionate advocate for the effective use of technology in learning – not that you would guess it from this BBC News report).

A no-computer environment is not the answer: the study shows that moderate computer use is actually beneficial to good results. The problem is, when you increase the number of computers per pupil, and the time spent using them, the results don’t seem to get any better. In fact they get worse – even when you factor in social background and demographics.

Schleicher advances two possible interpretations of this worrying result.

One is that technology sometimes distracts from the valuable human engagement within the teacher/pupil relationship necessary to build ‘deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking’.

Another is that ‘schools 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’.

There is some evidence in the report that technology can amplify good teaching practices, but over all the indication seems to be that schools have yet to take advantage of anything like the full potential of technology in the classroom.

It should also be emphasised that what the report points out is a correlation between increased use of technology and poorer results, and that correlation is not causation. Many factors could be behind the bad PISA scores. Has there been a tendency to ‘throw technology’ at failing schools, in some instances (we’ve certainly some of that in the UK)? And different factors might operate in different countries.

Sweden, for instance, has had a particularly rocky time with PISA scores over recent years, at a time when technology investment has risen – however this commentator believes the reason for that lies in its 23-year experiment with ‘free’ schools.

Teachers and pedagogies

One senses a laudable reluctance to engage in anything that looks like teacher-bashing on the part of the report’s authors; however it is clear from their findings that much more emphasis should be placed, going forward, on teachers and pedagogies.

When teachers were asked about their beliefs, the researchers found that they valued 21st Century pedagogies like enquiry-based learning, but when asked about their actual teaching practices it became clear they were stuck in the previous century (if not the one before that). It’s an obvious disconnect.

Teachers see ICT skills and learning about new technologies in the workplace as among their greatest needs in professional development – indicating that they probably do not get much support in these areas at the moment. ‘If you want to leverage the potential of new technology,’ says Schleicher, ‘you’ve got to invest more heavily in the human capacity, the human infrastructure in schools’.

This is an issue for school leadership. ‘School systems need to get the digital agenda 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.’

Lessons for L&D

L&D professionals will find a lot to interest them in this report, given that the 15 year-olds reported on here will be entering their organisations in the not-too-distant future (sadly, the UK did not provide full data for this report). Any failings in reading, mathematics and digital skills will then become their workforce issues.

The private sector thus has a vested interest in helping educators where it can to get things right – and helpfully, one of the key areas of focus identified by OECD going forward is the partnerships schools should make to help them rise to the challenge presented by this report.

At Lumesse, we’ve partnered with local schools to research pupils’ technology use, and what they find helpful and not helpful about technology. You can read the results here. But there is clearly a lot more that can be done to share knowledge and good practice in using technology for better learning outcomes between businesses and schools.

*OECD (2015), Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264239555-en

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