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Ignore the headlines – computers in classrooms are a good idea, and here’s why

"Computers 'do not improve' pupil results", say headlines this week on a new OECD report. Is the evidence telling us that digital learning is flawed? Should schools be moving away from new technologies and back towards traditional skills?

The findings come from the Programme For International Student Assessment. This is an internationally administered set of tests for 15 year olds. For some years, these tests have been measuring achievement in the ‘core’ subjects of Mathematics, Reading and Science across the world.

The report concludes that “the reality in our schools lags considerably behind the promise of technology”, a position which much of our work has also caused us to take.

“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."

Why could it be that significant investment in ICT has not resulted in improved learning outcomes?

I think the BBC report illustrates one reason quite clearly. The OECD draw conclusions based on Maths, Reading and Science tests. The teacher brought on defend the use of technology cites preparing children for jobs and training them to use technology.

These are very different outcomes.

There is a tendency in discussions of education to refer to ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘results’ as if we have a universally accepted view of what these are. A fundamental challenge of education systems is the agreement with broad and uncontestable aims such as ‘preparing young people for the future’. This masks a vast range of views and fundamental disagreements on what young people need to reach such aims.

Some people think young people are best prepared for the future by focusing on traditional skills such as Maths and Reading. These are the time tested achievements that today’s adults have built their success in the world on. Others privilege more recent aims such as communicating and collaborating in digital environments.

The teacher in the piece says digital technology is implemented in schools to learn new skills rather than to aid the acquisition of traditional ones. It seems likely many teachers are implementing technology with the intention of achieving quite different ‘learning outcomes’ than those the OECD measure. Whether these intentions are correct is a vast and rich debate. As it is one that has been underway since at least the days of Rousseau it is not one there seems much hope of resolving soon.

The report states, technology "has revolutionised virtually every aspect of our life and work”. For such a powerful influence on modern life, it is important that young people learn about technology and how to harness it to the best effects. Something the work underpinning the report does not measure is whether giving young people access to computers actually helps them to learn about computers and digital technology.

“Many other potential benefits fall outside of what PISA can measure through the performance of 15 year old students. The fact that this report does not document them does not imply that they do not exist."

Regardless of any potential benefits to skills in Reading, Maths and Science, learning about technology is in itself a reason for its use. In England, the relevant subject has recently been refocused to include understanding of computer science, programming and digital literacy. Scotland has had technical aspects of Computing it its national curriculum since 2010. In Wales, the government has just announced the the development of a Digital Competence Framework will be the first aspect of its curriculum review to be actioned.

There is a real impetus here to be clear in the public discussions we have about technology and learning. A lack of evidence of the impact digital technology can have on measures of traditional learning outcomes is a different issue to educating young people in new subjects that support understanding of one of the most powerful developments in modern societies. If we agree that learning about digital technology is important, then we need schools to implement computers as part of their work teaching students about it.

In a future blog post I will explore the question of whether using digital technology can have an impact on results in traditional subjects.

Read the OECD report "Students, Computers and Learning' here.

Photo Credit: Lupuca via Compfight cc


Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Head of Impact and Research, Raspberry Pi Foundation

Oliver was a programme manager for Nesta’s digital education projects. He is now Head of Impact and Research at the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

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