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More Technology Doesn't Mean More Learning, International Study Finds

By guest blogger Michele Molnar

Countries where 15-year-old students use computers the most in classrooms scored the worst on digital reading and computer-based math tests, according to an analysis of 2012 results from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. 

Although governments around the world have invested in computers, Internet connections, and software for educational use, "there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores," authors of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's 202-page Students, Computers and Learning report found.

In what the OECD says is a first-of-its-kind study of digital skills that was released Monday, U.S. students performed better in digital reading and math than expected given their print-based assessment scores in those subjects. Students in the United States also scored among the top for their abilities to "think, then click" when browsing the web for schoolwork. Other digital skills measured included the ability to use email, skills using online tools to practice and drill for subjects like math and foreign language learning, and using chat technologies to collaborate and share ideas at school.

However, the overall picture for the 31 countries studied was still sobering for educational technology advocates. The results showed no "appreciable improvement in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science" in countries that heavily invested in technology, according to the report.

An example of the trend is shown in this graph;

Math-performance-trends-WEB.jpgThe findings were surprising and disappointing, according to Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's director of education and skills, who presented a webinar on the results. "We need to look further to see why schools aren't producing greater gains in learning outcomes from the investment in technology," Schleicher wrote in the summary. Most disappointing was the fact that technology is not bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged children.

Ensuring that every child attains basic proficiency in reading and math "seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world" than can be achieved by giving more access to high-tech devices and services, or subsidizing that access, he wrote.

On a positive note, "we do see some innovative practices of teachers that are positively related to technology use," he said in the webinar. Some of those practices include using digital tools for formative assessment, experiential learning, and collaboration. 

Teachers themselves rate learning how to use technology as their second highest professional development need, according to the report.  Their top PD need is training in how to teach students with special needs.

Other findings in the report include:

  • 72 percent of students in OECD countries reported using desktop, laptop, or tablet computers in school and 93 percent reported using them at home. 
  • Browsing the Internet for schoolwork was the task most frequently performed in the classroom, with 42 percent of students browsing once a week or more frequently.
  • Playing simulations at school was the least frequently reported activity, with 11 percent of students reporting that they use simulations.
  • Students' solo use of computers—for practice and drilling, online chats, and doing individual homework—is the activity that increased the most in schools between 2009 and 2012.
  • Limted use of computers at school may be better than no use at all, but levels of computer use above the current average are associated with significantly poorer results.

No specific conclusions could be drawn about why computers haven't fulfilled what many consider to be their promise in classrooms, but the bottom line for school systems, Schleicher said, is the "need to find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning."

"Many of the countries that are doing well on digital skills, or education more generally—particularly East Asia—have been rather cautious about giving students access to computers," Schleicher said. But they "do a lot to use technology to leverage good teaching practices" by connecting educators and using video for classroom observation, among other tactics, he said.

Chart: From the Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection report, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

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