The 200 page report published yesterday by the OECD is packed with tables and figures that tell a story about the state of 15-year-olds’ educational attainment in maths, reading, science and digital skills in 2012 across the participating countries.
The negative message from this report has received considerable publicity: countries that have invested heavily in ICT for education do not show improved student achievements in reading, mathematics and science. Less use of the internet is linked to better reading performance and frequent use of technology in school is linked to lower performance. The UK did not participate in this study, but findings being presented to the British Educational Research Association today (Thursday) appear to back it up.
All this sounds very depressing, but it is not the key message we should take away from the report. Instead we should be asking why technology use is not linked to improved attainment and what we should be doing about it.
Andreas Schleichler, OECD director for education and skills, says we must provide teachers with environments that support 21st Century teaching and learning and students with 21st century skills. He states that “Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge” and that’s a very important message to take away.
This link between technology and 21st Century teaching and learning is also reflected in another report published earlier this year by the World Economic Forum (WEF): New Vision for Education, Unlocking the Potential of Technology. This report found that technology was an important factor in successful project-based, experiential and inquiry-based learning.
This finding is also reflected in the OECD data. For example, students reported that their teachers used computers to a greater extent in teaching for real-world problems, particularly related to maths and that these teachers were also more inclined and better prepared for student-oriented teaching practices, such as group work, individualised learning and project work and more likely to use digital resources.
There is strong evidence to support the effectiveness of these learning activities and of technology’s important role. For example WEF found that education technology was key to the successful teaching of 21st-century skills such as communication, creativity, persistence and collaboration. So why are the overall PISA findings still negative about technology and attainment?
Three things we can do
I suggest that at least part of the reason for the negative link between computer use and attainment can be found when we explore what students most commonly do with computers. Unsurprisingly it is not project-based, experiential learning. Students’ use of computers at school is dominated by browsing the internet, with 42% of students doing this once a week or more. The activity performed the least frequently was using simulations (11%). When students did schoolwork at home, once again browsing was the most popular activity. It’s good for students to do a certain amount of unguided browsing, but more importantly they need to be provided with principles and structures to help them perform more strategic searches.
- The first thing that we can do, therefore, is to raise the game for students and ensure that their time with technology is spent more productively.
It’s clear that what students do with computers makes a difference to their learning. But what students do is also related to their socio-economic background. In 2012 96% of 15-year-old students in OECD countries reported having a computer at home, so almost everyone has access to technology.
That’s not to say that the hardware divide has been completely eradicated; lower socio-economic groups are likely to have less sophisticated technology. However these older technologies are perfectly capable of supporting learning if the student knows how to use it effectively. The OECD report illustrates that what people do with media is more important than the technologies and connectivity available to them – and also more resistant to change. In their free time disadvantaged students tend to prefer online chat over e-mail, and playing video games rather than reading the news or obtaining practical information.
- The second thing that we can do is to focus attention on helping disadvantaged learners to use the technology available to them more effectively.
Finally, let me return to Andreas Schleichler, who states that countries need to “invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change.”
I would go one stage further. Researchers who work with educational technology, and for whom this blog post will hold no surprises, need to be better at communicating what their research can say both to the teachers who use the technology and the developers who build the technology. Unfortunately, (as I have observed before) research is typically conducted in isolation from technology developers. This makes little sense at a time when technology has become consumerised, even for the poorest families, and there is increasing evidence about how to make it effective as a learning tool.
- The third thing we can do is to create better communication channels between teachers, technology developers and researchers. Achieving this would be a ‘win win’: Improved learning, better teaching, better research.