Computers May Be an Obstacle to Learning

A recent international study has thrown a bucket of cold water on the heated frenzy for computer-assisted and online education.  The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which has an authoritative program for assessing school education quality in its 34 member countries, has published a report demonstrating that increased computer use in classrooms may actually lead to lower test scores.

According to the report,

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.

The results also show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that invested heavily in information and computer technology for education.  And perhaps the most disappointing finding of the report is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.  Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidizing access to high-tech devices and services.

The report compared data from 2009 and 2012, the most recent sets of testing under the Program for International Student Assessment.  The data show that use of computers for schoolwork has increased, especially in Western countries. Education systems in Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway were the leaders in integrating tech. In Norway, 67 percent of students reported having used spreadsheets in math lessons and 31 percent said they had used a computer to draw graphs. In Australia, students spent almost an hour a day online at school.  In Denmark, 35 percent had access to school-provided tablets.

But only 42% of students in Korea and 38% of students in Shanghai, China, reported that they use computers in school.  Yet they were among the top performers in digital reading and computer-based mathematics tests.  “By contrast,” the report comments, “in countries where it is more common for students to use the Internet at school for schoolwork, students’ performance in reading declined between 2000 and 2012 on average.”

The OECD study found that the use of computers was negatively correlated with improvements in student performance on math tests:

-1x-1 In countries with higher numbers of students who frequently browse the Internet for schoolwork at school, reading performance also tends to improve more sluggishly than in others, or even to worsen:

-1x-2According to the report, less computer use in class doesn’t mean kids aren’t comfortable with technology: According to the report, Korean and Singaporean students are better than anyone else at Internet navigation because they are “already proficient in higher-order thinking and reasoning processes in other domains.”

To read the full report go to: http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/students-computers-and-learning_9789264239555-en#page1.  For one reporter’s summary go to: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-09-15/computers-look-like-an-obstacle-to-learning

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