Pessimism and technology in school

Two recent news items posted to the BBC news web site have helped contribute to a pessimistic narrative about using technology in school.

The more recent of these is an evaluation of online charter schools which found that in 17 US states these schools were associated with ‘significantly weaker academic performance’ in maths and reading [1]. This item needs a bit of unpicking. The headline was ‘Online schools worse than traditional teachers’ and this led me to conclude schools offering online access were being compared against those without. It is only by reading further down the page, and by accessing the original report [2] one sees the study is really about being schooled at home. In these ‘charter schools’ students are provided with computers, software and learning materials, and have access to teachers using the expected range of communication technology, however they do not seem to be expected to attend a physical school as such. The approach was heralded as a new initiative in education but it is not clear that it has been properly thought through or adequately resourced. Indeed a lead author of the report is quoted as saying ‘Challenges in maintaining student engagement are inherent in online instruction, and they are exacerbated by high student-teacher ratios and minimal student-teacher contact time, which the data reveal are typical of online charter schools nationwide.’

My own knowledge of virtual schooling is confined to enhancement activity [3] and to providing students in school with access to teachers of shortage subjects. There have, in addition, been more closely targeted initiatives for learning at home, including some years ago a ‘Notschool’ initiative [4] which appeared to successfully support ‘hard to reach’ young people. Key to the reported success of Notschool was building a curriculum around the interests of the young people concerned and offering a high level of tutor support, both face to face and online. All this seems rather different to what has gone on in Charter Schools experiment.

A second, earlier report on the BBC site is of more general interest. This concerns a study from the OECD of PISA tests [5] under the headline: Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results [6]. The news items begins by saying that ‘investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance, says a global study from the OECD….[and that] frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results.’

This is accurate but the reporting is slanted against ‘classroom technology’ – a stance backed up by the government’s (we are talking about England here) expert on pupil behaviour, who is quoted as saying teachers had been ‘dazzled’ by school computers. I don’t think the OECD study says anything about being dazzled but rather notes an understandable desire among those contributing to educational systems to use technology and to develop the teaching of new skills particularly in respect to understanding information handling and online risk. The OECD also found that students who use computers moderately at school tended to do better than those who used them rarely. I suppose the headline could have read ‘students who use computer a bit might do a bit better’.

Nonetheless, the OECD findings need to be taken seriously and questions asked why might technology be having so little effect? One partial answer is that perhaps we are measuring the wrong things. For example how can you compare what is learnt by, for example, creating a short multi media web site with what is learnt in presenting, say, a wall display by hand. Surely the use of technology is either worth doing for its own sake or it is not. Indeed why would you expect creating a web site to have any impact on traditional literacy or mathematics skills. To be fair the OECD did try to get round some of the difficulties of measuring like with like by setting up tests in ‘digital reading’ and ‘digital mathematics’ which might have been expected to favour the more digitally ‘literate’. These were interesting innovations but only go so far. A second answer to the disappointing impact of technology is that perhaps we are using the technology in the wrong way and here the report sees the quality of teacher student interaction around the technology as critical. The OECD argues we need to develop greater pedagogic understanding and reflection on technology use and few would argue with that.

Three things I think we can learn not just from the studies themselves but their reporting:
• the media used in teaching is only going to make a marginal difference, the wider context is so much more important.
• we should start by asking what kind of school system we want and working backwards rather than what the technology could do and working forwards.
• discussion of the impact of technology is usually much more nuanced than the press or policy advisors report it.

For what it is worth my view is that during times of economic upturn we look at our schools systems to bolster creativity and innovation, and technology both reflects and contributes to this outlook, in contrast in times of economic retrenchment we look for a more utilitarian curriculum and technology gets shunted aside.

[1] BBC News (2015) Online schools ‘worse than traditional teachers’, 4 November 2015 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34671952
[2] CREDO at Stanford University (2015) Online charter school students falling behind their peers, 27 October 2015, press release with links to the reports at https://credo.stanford.edu/pdfs/Online%20Press%20Release.pdf
[3] IGGY is an example of a global educational social network and is designed to help gifted and talented young people aged 13-18 ‘realise their full potential’, it is based at Warwick, where I work. Other networks are of course available particularly in specific subjects rather than the more general remit of IGGY.
[4] Duckworth, J. Ltd (2005) Notschool.net Evaluation 2005, at http://www.inclusiontrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NS_Eval2005.pdf
[5] The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a three yearly international survey of 15-year-old students – see http://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/
[6] BBC News (2015) Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, 15 September 2015 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34174796
[7] OECD (2015) Students, computers and learning: Making the connection
DOI:10.1787/9789264239555-enOECD / http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/students-computers-and-learning_9789264239555-en#page4

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