pupil at a computer

Is technology making students lazy?

The OECD has claimed that computers distract pupils, make them lazy thinkers and can even lower grades. Does the education industry agree?

UK schools spend £900m a year on technology, but according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), computers don’t improve pupil results. Last September OECD released claims that computers distract children, make them lazy thinkers and, if used too frequently, can even lower academic standards. Its education eirector, Andreas Schleicher, says that technology has given schools too many false hopes. However, the 35,000 educators and technology buffs who turned up to the Bett show last week seemed to disagree.
 
Bett, formerly the British Education and Technology show, began in 1985 at the Barbican in London. As the use of technology in schools, colleges and universities grew so did the show’s size, and in 2014 a record 35,044 visitors from 113 countries turned up over four days. Organisers expect to announce a similar number for this year’s show, which was held at the Excel exhibition centre.
 
Seven hundred companies and organisations were also there exhibiting their work. That’s large multinationals like Google, Apple and Microsoft, and plenty of small, one-product firms. Leading experts form education and technology gave speeches and held forums and seminars. Even the United Arab Emirates Government turned up to showcase its digital platform, which all of the country’s schools are signed up to, and to recruit teachers and technology experts to go and work there.

Are computers in schools distracting pupils?

“Young people take qualifications in technology, so how can these be taken if technology is not used,” says Stephen Diston, head of sciences at exam board OCR. “I suppose across the curriculum there is a danger that technology could become a distraction, but using technology in a range of contexts is exactly what young people will be doing for the rest of their working lives. So having experience of using technology in a language lab, or as a research tool in humanities, those are transferable skills that all students need. I’d be worried if the only time students saw a computer was in a computer science lesson.”
 
Gareth James, the IET’s head of education 5-19, thinks that if there is insufficient technology around young people as they grow up they will not be able to function in the modern world, because so much requires technological ability. James was at the Bett show promoting BBC: micro bit. The programmable computers allow kids to play games and design moving constructs. Prototypes have been sent out to some schools. The plan is to send one out to every Year 7 student in England and Wales.

Gaining practical technology skills

“Employers are telling us that young people are coming to them without the necessary practical technology skills for the jobs they have available,” he says. “We also want young people to become effective creators of technology and using technology. How else will society be driven forward?”

So if the experts are telling us that we need more, not less, technology in schools, what exactly was the OECD going on about when they criticised the use of technology in education?

The impact of tech on test results

OECD examined the impact of school technology on test results all over the world. From these results, it found no noticeable improvements in reading, maths and science results. In some of the better performing systems, such as Shanghai in China and in South Korea, children and young people, on average, spent less than ten minutes a day online in school. In Sweden and Australia, the average was between 40 and 50 minutes a day, and yet, in both countries reading results were in decline. Spain, Denmark and Norway also had high daily Internet use but stagnating test results.

Schleicher is concerned that too much technology encourages children to look for ready made answers to enquiries, and can interfere with teacher-pupil interaction, which he thinks is necessary for young people to develop higher order thinking skills. Better basic skills help close the socio-economic achievement gap, he believes, not more access to technology.

Diston agrees that students need to be given the opportunity to develop the ability to write extended prose and that could suffer if they are typing on the computer all the time. He wonders though, that outside school, whether people actually do that much extended handwriting?

“Some people have the attitude that if information isn’t there on the first three pages of Google then that information doesn’t exist,” he adds. “Developing research skills, using technology, how to select and utilise information to help enquiries is one of education’s biggest challenges.”

James believes that, far from hindering their ability to interact with each other and with adults, technology can actually help young people become more effective formal and informal communicators.

“You have to remember that young people are already innovative communicators, who can often help adults come up with new ways of connecting with the outside world,” he says.

Tapping technology’s potential to support learning

The OECD report shouldn’t be entirely ignored, though. Look under the headlines and a more reasoned argument appears. It’s not that technology is bad for children and young people, or has no positive impact on their learning; it’s just that education systems haven’t worked out best, how to tap that potential to support teaching and learning. Schleicher says that more thought and resource needs to go into this, and into training teachers, not just to use of technology, but to use technology towards learning goals.

“Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge,” he says. “Its impact on education delivery remains sub-optimal, because we may over-estimate the digital skills of both teachers and students, because of naive policy design and implementation strategies, because of a poor understanding of pedagogy, or because of the generally poor quality of educational software and courseware.”

Getting the digital agenda right

Schleicher believes that education needs to get the digital agenda right.

“Provide educators with the sort of environment in which they can help young people develop 21st Century skills. Adding 21st Century technologies to 20th Century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching,” he says.

Diston agrees. “It always comes down to the quality of teaching and technology should be viewed as one of the resources you use in the classroom,” he notes.

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