“Lack of Computers in Schools May Be a Blessing”–OECD Report (Part 1)

The above headline comes from the Irish Times (September 15, 2015) reporting on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study: “Students, Computers, and Learning.” Other online and print media headlines on the OECD report capture in simple words different aspects of the report: “Schools Wasting Money on Computers for Kids” or “Putting More Technology in Schools May Not Make Kids Smarter.” Of course, headlines are compressed sentence fragments seeking to convey the essence of the study.

But media DNA requires going for the sizzle, not the steak.

I have read the report’s Executive Summary, looked at the tables of over 60 countries tracking changes in computer access and use, student performance, and national expenditures between 2009 and 2012. Measuring student performance (ages 15 and 16) was the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that covers countries in Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America.

Here are some of the takeaways I gathered from the study.

*Increased access and use of computers in over 60 countries between 2009 and 2012 has yet to translate into improved PISA scores in reading, mathematics. or science in these nations (p. 15).

*The thinking and writing skills necessary to navigate the Internet successfully in a digitally-dominated society can be taught and learned with “conventional … pedagogies and tools.” (pp. 15-16).

*”In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching” (p. 17).

As the array of headlines indicate there are different interpretations that can be extracted from the OECD research report (including mine). Surely, the notable increase in access to devices and software is an accomplishment just as increased student and teacher use of both in lessons. What is newsworthy to me, of course, is that one-leg of the three-legged stool justifying buying these devices since the 1980s was academic improvement. The other two were that the new technologies would transform teaching and get students ready for an information-driven labor market. The academic improvement leg has wobbled badly since then from the scarcity of evidence to support the claim of improved achievement. The OECD report severs improved test scores from the list of reasons to buy tablets, laptops, hand-held devices, and accompanying software. What about the other two legs of that stool justifying purchase of new hardware and software?

Transforming teaching from teacher-directed to student-centered has been a pipe dream. Yes, those teachers already inclined to develop student-centered lessons or already doing them latched on to computers (whether in labs, or with 1:1 laptops and tablets) to do better what they were already doing. But “transforming” teacher-centered instruction to student-centered for most teachers–given the constraints of the age-graded school and work demands placed upon teachers–has not occurred.

The third leg of that stool has been preparing students for an information-based society (and labor market). That reason has become the over-riding public justification policymakers give  for buying a trove of hardware and software in the past decade. Note that I used the word “public” in the prior sentence. Covert reasons for buying high-tech devices and software is simply the political pressure on school boards and superintendents to keep up with adjoining districts and reassuring parents and local voters that their children and youth are using up-to-date tools in school and being prepared for all those high-paying jobs in the computer industry, finance, engineering, robotics, etc. ,etc. Keeping up with the Jones may not have started with schools but it surely has infiltrated policy decisions when it comes to new technologies.

The shift to justifying outlays of so much public money for tablets, interactive whiteboards, and glamorous software shows up in the mania for requiring high school students to take computer science courses (see New York City). The spread of coding camps and teaching kindergarteners to write code (see here and here) are also part of this rationale for buying more and more devices and software with scarce education dollars.

So within the past decade, the three-legged rationale justifying district decisions to buy laptops, tablets, and new software has been demolished. No more hype about improving academic achievement. No more words about revolutionizing teaching. What remains is the strictly vocational aim of preparing this generation of students for jobs. As has occurred time and again during surges of school reform—inserting new technologies into classrooms is simply another reform–the deeper and more important issue gets side-stepped; What are the overall purposes of tax-supported public schools in a democracy?

The OECD report offers U. S. policymakers a rare opportunity to step back and ask why are we spending so much money on devices and software when the results in so many nations, including the U.S., show such little return on investment? In Part 2, I look at the response thus far to this report.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

20 responses to ““Lack of Computers in Schools May Be a Blessing”–OECD Report (Part 1)

  1. WA Teacher

    I have come full circle in my tech use as a teacher. I no longer support 1:1 models because I see how the majority are being used – low level uses that are basically replacement rather than enhancement or beyond. My district spent millions on a 1:1 model in grades 5-12 and millions more on a new math curriculum where everything is online and “interactive”, where kids get “personalized learning” tailored to their needs in math. We received no manuals, no books for grades 5-8 (since they have the 1:1 model), and we obviously have different ideas of what “interactive” means since the majority of the curriculum was simply .pdf files with a few unnecessary (and annoying!) animations and a multiple choice “quiz” at the end. Our network goes down and we can’t teach math – or at least not using the curricular materials that the district insists we use “with fidelity”. Ironically some of my best lessons have come from these days, when I have the concept, I have the kids, and there is nothing in between us. Even the kids will remark that math went really fast, or they really understood what we were doing. I still love tech – and I was a technology specialist for years – but the glamor has worn off and I see very little of value in this latest big push for tech, and the types of apps that are coming out.
    I still support labs to teach keyboarding, and see value in teaching kids word processing skills, Internet research skills, and utilizing certain online tools such as Explore Learning, but I remain adamantly opposed to the iPads as behaviorist babysitters that I see occurring in the primary classrooms, and the increasing need for tech access for students to “access the new online curriculum!” when some of the old ways work just fine and with fewer issues (like print books vs new online books that are PDF files of the print book). Give me 5 computers in my classroom with some good software (Kidspiration/Inspiration, older versions of iMovie and Garage Band, a word processing program, and access to Explore Learning and a kid friendly blog platform) and I’m set. My kids will use tech sparingly, but well, and I can guarantee they’ll get more out of it than if I had a 1:1 model.

    I don’t blame the teachers. They are being pushed by principals who want tech showplace schools, by districts, the state, the Feds, and the tech billionaires. The majority received few to no decent ed tech courses in their teacher training, and tech support in many districts just plain sucks. There are too many issues competing for attention in the classroom – including too many kids crammed into our rooms – and I’ve seen teachers just throw up their hands in disgust and have all the machines put away in the cart. Despite the great gains in access, we’ve really not moved a whole lot further beyond where we were when I first read Becker’s paper well over a decade ago. As a new teacher, I used to think it was all about access – if we just had more…. Naive me. Unfortunately most of those in charge are still at that stage.

  2. George Reese

    I don’t believe the best rationale for technology can ever be that it improves achievement. As Papert noted a couple decades ago (http://www.papert.org/articles/ComputersInClassroom.html), this new “pencil” will be shown to not improve performance and will then be appropriated for trivial or record-keeping purposes. (WA teacher is seeing that turn of events play out, I think). But there is no question of the importance of computers and computing in the modern world. It’s not like they’re some educational fad that will disappear if we don’t know how to use them in school settings.

    Isn’t it just that schools, being large, stable, locally-controlled bureaucracies responsible for far too many child-rearing demands in comparison to their resources and incentives for change are simply poor laboratories for innovation?

    Asking whether computers improve achievement seems to me to be the wrong question. The real question, is are we using the tools of the modern world to teach citizens about the relevant questions for the modern world? I suspect the answer is “no”. But it doesn’t seem that we’re even asking it. Instead, we seem to be asking how new tools can be used for old and–as A.N. Whitehead called them–“inert ideas”. “Algebra, from which nothing follows; Geometry, from which nothing follows; Science, from which nothing follows; History, from which nothing follows; a Couple of Languages, never mastered;…”

    There has got to be a better way. I don’t know what it is, but I feel confident it will involve the tools of the modern world including the computer.

    PS. Thanks for this terrific blog!

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  4. jturner56

    As always appreciated.
    I have penned a longer reply at https://jturner56.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/are-computers-a-waste-of-time-for-schools/
    But would highlight the quote you took from the report ”In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching”. I added “…particularly with limited educational leadership.”
    It should never be about adding tech as solution. It’s much more complex than that.
    The diversity of the comments so far show how far apart thinking is within educators.
    Look forward to Part 2.

  5. JoeN

    On a visit to an impressive, award winning new secondary school in Finland in 2011 (for 800 pupils) I watched someone in my group from the UK point out to the head teacher, with evident superiority, that there were only 35 computers in the entire building. The head at first appeared not to understand what he was saying but then asked, “Why would we need any more?”

    He was, of course, neither joking nor being ironic.

    • larrycuban

      You offered a story about Finland that is part of the contradiction of high test scores on international tests and low usage of devices and software in lessons. It is what I will take up in Part 2. Thanks, Joe.

      • jturner56

        Interesting when you compare this to the European survey of ICT use in schools (2012) at https://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/sites/digital-agenda/files/Finland%20country%20profile.pdf which concluded that “Students in Finland enjoy among the highest levels in Europe of ICT infrastructure provision, high speed broadband connectivity and ‘connectedness’” yet points to uneven use and uneven teacher training. Would be interesting to see if Finland see the future in cutting back on this level of connectivity or looking to improve teacher training in this area?

      • larrycuban

        Had not seen that 2012 survey, John. Thanks for providing the link and apparent anomaly you suggest. In the 2015 OECD report that I read and posted, Finnish students reported that they used computers at school/home to browse the Internet 35 minutes a day–OECD average was 42 minutes. For math lessons in school, students reported the use of computers during the month prior to PISA test. The OECD average was about 32 minutes; Finnish students spent 19 minutes. The spread in student reports for this went from over 50 minutes (Denmark and Russian Federation) to 8 and 17 minutes in China (Ireland, Shanghai and Hong Kong)with the OECD average was 32 minutes (p. 20).

  6. I doubt the use of the pencil in schools has improved any test scores either but it is a bit difficult to operate without them. It seems to me that the goal of teaching with computers is not to improve scores in math, reading or whatever, but to improve scores on using computers, which is not on any standardized tests yet. The present standardized tests could be used in a 1930’s classroom with very little editing. Something wrong with that. I do agree technology will not make up for poor teaching. Technology does however allow a good teacher to go more places.

    It would be interesting to know if those Finish students had computers at home to make up for the lack of computers at school. A simple task like typing papers would require a few more computers than thirty 35 for 800 students. Unless of course they teach penmanship, a lost art in the US.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Garth, for the comment. As for Finnish students, I don’t know the answers to your questions.

    • JoeN

      I can confirm Garth that certainly in the English class of some 30 or so final year students (aged 17-18) I saw, their essays had been hand written. As had the lengthy assessments/comments on each one from their teacher.

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