The Global Search for Education: Can Tech Help Students Learn?

Posted by: C.M. Rubin, The Global Search for Education

September 18th, 2015

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The Global Search for Education (GSE) is a regular contributor to the Edmodo Blog. Authored by C.M. Rubin, GSE brings together distinguished thought leaders in education and innovation from around the world to explore the key learning issues faced by today’s nations. Look for a new post every Friday and join the Global Search for Education Community on Edmodo to share your perspectives with their editorial staff.

A new report, “Students, Computers, and Learning: Making the Connection,” investigates the stats on crucial contemporary issues of technology and education. The author, Francesco Avvisati, is an analyst of education reports for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The report’s surprising findings include the fact that the development of ICT (information communication technology) in school systems has not necessarily improved student achievement in reading, math, and science; and has not demonstrably closed gaps between disadvantaged and privileged students. What is sorely lacking, based on this report, is the need for “intensive teacher-student interactions” as well as education that can capably and intelligently adapt technology to the classroom. In our interview, Avvisati gives his tips to teachers and parents concerned about the future of technology in education, and clarifies what tactics have worked in classrooms and homes so far. Francesco was previously a researcher and lecturer at the Paris School of Economics and at the French Ministry of Labour, and has been a member of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab – Europe.GSE_9.18 (1)

Francesco, your report states that schools are lagging “considerably behind the promise of technology.” What were the most notable findings from your research?

In the past decades, bringing technology into schools was a major priority in some countries, such as Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet there has been no appreciable improvement in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in most of the countries that have invested heavily in ICT for education. Meanwhile, Korea, where only 42% of students use computers at school (but many more use them outside of school), is a top performer not only in more traditional paper-and-pencil tests of reading or mathematics, but also in assessments of students’ digital reading skills or problem solving skills using computers.

So there is a gap between the expectations that justified those investments, and the impact that they had on students’ learning – including the learning of digital skills. In this report, we try to answer why this is, and to draw a nuanced picture of how learning is affected by students’ use of technology, how well students master some new skills that are important in a digital world, and how teachers and schools are integrating ICT into students’ learning experiences.

Your findings indicate that technology boosts in classrooms have done little to bridge a skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students, or help raise baseline proficiencies in math and reading. And frequent Internet use proved psychologically problematic for students. Where have schools gone wrong?

What the report clearly shows is that the link between more computers and better learning is not a direct one. There are many people involved in translating the promise of technology into a tangible benefit for students, and as a consequence there are many possible leaks in the pipe where things can go wrong.

In some cases, the objectives that people hoped to achieve by introducing technology into education were unclear; and while this makes it hard today to judge their success, it also means that the expectations of industry, teachers and other stakeholders were not always aligned. This made it harder to locate high-quality digital learning resources from among a plethora of poor quality ones. Other plans were naive, in that they overestimated the digital skills of both teachers and students, and underestimated the need for complementary resources. For instance, the report shows that teachers who are more inclined and better prepared for what are known as student-oriented teaching practices, such as group work, individualized learning, and project work, are more likely to use digital resources. But in many cases, teachers were not adequately prepared to use the kind of teaching methods that make the most of technology.

Overall, the most successful plans were incremental and built on lessons learned from previous plans. When there is clarity in the goals and good feedback from the different actors – including industry, school leaders and teachers – it is more likely that over a 5-10-year period, we would be able to identify and create the conditions that support the most effective uses of ICT in schools. Unfortunately there were not many such plans.

To what extent can the issues with technology identified in your report be addressed by teachers in classrooms? How much has to be the work of parents at home?

Teachers must address issues related to digital literacy, such as information overload and plagiarism. Students need to learn how to plan a search, locate information on a website, evaluate the usefulness of information, assess the credibility of sources, etc.

Meanwhile, parents must be aware that children online may be exposed to risks such as fraud, violations of privacy or online bullying. Many of these risks existed well before the Internet; but measures to protect children from the corresponding offline threats (such as physical barriers, age-related norms that prevent access to certain spaces, and adult supervision) are difficult to impose and enforce in a virtual space. And when solutions do exist, parents are sometimes unaware of them. In 2010, as reported in an OECD study, less than 10% of all Internet users in Europe used a parental control or web-filtering software. Schools can help raise awareness of such threats among children and parents. Children who encounter such threats must recognise them and find support among teachers and parents about how to handle them.

Parents need to monitor children’s media diet to ensure that is appropriate for each age, that leisure time online is balanced with other uses of time and, that children have enough time for sleep. There is no simple recipe, but excessive use of the Internet is often a symptom, if not the cause, of school difficulties, interpersonal problems and health issues.

Your report suggests that schools and governments have forgotten about how crucial unmediated student-teacher relations are, and that this has slowed down learning. What ideas do you have for bringing this ideal back into the zeitgeist of educational thought?

There is increasing recognition of the important role of teachers in education. But we need to go beyond the idea that teaching is an art that requires exceptional talent. There are exceptional teachers, but we need to support the professional development of all teachers, and we can do so if we invest in the scientific base of the teaching profession and empower those very exceptional teachers to become leaders who inspire other teachers.

Technology offers great tools in this respect. I’m thinking of platforms for collaboration in knowledge creation, where teachers can share and enrich teaching materials; of the amount of data that can be collected to measure students’ learning; or of the increasing use of blended learning models in teachers’ training, in which online lectures are combined with individualized expert support and feedback from peers. Because they enable feedback loops between theory and everyday classroom practice and are supported by a network of like-minded peers, these models have been found to be much more effective than the traditional model of courses, workshops, conferences and seminars. Meanwhile, data systems enable teachers to learn about how well they are doing more than they could in the past. Technology can support a culture of innovation, transforming what used to be an individual teacher’s problems into a collaborative process of finding solutions.

Based on what you learned in this study, what advice/tips do you wish to pass along to educators and parents around the world about making the ICT connection work better in the learning environment?

Integrating technology successfully in education is not so much a matter of choosing the right device, the right amount of time to spend with it, the best software or the right digital textbook. The key elements for success are the teachers, school leaders and other decision makers who have the vision, and the ability, to make the connection between students, computers and learning.

I would encourage all educators to invest in their professional knowledge about how technology can improve their work practices. And two tips for parents: on the one hand, be somewhat sceptical about what a device or software can do by itself to help your child’s learning; on the other hand, set an example by showing pride in their learning wherever it takes place, whether online or offline; and encourage using the Internet for serious pursuits, such as reading about current affairs or finding a summer job, as well as for entertainment.

Continue the conversation in the Global Search for Education Community on Edmodo

GSE authors

C. M. Rubin and Francesco Avvisati


C.M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld, and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.


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