Worldwide Study: Students Who Use Computers Frequently in School 'Do Worse' in Learning

Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have "somewhat better" learning outcomes than those who rarely use computers. And students who use computers frequently at school "do a lot worse" in their learning outcomes, even after accounting for differences in social background and student demographics. That's the conclusion reached by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in a new report examining the impact of technology on student performance around the world.

Researchers also found that countries where there have been heavy investments made in technologies for education have seen "no noticeable improvement" in student performance in the PISA assessments for reading, mathematics or science. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international survey that assesses education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. The testing takes place every three years. The latest results are from the 2012 assessment.

The new report noted that technology is also of "little help" in addressing the skills gap between advantaged students and disadvantaged students.

What does work? "Put simply," the authors wrote, "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 subsidising access to high-tech devices and services."

Kids who spend more than six hours online during weekdays outside of school reported that "they feel lonely at school" and were more likely to arrive late or skip school altogether in the two weeks prior to the PISA test. At the top end, more than 13 percent of students in Russia and Sweden reported this level of usage; in the United States, the count was unavailable.

The research project also explored digital skill levels. Students in 31 countries and economies were asked to use a keyboard and mouse to navigate sites using hyperlinks, the browser button and scrolling to access particular information and make a chart from data or use on-screen calculators. Singapore had the top score, 567; the United States came in 12th with a score of 511.

In the area of print and digital reading, students in the United States performed better in digital reading, on average, than students in other OECD countries with similar skills in print reading. In contrast, students in Poland and Shanghai-China — both strong performers in print reading — did less well transferring their print-reading skills to an online environment.

"Task-oriented browsing," in which students had to "think, then click," found the United States in the top five performers; Singapore led the way.

The OECD isn't ready to give up on the value of technology in education altogether. Rather the report offered two possible ways to interpret the current data. First, the researchers suggested that "intensive" teacher-student interactions are needed to build "deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking" and that technology can distract from that kind of human engagement. Second, the report proposed that "we have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology" and that layering technology on top of 20th-century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of the teaching. "Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching," the authors stated.

"School systems need to find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow's world," said Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills in a prepared statement. "Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change."

The 204-page report is available on OECD's site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.