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Students, Computers and Learning

The shockwaves formed and the ripples have been felt across staff rooms up and down the country. The OECD has spoken and have told us what wise old sages and cynics alike have known since the mid-1990s. Computers in schools are useless and what’s more, there is not one single piece of evidence to argue against it. The headline writers had a field day. From the Telegraph to the Mail, they spoke about the £3bn spent on IT by schools over the last decade as yet another example of public sector prolificacy and even quoted a spokesman from the Taxpayers Alliance who adopted a stance much along the lines of ‘..these computers thingymebobs will never catch on’.

So what does all this mean for the poor subject leader, who’s successfully argued for a class set of iPads this summer, the headteacher who’s argued with their Governing Body that a new server is as much a priority for a school as anything else or even the Managing Director who’s established a company predicated on the innovative use of technology as a means to increase standards and attainment? These poor folk must be feeling quite silly right now – right?

Well no….not at all actually.

The OECD’s “Students, Computers and Learning: Making The Connection”, the first comparative assessment of digital literacy and skills in most of the world’s leading, developed economies highlights that children with moderate access to computers at school (45 minutes – 1 hour per day) have better learning outcomes than those children who seldomly access technology at school. However, those children who have significant access to computers (3 – 4 hours per day) do much worse than either children with little access or children with moderate access.

In other words, if you go to a school with very few technical resources but good teachers you won’t do as well as if you go to a school with decent technical resources and good teachers. However, if you go to a school where you spend half of your school life in front of a computer and only get instruction from a teacher for half of the time, it won’t matter whether the teaching is good or bad because you simply wont have enough teaching input to do nearly as well as children at the schools referred to above.

The actual thrust of the report and its overall theme is actually incredibly supportive of those within the educational arena who promote the effective use of technology to change the way in which teaching and learning takes place. “School systems need to find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning… 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.” says Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills and one of the authors of the report. This message is the same one that Naace, CAS, Becta and organisations such as MGL have been championing since the dawn of the ICT era in schools.

The real benefits of technology to teachers and pupils comes when the school has a pupil centred, teacher led vision of how things in their school are to be done. When this happens and teachers have sufficient understanding, through effective CPD and access to technology, through reasonable levels of investment, they best identify the right tool for the job and the increases in standards and attainment follow. This isn’t new and you don’t even need a report for it… It’s pretty much common sense. In terms of the OECD’s findings, it’s also worth the striking similarities with Becta’s IMPACT IT Reports of the early 2000s. They illustrated that there was no direct link between investment in technology and improved standards and attainment. This led to Becta furthering the concept of ‘Total Cost of Ownership’ which encouraged schools to be less interested in the cost of a device but to consider the cost of training staff, providing consumables, investing in the infrastructure which would allow teachers and pupils to make the best use of any given piece of kit. This logic would not be out of place in the OECD’s report.

Perhaps of broader concern to educationalists in this country is the UK’s position in the league table of digital skills, when compared to the developed and emerging economies of the Far East. The OECD’s research suggests that countries such South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia massively out-perform this country in developing the tools that we would all agree are so vital in a modern, global economy. Again however, this is neither news nor terribly surprising. A similar report by the OECD in 2012 illustrated that these countries also developed traditional literacy skills far better than we do. There is no doubt that it would be both ignorant and arrogant to suggest for one minute that there is nothing we can learn from these countries, and the current prominence of ‘Singapore Maths’ in the UK shows not just a willingness but a palpable desire to bring in new methodologies from anywhere in the world for the benefit of our children.

Surely though, it is also worth reflecting on what ‘school’ and the role of the teacher looks like in these countries. I’m by no means an expert on education in South East Asia, but just a top level search online leads you to journals about the Malaysian Graduate Recruitment Programme for teachers, where they pay new recruits from second year, to ensure the brightest and best from their country and the surrounding region want to teach. In South Korea there is a three year, cyclical, government review into what skills the country requires involving business leaders and international academics. These skills are communicated to schools who are left to devise the models and processes which will allow them to be taught. This strikes me as a radical departure from the UK system.

The final caveat with this report, for primary practitioners, is the fact that most of the commentary in it revolves around high schools and the sample subjects of the report are 15 year olds. In my near 20 years’ experience of technology in education, I can honestly say, I’ve seen some of the most impressive technology products in high schools but, without doubt, the most innovative practice is in primary schools. This is not a criticism of high schools, nor high school teachers, there are many limiting factors, such as the tight lines of the curriculum and also the practicalities of the secondary school timetable. It is, however, little surprise that any external agency may find that, in this environment, neither the teaching nor the learning experiences with IT are what are required.

So the moral of the OECD report seems to be that it ain’t what you got, it’s how you use it. In the same way as if you buy the same running shoes as Mo Farah, you wont necessarily win gold medals, an obsession with the latest and shiniest technology won’t yield the improvements in standards and attainment we all desire, without the right curriculum strategy and training for staff.

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