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Heavy technology use can hinder student performance, study suggests

September 22, 2015 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
A new OECD study found that students who use computers moderately at school tend to have better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely, but students who use computers very frequently do much worse.

Heavy use of technology in the classroom is not a shortcut to academic success, suggests a new international study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely, but students who use computers very frequently at school do much worse, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.

"Technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching," the report states.

The OECD says the study is the first internationally comparative analysis of the digital skills that students have acquired and the learning environments designed to develop these skills.

For the study, the OECD analyzed Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) performance and found that even countries that have invested heavily in information and communication technologies for education have seen no noticeable improvement in PISA performance in reading, mathematics or science.

One interpretation of the results is that building deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking requires intensive teacher-student interactions, and technology sometimes distracts from this engagement, the report states.

"Another interpretation is that we have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology, that adding 21st-century technologies to 20th-century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching," it says.

The most disappointing finding, the report states, is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

"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."

The study found that Canadian students spend above average time on computers at home, but their computer use at school is on par with the OECD average.

Questions for teachers

The study results show that technology in education is no panacea, said
Dr. Phil McRae, an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association whose research focuses on learning technology.

"What we need to be mindful of in this digitally saturated 21st century are issues related to well-being and human development, such as empathy, resilience, perseverance and long-term thinking, not just digital skills for a world of work," McRae said.

He emphasized that learning is highly relational and that there are several factors that go into determining the appropriate use of technology in learning environments, such as students’ developmental level and the extent of exposure they have (or do not have) in digitally-rich (or poor) home environment(s).

"Ultimately, we need to have teachers that feel empowered, not pressured, to make the best pedagogical decisions around their particular students’ uses of technology and how much of their instructional time should be dedicated to those activities," McRae said. "This is a cautionary tale for school jurisdictions that have perhaps put too much emphasis on heavy uses of technology and too little on the relationship between teachers, students and the community."

McRae is currently a principal investigator, along with Harvard University, in an Alberta Teachers’ Association study, called Growing Up Digital (GUD), exploring the social and physiological impacts of technology on learning in Alberta schools. Some early data from the study suggests that students’ readiness to learn is being negatively impacted by "nocturnal screen time," for example students sleeping with their phones or devices, as it noticeably reduces sleep quality and quantity and affects their presence at school.

This latest OECD study is further proof of a paradox between the great promises provided by technology and the negative outcomes associated with its heavy use.

"This OECD study also draws attention to the need for more sophisticated measures to assess some of the positive impacts of technology at the intersection of pedagogy and curriculum" McRae said. "We need to begin measuring what matters, like how technologies are being used by teachers to help students become empowered citizens, not just how they improve international test scores."

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