Do We Know How to Use Technology in Schools?

David Sable discusses the relationship between technology use and student performance, among other issues in education.


Last week I wrote about the issues related to productivity in our digital world and promised to tackle education this week. Here goes…from The Telegraph:

University students that are allowed to use laptops and tablets in the classroom for note taking fare significantly worse in exams than those who are prohibited from using devices, a study claims.

[MIT] researchers found that use of devices had a “substantial negative effect” on students’ performance, and that removing technology from the classroom was “equivalent to improving the quality of the teacher”.

Students that were permitted to use laptops and tablets scored 18 per cent worse in exams on average, according to the study.

Lest you think that somehow MIT hasn’t a clue or perhaps is somehow misrepresenting the data for their own nefarious reasons, a recent article from the BBC stating, “Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD,” covered a few key learnings from the OECD study:

  • Students who use computers moderately at school, such as once or twice a week, have “somewhat better learning outcomes” than students who use computers rarely
  • The results show “no appreciable improvements” in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in information technology
  • High achieving school systems such as South Korea and Shanghai in China have lower levels of computer use in school
  • Singapore, with only a moderate use of technology in school, is top for digital skills
  • The study shows “there is no single country in which the internet is used frequently at school by a majority of students and where students’ performance improved”
  • Among the seven countries with the highest level of internet use in school, it found three experienced “significant declines” in reading performance – Australia, New Zealand and Sweden – and three more had results that had “stagnated” – Spain, Norway and Denmark
  • The countries and cities with the lowest use of the internet in school – South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan – are among the top performers in international tests

To my way of thinking, Andreas Schleicher, the Education Director of OECD, makes the key point—the same point I made in addressing the lack of general productivity as an outcome of digital technology. Schleicher is quoted as saying, “the findings of the report should not be used as an excuse not to use technology, but as a spur to finding a more effective approach.”

Or as The Next Web puts it:

According to University of Michigan professor Elliot Soloway, who studies the impact of technology on education, the problem isn’t with the technology, but in how it’s used by schools.

Or as I put it…as my readers know…it’s time to cut the Digibabble around education and technology and begin to focus on the issues.

In an interview with The Economist, Shiza Shahid, cofounder of the Malala Fund—which promotes girls learning in underdeveloped countries—answers the question, “Do we really understand how to leverage technology?”:

I think technology offers incredible efficiency gains and ways to scale. On the other hand, I think we’ve put technology at the center rather than putting the issue at the center, which is an inability to educate children well, at scale and low cost. Rather than seeing technology as a tool, one of many tools, that can perhaps improve how we create solutions, we’ve put it at the center and we’ve built a tablet that in itself, we believe, will educate children, but we haven’t thought about delivery or how it’s maintained or how it’s used.

Technology and its applications are mere tools. In and of themselves they hold no value unless utilized, deployed and applied in ways that actually add value to people’s lives and, in this case, to their education.

Here is the unadulterated truth from The New York Times, from just over a month ago, about a school in Columbus Ohio: “Online School Enriches Affiliated Companies if Not Its Students”:

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an online charter school based here, graduated 2,371 students last spring. At the commencement ceremony, a student speaker triumphantly told her classmates that the group was ‘the single-largest graduating high school class in the nation.

What she did not say was this: Despite the huge number of graduates — this year, the school is on track to graduate 2,300 — more students drop out of the Electronic Classroom or fail to finish high school within four years than at any other school in the country, according to federal data. For every 100 students who graduate on time, 80 do not.

Even as the national on-time graduation rate has hit a record high of 82 percent, publicly funded online schools like the Electronic Classroom have become the new dropout factories.

Yet not all succumb to this lemming-like Digibabble narrative:

The Guardian asks, “Could Steiner schools have a point on children, tablets and tech?”

It’s late morning and the children in Maria Woolley’s class at the Iona school in Nottingham are busy kneading dough. The dough is made from flour they saw ground at the local windmill using grains harvested from a nearby farm they had visited. During the morning lesson the children have sung songs, recited poetry and done rhythmic clapping and stomping.

There is no uniform here, and no head teacher – the school is run by staff and friends – and, unlike the vast majority of primary schools these days, here the students don’t work on tablets or computers. At the front of the class is an old-fashioned blackboard.

…Critics suggest that in not allowing children to use screens as part of its ideology Steiner schools are putting them at a disadvantage. “The needs of our young people are that when they leave school, they become part of a world that is highly likely to include technology,” says Mark Chambers, the chief executive of NAACE, a professional association for those concerned with advancing education using technology. “We should be doing all we can to help them be prepared for that world, just as we would for the physical world that is around them.”

…Research into the effects of technology on learning has yet to demonstrate much in the way of positive results, though. A recent study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that students barred from using laptops or digital devices in lectures and seminars did better in exams than those allowed to use computers and access the internet. And research last year from the London School of Economics found schools that banned pupils from carrying mobile phones showed a sustained improvement in exam results, with the biggest advances coming from struggling students.

A Cambridge University study found that spending an extra hour a day of TV, internet or gaming time in year 10 saw a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall. Its co-author, Esther van Sluijs, says reducing screen time could have important benefits and adds that “limiting the amount of time spent in front of screens and introducing children to a variety of activities is likely to have the most beneficial long-term impacts on a child’s health”.

…Despite the evidence from such studies there is still, according to Moore [founder of Iona school], “an anxiety that children aren’t going to be ready to fit into the economy because they don’t do computers at the age of four – whereas if you give them a healthy education and childhood, they can catch up very easily”.

Proof of point as quoted by The New York Times:

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

And when you have a chance, check out the view of the late Steve Jobs.

If you have tracked with me, you may agree, then, that the issue is not technology—whether more technology or better technology—instead it’s about understanding what we’re actually solving in the case of education: literacy; critical thinking; independent idea/opinion forming; intellectual sophistication.

Yes, technology can play a role…but, no, it does not solve the problem.

So I ask you to read about Microsoft’s latest acquisition—LinkedIn…a smart acquisition in my book…but, then again, maybe not for this reason [as quoted in the deal announcement presentation]:

Today, despite the fact that the useful life of skills and knowledge has shrunk to less than five years, only 38% of employees believe they have the opportunities for learning and growth at their workplace. In the future, LinkedIn Learning will tightly integrate into office, enabling users to have a more seamless experience and access to on-demand courses. Recommending the right course at the right time will enable individuals and companies to be more productive and successful — this will transform learning.

Linking productivity and learning—neither a stellar performer based on pure digital sourcing—makes one wonder. no?

According to Quartz, “Microsoft buying LinkedIn could transform the way we are taught, trained, and hired for jobs.”

And here are two points of view from educators on what is in fact called EdTech. I find these statements relevant to the above-mentioned acquisition:

It is not about the technology; it’s about sharing knowledge and information, communicating efficiently, building learning communities and creating a culture of professionalism in schools. These are the key responsibilities of all educational leaders. – Marion Ginopolis

It is important to remember that educational software, like textbooks, is only one tool in the learning process. Neither can be a substitute for well-trained teachers, leadership, and parental involvement. – Keith Krueger

Finally, let me end with this defining thought from Lord Jonathan Sacks:

Technology gives us power, but it does not and cannot tell us how to use that power. Thanks to technology, we can instantly communicate across the world, but it still doesn’t help us know what to say.

And there you have it…

Software is just a holder…it needs to be filled. We need to make sure that the next generation knows what to say…and by definition how to get to the core of that “what.”

So in a world where productivity is slipping and education is suffering, Microsoft and LinkedIn might be able to make an important contribution and help change the paradigm of decline…but not with Digibabble….

What do you think?