Does school computers help or hinder results?

Share this

At the moment of writing, there’s a big buzz on British social media, after BBC reported on a recent OECD study that showed no increased results in pupil performance when introducing computers to the class rooms.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational director Andreas Schleicher even goes so far as to say that pupils who use tablets in school does worse than the average student.

The article in question does state that moderate use (once or twice a week) of computers in school does affect the test results positively, compared to those who doesn’t use computers at all. Pupils that used computers frequently in school showed negative results, compared to those who didn’t use computers at all.

The article goes on to show that countries with higher degree of information technology in the schools show worse result than those who have little or no IT in the schools. They compare the high results of South Korea, where the schools have few or no computers, against the low results in the schools in the UK, where spending on IT in schools are at an all-time high.

I thought this might be misleading, because for me, this feels like a correlation report, rather than a scientifically performed study. I went on to investigate the study myself, along with other studies on the subject.

What peeked my distrust in the study was that one of the examples given was the Swedish school system. I’m from Sweden, and I know why the results are bad there, and it has nothing to do with computers. The problem there is of a political nature, after a rather jarring shift in the government lead to less focus on results and more focus on profitability.

I wanted to see if the study had pointed any of these things out, or if it just flat out blamed the results on the use of computers.

What I came to learn while reading the study was completely different from BBC’s portrayal. Already in the forewords, the report says that it is not the technology itself, rather the way the pupil uses it. A pupil that sits and plays with their smart phone (which does fit the description of a computer) in the classroom will show worse results on tests. As will a student that uses the computer to primarily copy and paste paragraphs, or in some cases entire articles off the Internet.

The report recommends a more active role from the teacher in directing the pupils to use the technology properly. Instead of using the smart phones to check Twitter, the student could use the same phone to read a digital text book, that could be guaranteed to contain the latest information, rather than traditional text books, that could sometimes be 20-30 years old. Instead of using the computer to copy and paste text, the pupil could be instructed in how to rewrite the material, and use the material as a source.

The report also points out that we are educating today’s youth for jobs that does not exist yet. They need to follow the technological advances, and so must the schools.

The report is about much more than just the use of computers during school hours. It is an in-depth view into the socio-economic divide between pupils of different walks of life. It is a mapping of the difference in the use of computers at home and the use in schools. It spends an entire section talking just about how the use of Internet at home can affect the pupil’s social well-being.

From this, BBC and other news outlets have chosen to focus on section one of chapter two, “Student’s use of computers in school”. 10 pages of an almost 200 pages long report.

What this section reveals is that, aside from the exaggerated reports about a correlation between computer use frequency and low test results, was the following:

  • Countries with students that were more exposed to real-world application of maths tended to have a higher frequency of computer use in school.
  • The quality of the maths education was higher in countries that used computers to teach maths.
  • The correlation between quality of instruction and technology had a higher impact than the correlation between technology usage and test results.
  • The task that computers in schools were most used for was browsing for research in school work
  • Other tasks performed often were communication between student and teacher, digital writing of school work and posting of work on school website.
  • The tasks least performed were chatting with other students, practice & drilling and playing simulations.
  • Students from a higher socio-economic standard performed better than those of a low socio-economic standard, regardless of technology use.

Aside from all this, the report also points out that there might be more factors behind worse results. One of them being that students have access to much more up-to-date knowledge, which might contradict what the teacher has been taught. The report suggests that teachers should be more up-to-date with their knowledge.

Worth noting in this case is that the report does not mention the word “reading”. It is nowhere to be found among the 197 pages. Yet BBC claimed that the report showed “significant declines in reading performance“ in three of the countries with the highest Internet use in schools, one of them being Sweden. What they also fail to mention is that Sweden isn’t in the top 3, but comes at 4th in amount of time spent online in school and 13th place in rise of accessibility to computers with Internet during the test period.

If the report is to be believed, Canada, Luxembourg and Iceland should be much lower on the list of countries with low test scores. These countries are among the highest, yet they are all above Sweden in accessibility to computers with access to Internet.

In conclusion, the study “Students, Computers and Learning” shows no correlation between the frequency of computers in the school environment and the result of test scores.

Other studies have found that the mood of the teachers, the size of the classes and the socio-economic standard of the family are the things that matters most when it comes to test results. The well-being of the teacher has a much higher impact on the quality of the education than the use, or lack of use of computers.


A note: I only mention the BBC article, which is probably the mildest report on the study. Other media has reported the same study, with the same sentiment, although in a much more exaggerated way

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.