High investment in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils' performance, according to a global study from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development).


The think-tank for 34 mainly developed country governments said Tuesday that schools have yet to take advantage of the potential of technology in the classroom to tackle the digital divide and give every student the skills they need in today’s connected world, according to the first OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment, which assesses the education skills of 15-year olds every 3 years in over 70 economies) assessment of digital skills.

However, “Students, Computers and Learning: Making The Connection” also says that even countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies (ICT) for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science.

Ensuring that every child reaches a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than solely expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services, says the OECD.

In 2012, 96% of 15-year-old students in OECD countries reported having a computer at home, but only 72% reported using one at school. Overall, 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.

“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. “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.”

"If you look at the best-performing education systems, such as those in East Asia, they've been very cautious about using technology in their classrooms," added Schleicher. "Those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately."

Ireland has one of the lowest rates of internet use in schools in the world but it is an outlier among a group of countries with students that perform better whether they use computers or not.

The OECD report says Finland, Japan, Korea, Poland and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), all high-performing countries/economies in PISA, show the least frequent use of computers in mathematics lessons; and in Shanghai-China, students reported that teachers demonstrate certain tasks on computers relatively frequently, but the share of students who perform any of the tasks themselves is the smallest among all countries and economies (Figure 2.7 below).

According to adjusted figures, students in Australia, Austria, Canada, Japan, Slovenia and the United States as well as those in partner countries/economies Macao-China and the United Arab Emirates perform better on tasks that require the use of computers to solve problems, compared to their success on traditional tasks. By contrast, relative success is only 0.86 in France (significantly below par), indicating weaker-than-expected performance when students are confronted with tasks that require the use of computer-based tools to arrive at the solution. Students in Belgium, Chile, Ireland, Poland and Spain also perform worse than expected on such tasks.

OECD PISA, Ireland schools internet

"During weekends, the share of students who spend more than four hours per day on line exceeds 40% in Denmark, Estonia, Macao-China, Norway and Sweden. At the opposite extreme are Ireland, Italy, Korea, Mexico and Turkey, where this share is below 20%, and about 60% or more students spend less than two hours on line during a typical weekend day (Figure 1.5 and Table 1.5b). While in Mexico and Turkey the lack of Internet access at home may represent the main constraint (see Figure 1.2 above), in Ireland, Italy and Korea, very few students have no Internet access at home, and most students use the Internet at least to some extent – but rarely for more than two hours per day."

The report found that the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in digital reading was very similar to the differences in performance in the traditional PISA reading test, despite the vast majority of students using computers whatever their background. This suggests that to reduce inequalities in digital skills, countries need to improve equity in education first.

OECD PISA digital skillsTo assess their digital skills, the test required students in 31 countries and economies* to use a keyboard and mouse to navigate texts by using tools like hyperlinks, browser button or scrolling, in order to access information, as well as make a chart from data or use on-screen calculators.

Top performers were Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Canada and Shanghai-China. This reflects closely their performances in the 2012 print-reading test, suggesting that many of the skills essential for online navigation can also be taught and learned using standard, analogue reading techniques.

But the report reveals striking differences. Students in Korea and Singapore perform significantly better online than students in other countries with similar performance in print reading, as do students in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong-China, Japan and the United States. In contrast, students in Poland and Shanghai-China – both strong performers in print reading – do less well transferring their print-reading skills to an online environment.

* Participating countries and economies: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Chinese-Taipei, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Hong Kong-China, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Macao-China, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Russian Federation, Shanghai-China, Singapore, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Arab Emirates and the United States.

In summary:

1) Students who use computers very frequently at school get worse results; 2) 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; 3) The results show "no appreciable improvements" in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in information technology; 4) High achieving school systems such as South Korea and Shanghai in China have lower levels of computer use in school 5) Singapore, with only a moderate use of technology in school, is top for digital skills.