Beefing up technology in the classroom doesn’t always lead to better education for children, according to a new study from an international consortium presented Tuesday.
The report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, tracked educational outcome among students based on their use of technology at home and in the classroom. While student performance improves when they use technology in moderation, the group found, overexposure to computers and the Internet causes educational outcomes to drop.
“Despite considerable investments in computers, Internet connections and software for educational use, there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading,” the report said.
The report suggested that “we have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogues that make the most of technology; that adding 21st century technologies to 20th century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.”
Report results are based on an assessment in 2012 that tracked students in more than 40 countries and surveyed them on computer habits and conducted both written and digital tests.
On average, seven out of 10 students in countries surveyed use computers at school and students average at least 25 minutes a day online. In some countries, like Turkey and Mexico, about half of the students don’t have access to a computer at home.
The survey found that students with more exposure to computers do better, on average, than those with little exposure to computers, but the OECD cautioned against drawing conclusions based on that result. The data could simply reflect that school systems that invest in technology also invest in better teachers and draw on students from a higher socio-economic class, who tend to do better in school.
“Countries with low expenditures on education, and low per-capita income, tend to have fewer computers per student,” the report found.
While student access to computers leads to overall better performance in the classroom, how those computers are used and the amount of time spent on them have a great effect on performance as well, according to the report.
Students who use computers for schoolwork, but do so for a slightly below-average amount of time, performed better than average on both written and digital reading tests, according to the survey. And students who spend an above-average amount of time in front of a computer at school performed the worse than other students, including those who might not use them at all.
In mathematics tests, the survey found that almost any time spent on the computer led to poorer performance on both written and digital tests.
Researchers found much the same results when students used computers for homework. They also found that students who used computers excessively were more likely to feel isolated or alone.
“Technology can amplify good teaching but it can’t replace poor teaching,” said Andreas Schleicher, director of the OECD’s Directorate of Education and Skills, when presenting the data. If students are just sitting in front of computers cutting and pasting from Google, they could likely spend that time more effectively elsewhere, he said.
Rote drills on the computer also had limited effectiveness, the report said.
Mr. Schleicher didn’t suggest school systems should suddenly slash funding to technology; in fact he said school plays an important role in introducing technology to children, but he did say computers should be used more circumspectly. “Having a thoughtful strategy is important,” he said.
“The conclusion that emerges is that schools and education systems are, on average, not ready to leverage the potential of technology,” the report said in its summary. “Technology often increases the efficiency of already-efficient processes, but it may also make inefficient processes even more so.”
Technology can’t help students without proper support and a good plan in the classroom, says Lan Neugent, interim executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, a nonprofit that focuses on technology in schools.
“If you give kids a tool and don’t show them how to effectively use it, then it’s not going to make much of a difference,” Mr. Neugent said. “Why would people think that just putting a computer in front of a kid is going to change that?”