"Computers ‘do not improve' pupil results, says OECD". "Don't bother buying computers for schools, says OECD report". "Computers don't aid learning, says OECD". "Schools wasting money on computers for kids: OECD".*
These were just four of the headlines spawned by a recent OECD report that only added to the sense that technology's place in the classroom can no longer be taken for granted.
At this year's BETT show, speakers were queuing up to argue that worldwide sales of education IT have largely been a waste of billions of pounds. Meanwhile, in the US, increasing numbers of Silicon Valley tycoons are choosing to send their children to Waldorf Schools, which reject the use of technology almost entirely.
But some experts have accused the media of missing the point, saying the OECD report is a damning indictment not of the concept of technology in schools itself, but of an industry culture that has often seen tablets, PCs and whiteboards thrown into classrooms with little thought to training and overall strategy.
According to the OECD's headline findings, countries that have invested heavily in ICT for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performance in PISA results - an internationally administered set of tests for 15-year-olds - for reading, maths or science.
On top of this, students who use computers very frequently at school do "much worse" than those who use them moderately, even controlling for social background and demographics, the report found. Three of the seven countries with the highest level of internet use in school (Australia, New Zealand and Sweden) had endured "significant declines" in reading performance, while another three (Spain, Norway and Denmark) had seen results stagnate, it added.
Report author Andreas Schleicher said one interpretation of the results is that technology sometimes distracts from teacher-human engagement. It may also reflect the fact pedagogies have not evolved to make the most of technologies, he added.
Critics were quick to point out that the UK was not one of the 31 countries included in the study and that the data used was from 2012.
Bob Harrison, a governor and former teacher and headteacher who is education adviser at Toshiba Information Systems in Northern Europe, said the "guts" of the report had been lost among the headlines.
"The real message of the report is that, unless schools make teachers confident in using technology, have a reliable infrastructure around WiFi, and get a really clear view of why they are using technology, it will be a waste of money," he told CRN.
"Throwing kit at schools is doomed to fail and the real message is that we have failed to adapt our teaching and learning methodology to make full use of technology."
Harrison said the top-down approach the industry should abandon was typified by a doomed $1.3bn (£856m) scheme to equip every student in Los Angeles with an iPad. It was shelved last year amid concerns over cost, security and infrastructure issues, and the fairness of the bidding process.
In fact, the majority of large-scale, government-supported tablet initiatives around the world were launched in a "hasty and uncalculated manner", a recent academic paper co-authored by scholars at Zayed University in the UAE and Concordia University in Canada concluded.
"Unfortunately, there is a misconception that by simply putting this technology in the hands of students, educational access issues will be resolved and educational transformation will occur," the paper said.
The UK was not included in the OECD study, but the OECD said that it has among the highest number of computers per pupil (see graph).
According to the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), the UK leads the way in the use of technology in education. BESA's latest ICT in UK State Schools research found that pupils are currently exposed to ICT for 53 per cent of teaching time, in comparison with 50 per cent in 2014.
However, BESA director general designate Caroline Wright agreed that there have been many unwise investments in technology in the education sector.
"In almost every case where investment has not gone to plan, the reason is overwhelmingly due to a lack of effective investment in continuing professional development and teacher training. This often results in hardware sitting idle or teachers having little idea of how to use it effectively," she said.
"Schools that are using technology well in the UK are not only seeing improved results in traditional examinations, but also higher levels of pupil engagement, which improves overall outcomes."
Teach the teachers
Harrison said the findings of both the OECD report and tablet study have clear repercussions for IT suppliers, which he claimed should focus on helping with professional development and teacher training, rather than throwing more kit at schools.
"My advice for 15 years to suppliers has been ‘open your ears and eyes, rather than your mouths, when selling kit'," he said.
"You need to listen. If someone comes to the Toshiba stand at BETT wanting to buy 100 laptops, the first question our salespeople must ask is ‘why?', and not say ‘here's an order form'. Does the school or college have a vision of what learning might look like in the 2020s? My advice to resellers is to get close to schools, listen and understand about teaching and learning and get into the heads of teachers and headteachers. And then the technology will sell itself."
Justin Harling, managing director of reseller CAE (pictured), said the OECD report supports his firm's position that "simply putting devices into a classroom is not going to improve outcomes", but criticised its scope.
"We fully support the proposition that teachers need to be engaged to get the most out of enhancing learning with technology," he said.
"However, the scope of the report is limited. Assessing impact on core skills in maths and literacy focuses on areas that may not get the most benefit from using technology."
In a blog post, Oliver Quinlan, a former teacher who is now a digital education programme manager at UK charity Nesta, was also critical of the OECD report, saying many of the potential benefits of technology fall outside that which PISA scores can measure.
"A lack of evidence of the impact digital technology can have on measures of traditional learning outcomes is a different issue to educating young people in new subjects that support understanding of one of the most powerful developments in modern societies," he said. "If we agree that learning about digital technology is important, we need schools to implement computers as part of their work teaching students about it."
Harrison agreed and panned the idea that schools should follow the lead of Waldorf schools and abandon technology due to a lack of evidence it improves learning outcomes.
"There is no evidence that running water and electricity have had any impact on student learning," he joked. "[Tech tycoons who send their kids to Waldorf schools] might know a lot about technology, but I would suggest they don't know as much about teaching and learning."
*Headlines from the BBC, The Register, ChannelWeb and CNBC, respectively.
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