When It Comes to Education, Computers Can Be a Dangerous Temptation

For enthusiasts of computers in the classrooms, a 2015 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) may have come as a rude surprise. Several OECD countries have invested heavily in information technology, the report found. But students in those countries didn’t significantly improve their abilities in reading, mathematics and science as a result. Examining digital activities among 15-year-old students taking the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the report found that while moderate computer use at schools could be helpful, intensive use of computers was associated with significantly worse educational outcomes.

That and other similar studies have raised profound questions for educators. Have the promises of advances in artificial intelligence, interactive education and other innovations been oversold? Or does the problem lie more in the failure to train teachers to successfully integrate the new technologies into the classroom?

What seems clear is that, as the OECD report remarked, simply grafting 21st century technologies onto 20th century teaching practices is no recipe for success. Teachers must be trained in the new technologies. Randomized-controlled trials must be conducted to see what methods work in different contexts. And interactive software must go through rigorous testing to see if it can really help the teacher in the classroom. The infatuation with computers and digital technology for their own sake ―or because they represent modernity― is almost surely mistaken.

A recent study examines nearly 6,000 students at a liberal arts college in the United States who have been influenced by course schedules to either use or not use computers in computer-optional classes. It finds that students using laptops have poorer performance, with drops in grades ranging from 0.14-0.37 grade points. That at the high end, is roughly the difference between a B+ and a B.

Why computer use is so negative in this context is not completely clear. But Richard Patterson, a co-author from the United States Military Academy, says he has at least a few theories. Students often use computers as little more than high-tech notepads. That means that opportunities for cyber-surfing ―reading news sites, checking Facebook pages, etc.― abound, distracting them from lectures. Male students, who have more problems with self-control, and weaker students are most negatively affected. And so are students taking quantitative courses, where a small distraction can leave one stumbling to catch up. A study by Pam Mueller of Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA suggests still another handicap. Students, it turns out, have better recall of both facts and concepts when they take notes by hand rather than using the computer. Writing out notes, which is slower, forces a student to use higher cognitive processes of selecting and paraphrasing, the study shows.

All this suggests that the costs of computer use, both financial and educational, must be carefully weighed. In 2008, Peru introduced the One-Laptop-Per-Child program in primary schools, distributing 900,000 computers across the nation on the assumption that computer use would endow students with better reading, math, and computer skills. Education, it was assumed, would become more enjoyable, enrollment rates would rise, and repetition and dropout rates would fall. But as discussed in a recent blog and an IDB study, the program was largely a failure, despite its more than $200 million price tag. If computer literacy improved, student gained little towards the program’s other goals. Large expenditures, unsupported by randomized controlled studies, had proven largely ineffective.

Several experiences do show that using artificially intelligent software may boost scores, especially in certain areas like mathematics. Interactive software, when good, can assess students’ progress, supply reading and video materials to fill in gaps in their knowledge, allow students to collaborate online and signal to teachers when they are having difficulty. Moreover, it can empower teachers to effectively engage students of varying abilities in a single classroom. The key is figuring out what works and how to integrate teachers, as their individual attention, emotional involvement and ability to explain concepts is critical and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Between 2012-15, some 11 public schools in Santiago, Chile instituted twice-weekly computer lab sessions using the ConnectaIdeas program for fourth grade math students. As discussed in a recent blog, this program not only allowed teachers and lab coordinators using smartphones to track students’ problems in real time. It permitted top students to freely help their struggling peers, resulting in yearly improvements on the national standardized exams that were three times those seen in schools in other parts of Chile. Educational technology and teaching, at least in this case, could produce a fruitful marriage.

Of course, not all adaptive programs are effective, nor are all teachers ready to engage in interactive education. Information technology for education could be the new frontier. For now, it is at an early stage of development. That means that governments, teachers and schools need to invest in the training, experimentation, and randomized-controlled trials to ensure that precious educational resources are not being wasted and that no matter what technology is available, students are still learning the basics.

The educational role of technology will be covered in our upcoming flagship report “Learning Better: Public Policy for Skills Development” to be published by the IDB in mid-2017.


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The Author

Steven Ambrus

Steven Ambrus worked as a correspondent for US and European media during two decades in Latin America, covering politics, education, the environment and other issues. He currently works in the communications and publications unit of the Research Department at the IDB.

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