"Tech doesn't improve student results - study" - why news reports like this are damaging (and missing the point).

Source: TV3 News

Journalists love a bit of scaremongering and in many ways I can't help feeling that the reporting of a recent OECD report on the impact of technology on results is just that. As I read news report after news report last night (many of which seemed to be either directly taken from Reuters or an OECD press release with little or no critical analysis) I could nearly hear the shrieks of delight from the pearl clutching naysayers bubbling with excitement at the "evidence" that, clearly, change is bad.

Now don't get me wrong, I have no issue with the report itself, or the fact that the OECD are looking at the impact that tech has on results such as PISA. Look at the actual OECD site and it is interesting reading (you can also see the full report here), their discussion actually focuses on the need for a "new approach needed to deliver on technology’s potential in schools" - and they are absolutely right. Technology integration needs to be strategic and needs to look past the "dazzle" that tech can provide and focus on the enrichment, extension and support only a technology rich environment can provide. I heartily encourage educators to incredibly critical about how and why they plan to introduce and integrate tech into the classroom.

What does concern me is that the vast majority of the reporting is misleading and completely overlooking the real value of tech in the classroom.

Firstly, there is the issue that the fact they are trying to link the use of tech to improved test outcomes is problematic at best. Has anyone looked into the impact of using biro and refill on test outcomes? Technology or pen and paper can both be used effectively or ineffectively, the fact that you are using either tool is not necessarily relevant to a test that measures Maths, English or Science. The fact that the students are on a computer for any amount of time tells us nothing about how pedagogically sound the use of the tech is. Stick a kid in front of computer without pedagogical approaches designed to leverage the advantages of working online and of course they are going to be distracted by the "dazzle". Compare this with teachers who are using traditional modes such as direct instruction and rote learning, wheeling out a pedagogical approach that has been honed over the last century, (with little regard for learner engagement or agency) and of course you will probably get better "test results". The relevance of said tests for measuring success in a 21st Century context could also be bought into question...but I fell that probably calls for a dedicated blogpost.

Secondly, there is the issue that the way this report has been summed up by most news agencies really does miss the point about why it is is so very important that tech is integrated (effectively) into teaching and learning across the board. The advantages of tech integration is rich and varied. Most importantly it is about providing young people to the opportunity to develop the skills they will need to thrive in the 21st Century. There are many reasons for integrating tech (which have little to do with test results) and quite frankly if we ignore these we potentially short change an entire generation of young people.

Below are just a few reasons why I believe every school must be looking to integrate tech effectively.

Learner Agency 
See my earlier post here. Learner Agency is the idea that the learner has a sense of ownership and control over their own learning. The word 'agency' is defined as "action or intervention producing a particular effect", so I guess if we apply this to the learner, it means they engage in a particular action or trial an intervention which then produces a particular effect. In the context of a school this might involve students taking action, whether it be through reading, researching, discussing, debating, experimenting, making or tinkering and as a result, gain (through their own efforts) new understanding and new learning. This being a shift from the notion of teachers, teaching at the student and fundamentally providing all of the knowledge and content which they then transfer to the the empty vessel. And as I stated in my earlier post, genuine learner agency can really only be achieved where tech is accessible.

Introduce one to one devices or BYOD and actually give students the freedom to use technology in a variety of ways - not just a glorified exercise or text book. There is no question - all students having access to a browser is incredibly liberating if you just shut up and get of the way and let them go explore and actually use more than just the latest app or platform you've stumbled upon. Technology is not actually about improving grades, it's actually about improving agency (and hopefully greater agency should then result in better outcomes).

World Trends

Core Education explore a wide range of world trends to bring together an annual summary of trends pertaining to ICT use in education. These provide an excellent starting point that go beyond our own experiences or opinions and encourages us to consider what these trends might need for our learners. We need to consider also the period in which we actually live. Our ancestors came through an Agrarian (agricultural) age where the ability to farm and work the land was essential. Our parents and maybe even we have come through an Industrial Age where the need for industrial and technical skills were very important. We are now entering what is referred to as a Knowledge Age defined on the NZCER Shifting Thinking website as

"a new, advanced form of capitalism in which knowledge and ideas are the main source of economic growth (more important than land, labour, money, or other ‘tangible resources). New patterns of work and new business practices have developed, and, as a result, new kinds of workers, with new and different skills, are required."

and as they also state

"Knowledge Age worker-citizens need to be able to locate, assess, and represent new information quickly. They need to be able to communicate this to others, and to be able to work productively in collaborations with others. They need to be adaptable, creative and innovative, and to be able to understand things at a ‘systems’ or big picture’ level. Most importantly, they need to be to think and learn for themselves, sometimes with the help of external authorities and/or systems of rules, but, more often, without this help."
These are our students, and many of these skills are best learned in an online space - this is where they can, very quickly, locate, assess and present information. Tools such as Google Docs is what enables them to collaborate and co-construct anytime or anywhere. Blended Learning is key to enabling learning that meets the demands of a 'knowledge' rather than 'industrial' age.
Research Findings
Research by it's very nature is backward looking, so it is important that we do not sit back and wait for the evidence that e-learning is effective before we even deign to dip our toes. It can be tempting to simply say there is not enough evidence yet. However I would suggest that whilst relatively small there is plenty of compelling evidence and research available. This is particularly true if you look at the evidence gathered as a part of 'Teaching as Inquiry' projects where e-learning has been a focus. Literature reviews such as Noeline Wright's 'e-Learning and implications for New Zealand schools: a literature review' brings together a wide range of findings. In her conclusion Wright highlights a wide range of potential benefits, ranging from motivation and engagement to the development of critical thinking and multiliteracies. It is important to remain critical about the benefits of ANY pedagogical approaches, not just the e-learning ones. We seem quick to defend traditional methods and modes when there is little more evidence that they are in fact effective. For this reason it is important that we reflect on all of our approaches, gather pre and post data and feedback from students to ensure that all practice is indeed evidence or research based. We need to ensure our practice (and the research we base it on) is actually current and responsive. It is not okay for teachers to base practice on an approach that might have been exciting when Pong was a cutting edge video game.

Many would argue that NCEA is actually an argument for protecting the mighty 'paper and pen', indeed external exams are written by hand...for now. In April 2013 NZQA's Dr Karen Poutasi stated in a speech to SPANZ "we are reasonably confident that we can reach a position within 8 years where most students will be sitting examinations using a digital device." That means your Year 1-4 student will most likely be sitting their exams online. Our Year 9 students will most definitely be creating and submitting internal assessments online. To do this well, and to ensure our learners gain the skills they need to gain Excellence or at least achieve the very best results they are capable of, then we need to give them practice. More than that, we need to be explicitly teaching them, or giving the time and space to develop the skills to do this well. Learners will need to be able to locate, synthesize and present information. They will need to be able to do it safely, lawfully and effectively. This takes time. We need to start now. In fact all students need to have started yesterday.

Differentiation and Universal Design for Learning
There is also the fact that pedagogically speaking the integration of tech is actually a no-brainer. We have a responsibility to ensure they way in which we facilitate learning and gather evidence of said learning is inclusive. All students have a right to learn and enjoy success, therefore we must be meeting the needs of a diverse group - not just the select few that learn the way you do or did in your day. Consider differentiation as defined by Carol Ann Tomlinson which seeks to provide a range of learning opportunities differentiated for student readiness' learning style and interest. This is possible in a paper based classroom, but choices will still be limited and controlled by the teacher and the resources made physically available to the learner. You might provide a small range of different activities and maybe texts that a either written or more graphic based. Consider this now in a blended learning environment where if a student can access the Internet they can access unlimited resources - written, visual and oral. A teacher may well need to support a student in locating appropriate material or may even curate a collection for them. The speed and ease in which differentiated learning can be facilitated in a blended environment is incredibly enabling. If a teacher can also let the student take the lead and have the power to negotiate methods and modes for learning and evidencing learning,, then you on to something quite magic. Similarly if you consider the diagram below with a blended learning lens it is again a no-brainer. As stated on the Cast website

" Universal Design for Learning was initially is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone--not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs."

Who wouldn't want this for their learners? Providing multiple means of representation (of information), means of expression (evidencing learning) and means of engagement is nigh on impossible in a purely paper-based classroom, and again it limits it to a single teacher perception of what they think they know about the students ability, learning style, interests or even their mood or tiredness on any given day.

So as you can see, whilst tech doesn't necessarily (in and of itself) improve test results, it can (if used effectively) improve outcomes in a much richer sense of the words. The reason that such shallow and often lazy reporting of such "studies" upset me so much is that it can make the desire for educators to embrace change even harder than it already is. I do wonder if the authors of these news report realise the collateral damage of attention grabbing headlines and shining the light on the aspects of the report that fuel the fire of traditionalists yearning for "evidence" to drag their heels even more. In an earlier post I explored the challenges educators face in navigating the space between education al paradigms and if if I'm honest, lazy (or at least superficial) reporting of genuinely interesting studies are just resulting in a whole raft of nervous educators who managed to take "two steps forward" probably just retreated a sh#tload of "steps back".

Cheers for that.


  1. Well put Claire. It's important to address the whole issue and not be blinded by headlines. We need to continue the 'forward' journey.

  2. Loved the balanced critique, Claire - thanks. I totally agree with you that the report misses the point.

    I wonder if the "new approach needed to deliver on technology’s potential in schools", while appearing to move in the right direction is also not quite there too. I feel that, with the language used in the report, the focus is still on the potential of the technology...rather than the potential of a shift in approach - so until we see a change in emphasis to 'the potential of the approach' rather than 'technology's potential', we will see the same results.

  3. A passionate and well argued response which is understood by many who are actively engaged in a blended classroom (or is it still transformative?) . The irony is that in the last 15 or so years, far more technology barriers have come down eg inflexible filtering, access to technology outside of 'the ICT lesson' and an increasing number of digital tools available that are doing more than merely substituting traditional methods than pedagogical ones. It could be argued that in terms of curricula, examinations et al we are now living in much more restricted times where risk taking, problem solving and many higher order skills are being replaced by the desire for instant progress and the ability to rote learn, revise and regurgitate.

  4. So ..., are you saying that the teacher's role is of the utmost importance? If so, then why does information technology (IT) get all the glamour and all the budget? It is the teachers, the HT (Human Technology) that should get the budgets for the thinking and implementation time.

    1. Agree. Have always argued for investment in teachers over tech.

  5. Thank you Claire; well said and I agree with you. Hopefully the OCED report will spark conversations, like it has at our school, and that will lead to better understandings of e-Learning for our 21 Century learners.

  6. I think I’ll address each of the points above separately.

    Learner Agency

    Few would disagree with the importance of learner agency. However, in this section, I do not see an argument for the necessity of computing technology. You mention the old caricature version of the school teacher “teaching at the student and fundamentally providing all of the knowledge”. This harkens back to that strawman version of education where students are strapped into seats being force-fed knowledge. In reality we all know that teachers don’t operate this way. For decades teachers have worked alongside students, engaging them in rich discussions about ideas and knowledge. Teachers show students how to question their beliefs and pre-existing world views. This is essential to the development of young minds.

    Good teachers facilitate exactly what you outline in this sentence: “In the context of a school this might involve students taking action, whether it be through reading, researching, discussing, debating, experimenting, making or tinkering and as a result, gain (through their own efforts) new understanding and new learnings” (you mean “learning”, right? Not “learnings”. It doesn’t need to be pluralised)

    I like that sentence. But since teachers have been making this happen since long before computers were common in schools, I don’t see it as leading to the conclusion that we must integrate technology into the classroom. So I’m not sure of the point of that sentence. It just illustrates good education.

    If one is worried about someone (or something) “teaching at the student,” then one should be nervous of technology in classrooms. Unlike teachers, technology provides a one-way delivery of information from (often) anonymous sources. The problem is, the student can’t easily ask a question or seek clarification in the same way as they would with a live teacher. And often the information they encounter is false (unless they stumble upon an academic lecture, which is just like having a teacher you can’t talk to). So the ability of a student to look anything up whenever they want does not result in a reduction of the one-way delivery of knowledge. It actually does the opposite.

    I once saw a teacher “shut up” as you put it and let her students research their own topic, “crystals”. The teacher was very happy that the students had researched the topic independently. Problem was, the one-way delivery of information from website to student resulted in the students forming the false belief that crystals have mystical healing properties. If only the teacher spoke up and disrupted the one-way delivery of information to turn it into a multi-way discussion. Isn’t that what good teaching is all about? Sugata Mitra’s infamous “hole in the wall” experiment is another example where the one-way delivery of information from internet to student goes wrong. Students in his experiment were asked to research the question “can you kill a goat by looking at it?” One of the students decided, on the basis of her research, that there is no right or wrong answer to that question. It is just a matter of opinion. Imagine if that student came to the same conclusion about whether Earth moves around the sun… “it’s just a matter of opinion”.

    I worry that computers are seen as the holy grail of education, and that whenever research points to the contrary conclusion, it is dismissed. One thing I teach my students is that it is dangerous to hold on so tightly to a pre-existing belief that one ignores evidence to the contrary. That leads to dogmatism and the confirmation bias. Interestingly, a few weeks ago, one of my students remarked that the internet is the engine of confirmation bias. He might be right. We should tread carefully as we encourage students to use it. Fortunately the student in question has developed enough agency to not rely on the internet.

    1. Thanks for such a detailed comment! And cheers for picking up the typo - I usually have many more. No chances of me seeing computers as the holy grail, just trying to balance out the narrative that seems to have prevailed around this study. Appreciate the thought you put into this response.

      Cheers Claire

    2. Agree with your thoughts on leaner agency, but I would challenge this "Unlike teachers, technology provides a one-way delivery of information from (often) anonymous sources. The problem is, the student can’t easily ask a question or seek clarification in the same way as they would with a live teacher. And often the information they encounter is false (unless they stumble upon an academic lecture, which is just like having a teacher you can’t talk to"?

      Well first of all, suggesting that the information we encounter on the internet is often false is rather over-stating the situation. Sometimes the information is false. And sometimes the information within a textbook is false. And sometimes the information the teacher provides is false. Accessing information that is unreliable and then being able to corroborate various sources to determine what is reliable is an important skill. I think what Claire is pointing out is that we live in an age where information can be accessed and used at a scale never before possible. Anyone can access multiple sources, connect with others and corroborate these sources, find expert opinion on theories and events - well beyond anything one teacher can provide in a classroom. This process is most definitely not “one -way” as you suggest. It could be - but so could reading a book. The fact that a student can’t easily ask for clarification from a teacher can be good thing - they instead have to work a bit harder to think for themselves. They can then examine their conclusions / thinking with others (whether live or through the internet) and in fact connect that thinking far beyond a face to face classroom. That is in fact, one of the most significant benefits of using technology and the internet - the ability to connect learning and people - rather like you have done here.

      I found your students’ observation on the confirmation bias interesting. The internet as the “engine for confirmation bias”? Perhaps a little over the top, but I can see where they are coming from. Is the internet ‘the’ engine or is it one of a number of possible engines? I would see the internet as an amplifier not an engine.

  7. I read the report and one Reuters' report on it. The Reuters report I saw was a reasonable summary of the OECD study's findings and of the comment that stemmed from it. (The OECD's central finding as I understood it was that the best educational outcomes in schools were correlated with - though not necessarily attributable to - low-medium investment in, and use of, IT). But as a journalist myself I know it's pretty easy to shoot the media. Tom P-S

  8. how heartening it is to see so many people who have similar ideas tome and are [re[ared to discuss the issues that matter. Great points made people, thanks for the enjoyable read.

  9. Agree with your sentiments here Claire. I would just add what I see as two very important reasons to your list.

    One is - everywhere learning. That technology and internet means that learners can access information, connect with others, publish, explore, think no matter where they are.

    The other is connected learning. That people can connect anywhere in the world. That ideas and knowledge can be connected at a scale never before possible. That no one has to learn in isolation. How powerful this can be has been demonstrated so many times over the last five years or so. Your blog is one example. The edchat hashtag on twitter is another. The same goes for our kids. Why would we want to deny them these opportunities? And as you have suggested - this is the world they live in, we as educators have an obligation to engage with it.

  10. Great post Claire...I've always had a problem with the term 'technology integration' as integration sounds like you just incorporate the tech into an existing scenario, slot it in, shuffling things just a little to fit it in comfortably. We know that is not the best way to utilise tech.

    But I absolutely agree that the quote from the report you quoted in para two. We need to look at new ways to teach, with the addition of tech where it fits purpose and becomes useful, to help the learning process in whatever way it's needed. The task for teachers is to find new ways to use technology to bring out student potential across a vast array of talents, to use it to contribute to a smart future-focussed vision, and to assess learning in areas beyond the 3Rs accordingly.

    No mean feat. I pity media commentators who are not teacher trained, in trying to get their heads around the complexities, the subtleties and the challenges that a homogenised system of the past brings to bear on what teachers are facing as they plan forward and live in the reality of a connected and collaborative classroom. The soft skills count, and increasingly enjoy a higher profile in learner processes and outcomes as they are part of the evidencing. Key competencies are the basis of the NZ curriculum for sure, but how many people outside of education really know, believe and live that.

    Teachers are brave and I doubt they will let a few headlines stop them in their tracks. It will just fuel the fire in their bellies!

    I do not mean to defend the shallow reporting here. There is a real need for specialist educational reporting. That will certainly help the general public and the parents interpret and analyse the results and lead to great debate and a better understanding of just how vital, and what a great opportunity we have to provide technology to enhance real learning for all. And for students to partly direct their own learning and give wings to their own potential.

    The methods are shifting, the devices are contributing, the pedagogy and the teachers are key. The results will surely follow. The reporters may well wonder how it all happened under their watch!

  11. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, i am really inspired.


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