One with the Internet.

Photographer: Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images

Computers Look Like an Obstacle to Learning

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

Information technology is great, but it may not be making kids smarter, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has an authoritative program for assessing school education quality, and has published a report showing that increased computer use in classrooms leads to lower test scores.  

The researchers compared data from 2009 and 2012, the most recent sets of testing under the Program for International Student Assessment. As you might expect, the number of computers in schools and households increased in those three years, as did the time kids spent online. In OECD countries and in Russia, a student spent, on average, two hours a day online in 2012, and 25 minutes of that time was at school.  That figure undoubtedly has  increased since then, given the proliferation of cheaper mobile devices and laptops.

The use of computers for schoolwork has increased, especially in Western countries. Education systems in Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway were the leaders in integrating tech. In Norway, 67 percent of students reported having used spreadsheets in math lessons and 31 percent said they had used a computer to draw graphs. In Australia, kids spent almost an hour a day online at school.  In Denmark, 35 percent had access to school-provided tablets. 

Yet, there are some outliers: Japan, China and even tech-loving South Korea, where  the share of students using computers at school declined to 42 percent in 2012 from 63 percent in 2009. 

They may be on to something. The OECD study found that the use of computers was negatively correlated with improvements in student performance on math tests:

OECD

And this doesn't apply only to math: In countries with higher numbers of students who frequently browse the Internet for schoolwork at school, reading performance tends to improve more sluggishly than in others, or even to worsen:

OECD

In line with these findings, students in Korea and other Asian economies, where computers are less integrated into the learning process than in Australia or northern Europe, perform better even on computer-based assignments, including what PISA calls "digital reading" -- dealing with online content that includes hyperlinks:

OECD

The decline in performance becomes especially noticeable in countries where students often use online chats for schoolwork. They "may be missing out on other more effective learning activities," the report suggests. 

And less computer use in class doesn't mean kids aren't comfortable with technology: According to the report, Korean and Singaporean students are better than anyone else at Internet navigation because they are "already proficient in higher-order thinking and reasoning processes in other domains."

The study's results are not clear-cut, however. Australian kids are good at online reading, and Danish and Norwegian schoolchildren score high in math, defying the negative relationships charted in the report. Teaching quality matters. In Norway, teachers are good at letting kids practice on their computers rather than just watching demonstrations.

The general problem is that teachers often aren't  very adept at using technology themselves. Like most of us, they picked up their skills as they went along, and they often are no better than students at coming up with productive ways to use computers. Both the kids and their teachers are wandering in the dark. As the report puts it, 

Schools and education systems are, on average, not ready to leverage the potential of technology. Gaps in the digital skills of both teachers and students, difficulties in locating high-quality digital learning resources from among a plethora of poor-quality ones, a lack of clarity on the learning goals and insufficient pedagogical preparation for blending technology meaningfully into lessons and curricula create a wedge between expectations and reality. If these challenges are not addressed as part of the technology plans of schools and education ministries, technology may do more harm than good to the teacher-student interactions that underpin deep conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking.

In most cases, teachers are better off sticking to imparting universal concepts and reasoning skills. Students will figure out how to apply them online, or in any other environment. Working on digital skills may be useful -- a generation of Excel wizards appears to be emerging in Norway, for example -- but tech is developing so fast that these skills could become as obsolete as, say, analog photography expertise is today.  

It's appropriate that that schools should try to prepare children for life in the 21st century, but there's no way they can be sure life won't change as dramatically in the next decade as it did in the last 20 years. It makes sense to keep to basics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net