Technology should not drive education reform

October 22, 2015

Published in Troy Media

A recent OECD report dropped a bombshell on those who view technology as the driving force of education reform. The report found that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.”

The report was authored by Andreas Schleicher, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education director.

Hopefully this report slows down the mad rush to equip students of all ages with the latest computer gadgets.

Not only is this mindset incredibly expensive, it often undermines student learning.

At the same time, it is important not to react too far in the opposite direction. Schleicher does not advocate removing all computers from schools–they do have some benefits. For example, computers make it possible for teachers to provide up-to-date information to students, particularly in subjects like science where new discoveries happen regularly. Banishing computers from classrooms, particularly in high school, would be an unfortunate overreaction to Schleicher’s report.

So why does technology have such a poor track record in improving student achievement? After all, the OECD report is not nearly the first time education researchers have pointed out the limited benefits of technology in schools. Larry Cuban, for example, an education professor at Stanford University, has said for years that technology manufacturers regularly make overhyped and unsubstantiated promises about the latest gadgets.

Even researchers who believe that technology is beneficial in classrooms have warned against implementing it uncritically. In the International Handbook on Student Achievement (2013), Peter Reimann and Anindito Aditomo of the University of Sydney, reviewed a number of research studies and found that technology has “a positive, albeit small, impact on students’ achievement across many content areas.” They go on to caution that “claims that any particular technology will necessarily bring large, radical, or revolutionary improvement in academic achievement should be met with skepticism.”

Perhaps the best way to address this issue is to ask what actually has the biggest impact on student achievement. The answers are not hard to find. Strong teacher-student relationships, direct instruction, coherent curriculum, focused practice, and timely feedback from teachers all have large positive impacts on student achievement. Each of these can take place in the presence or absence of technology. So neither implementing nor removing technology is the key to improving student achievement.

Unfortunately, some of the strongest advocates of integrating technology in the classroom are simultaneously pushing education reforms that go against the research evidence. One of the most obvious examples is Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, which downplays the need for teachers to impart specific knowledge and skills to students. Nowhere is this blind adherence to ideology more apparent than in the province’s stubborn refusal to abandon discovery math, despite mountains of research showing the superiority of direct instruction and focused practice.

The age-old saying that a teacher should be a “guide by the side” rather than a “sage on the stage” is not only bad poetry, it is bad advice. Teachers should be front and centre in the classroom teaching, explaining new concepts, showing students how to solve problems, and providing immediate, corrective feedback so students can fix their mistakes right away and not two weeks later. Thus, teachers should be encouraged to set the direction of learning and provide clear, focused lessons to their students.

All too often, technology is used to push teachers off to the side and deemphasize direct instruction. It is no coincidence that the wholesale adoption of technology in the classroom is a central component of Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative. In fact, the Inspiring Education blueprint goes so far as to say that students need to “use these new technologies as designers and creators of knowledge.” In other words, teachers should just get out of the way and let students get on with the business of creating new knowledge—a surefire recipe for educational failure.

When technology leads to a greater reliance on ineffective instructional practices, it is bound to have a negative impact on student achievement. The recent OECD report serves as a poignant reminder that it is a mistake to put all your educational eggs in the technology basket. Instead, schools should focus on doing things the evidence actually supports. The quality of teaching is far more important than the type of technology used in the classroom.