Technology and all that

I see the BBC education site is leading with “Computers do not improve pupil results“.

My first reaction is “well, who knew?”.  Although I’m very far from being a technophobe – indeed I’ve been described as a “gadget queen” before now – I would never have thought that technology was any sort of magic bullet for improving results.

Note that is not the same thing as saying that investing in technology is not worthwhile.  There are, strange is it may seem to some, other goods in education besides improving results.  I personally get quite a lot of fun out of using various forms of technology, and it makes my life easier in quite a few ways – I think the same is true of my pupils. But I wouldn’t expect to be able to quantify all the benefits.

Then I read further into the article. I’ve now decided I’m going to use it as a nice demonstration of bad statistics.

So…. first finding: “… education systems which have invested heavily in ICT have seen “no noticeable improvement” in Pisa test results for reading, mathematics or science”.  Well, I wonder if those that could afford to invest heavily were pretty prosperous nations who already tend to have quite high Pisa scores, and hence have less potential to improve anyway?

And another one: ” Students who use computers very frequently at school get worse results”.  Well, I wonder if they’ve corrected for the work ethic of the pupils? If I look at the kids who are most likely to be found on an electronic device a lot, it is seldom the ones who are keenest on working hard. There are many ways to amuse yourself on a computer, after all.  Even if all that use was actually officially sanctioned in lessons, I hate to say it, but sometimes kids do go off task in lessons (shock! horror!) and if they are given the freedom to stay on the electronic device of choice until they have finished the piece of work, there is very little incentive to focus.   Another aspect, of course, is that usually what you are doing on the computer is not identical to whatever you need to do in an assessment – if you are spending a lot of time on a computer, then you’ve less chance to hone those assessment-related skills. That’s not saying you want kids to spend all their time practising for assessments – that’s very far from being a decent education – but a bit of practice is likely to have some impact on performance.

What else… “socio-economic divide between students is not narrowed by technology, perhaps even amplified”. Well, there’s a surprise. If I get used to learning on a computer, the fact I have one at home is likely to give me an advantage over someone who hasn’t, isn’t it?

And for a classic example of attempting to suggest that correlation implies cause, we have:- “The countries and cities with the lowest use of the internet in school – South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan – are among the top performers in international tests.

As surely every sensible teacher knows, computers, tablets etc, like everything else, are helpful when used appropriately, to add something to the lesson. They are not helpful used just for the sake of it.  They are perhaps more prone than other things to be used out of – dare I say it – teacher laziness; it can be an easy way to keep a class amused doing something that feels educationally valid but needs little input from the teacher (Yes, I have done this occasionally. Not too often, I hope, but I think most of us occasionally set up an easy lesson).   Where some of the problem arises also is when you have some numbskull doing lesson observations who has  “use of ICT” on their little sheet of criteria for an excellent lesson, and woe betide you if that box isn’t ticked.

Anyway, I’ve got an alternative easy lesson now. I am going to get some of my pupils to go through that article picking through the assumptions and conclusions.  That’ll probably do them more good than sticking them in front of the computer, anyway!

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