Only part of the story is told: the OECD report on computers and learning

Female teacher helping two students who are working on computers

The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that simply having more computers in schools does not lead to more learning or higher test scores; in fact, the report said, over a certain threshold, the more time students spend tapping away at the keyboard the less they learn.

The report was based on a 2012 survey of computer availability and computer habits as well as written and digital tests administered in 40 countries. Schools in Korea, Japan, and Shanghai, which top the charts on international comparisons of educational achievement such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), have relatively few computers. And students there don’t spend a lot of time using them in school. The U.S., which comes in around the middle among participating countries in reading, mathematics, and science, ranks 7th in the world in the number of computers per student (see the display).

OECD-students-per-computerThe headlines on news stories about the report were predictable:  The BBC’s was “Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD.” Bloomberg was even more negative: “Computers Look Like an Obstacle to Learning.” The U.S. News and World Report’s take was similar and the lead of the article confirmed the reporter’s bias:  “For those of us who worry that Google might be making us stupid, and that, perhaps, technology and education don’t mix well, here’s a new study to confirm that anxiety.” Yep, let’s go back to chalk and blackboards or, better yet, wooden slates and charcoal.

But, in fact, the authors of the report are enthusiastic about the potential of computers, properly used, to improve the effectiveness of teaching and enhance learning. However, as the summary of the report said, “schools and education systems are, on average, not ready to leverage the potential of technology.”

What is the potential of technology, according to the report?  Computers can make it much easier to implement powerful teaching strategies such as personalization, collaboration, and open-ended inquiry. They can give students more opportunities to share their thinking and choose how to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Another potential benefit is that computers can give students instant, personalized feedback. For example, intelligent tutoring systems (ITS) can provide students with customized instruction and guidance on how to improve specific skills and knowledge. One such system is called AutoTutor, which was developed by researchers at the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis to help students learn Newtonian physics, computer literacy, and critical thinking topics through tutorial dialogue in natural language.  As I’ve written and spoken about elsewhere, we can use technology to create opportunities for English learners to practice conversational skills and help them learn the academic language they need to succeed in school.  Serious games is another use of computers that has great potential.

But today computers are used, much of the time, in more routine ways. Nearly 70 percent of a nationally representative sample of teachers surveyed for a 2010 report from the National Center on Education Statistics said they used computers for drilling students on basic skills; 61 percent said students used computers for writing; and 60 percent said computers were used for research. None of those activities unlock the full potential of technology. The OECD survey found that the more often students use computers for email, browsing the Internet, or for drill and practice, the lower their print reading scores on PISA.

Students who use computers in school the least do the best on the PISA mathematics test.

Students who use computers in school the least do the best on the PISA mathematics test.


Students who do not use computers in school score highest on the PISA mathematics test.

Students who do not use computers in school score highest on the PISA mathematics test.

The OECD report said that technology is not delivering the learning gains that are possible for a variety of reasons, including teachers’ weak digital skills, naïve policies, teacher and student resistance, a lack of understanding of instructional design and bad software.

The report also concluded that there are signs of progress:

  • More interactive courseware based on state-of-art instructional design is being developed.
  • Software for experimentation and simulations, which makes learning truly interactive, are being created.
  • Gaming for instruction and invisible assessment is growing.
  • More teachers are participating in active learning communities using social media.

Schools are complex organizations and effective learning requires high expectations, a strong curriculum aligned with those expectations, close supportive relationships between teachers and students and the proper tools. Computers are tools and, like all tools, they have to be used well or they won’t make a difference or, if used badly, could even make things worse.

As one person quoted in the Wall Street Journal article on the study said, “if you give kids a tool and don’t show them how to effectively use it, then it’s not going to make much of a difference. Why would people think that just putting a computer in front of a kid is going to change that?”


About the Author

Steve Ferrara was vice president for performance assessment at Pearson and headed the Center for NextGen Learning & Assessment. He led the design, implementation, and evaluation of performance assessments. He began his career as a high school special education teacher. Then, he directed Maryland’s state accountability testing system for 12 years and designed its end-of-course exams and the highly regarded Maryland School Performance Assessment program. He also designed and implemented performance assessments for grade-level student achievement, English language proficiency, and alternate assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Next, he joined the American Institutes of Research where he managed, designed, and oversaw research projects. Most recently, Dr. Ferrara was with CTB McGraw-Hill, where he worked on standard setting in several states and served as the lead research scientist for the District of Columbia’s statewide assessment program. He holds doctorate and Educational Specialist degrees in Educational Psychology and Measurement from Stanford University, a master’s degree in Special Education from Boston State College, and a bachelor’s degree in English and Journalism from the University of Massachusetts.