Ten things about computer use in schools that you don't want to hear (but I'll say them anyway)

This page in:

I don't want to hear thisAt an event last year in Uruguay for policymakers from around the world, a few experts who have worked in the field of technology use in education for a long time commented that there was, in their opinion and in contrast to their experiences even a few years ago, a surprising amount of consensus among the people gathered together on what was really important, what wasn't, and on ways to proceed (and not to proceed).  Over the past two years, I have increasingly made the same comment to myself when involved in similar discussions in other parts of the world.  At one level, this has been a welcome development.  People who work with the use of ICTs in education tend to be a highly connected bunch, and the diffusion of better (cheaper, faster) connectivity has helped to ensure that 'good practices and ideas' are shared with greater velocity than perhaps ever before.  Even some groups and people associated with the 'give kids computers, expect magic to happen' philosophy appear to have had some of their more extreme views tempered in recent years by the reality of actually trying to put this philosophy into practice.

That said, the fact that "everyone agrees about most everything" isn't always such a good thing.  Divergent opinions and voices are important, if only to help us reconsider why we believe what we believe. (They are also important because they might actually be right, of course, and all of the rest of us wrong, but that's another matter!) Even where there is an emerging consensus among leading thinkers and practitioners about what is critically important, this doesn't mean that what is actually being done reflects this consensus -- or indeed, that this consensus 'expert' opinion is relevant in all contexts.

An EduTech blog post from last year, for example, identified a dilemma faced by many Caribbean countries: They are putting lots of computers into schools. Consistent with what is considered 'best practice' from around the world, policymakers in the region recognize that providing more training and support for teachers is crucial if the investments in technology are to have real impact.  But if teachers are better trained, many may emigrate in search of better paying teaching jobs in other countries. If this is the case, what is a policymaker to do?

Examples like this do tend to complicate some of the 'expert' opinion that is congealing into conventional wisdom. ("When my information changes, I change my opinion. What do you do, Sir?" famously asked economist John Meynard Keynes.)


The comments below are adapted from a presentation I put together for senior policymakers in a developing country who have high level oversight of the use of technology in thousands of schools. Complemented by a separate discussion about 'worst practices' in ICT use in education, there were meant to be provocative, and to serve as a springboard for subsequent discussion and debate.  They may or may not be useful or relevant to the people who read this blog (especially those with a lot of experience using ICTs in schools over many years), but I thought they potentially were relevant to the group with which I was speaking.  To the extent that they might be of any interest to others, here are:

Ten things about computer use in schools
that you don't want to hear
(but I'll say them anyway)

1. Computer labs are a bad idea

In most places I visit, putting all (or most) of a school's computers into a special 'computer lab' is seen as the obvious thing to do when a school is being 'computerized'.  This may seem obvious ... but is it really a good idea?

The trend in industrialized countries has largely been away from computer lab-centric models for educational technologies.  One reason for this is quite practical -- the computer labs are already full of computers, and if you want to buy more of them, you need to put them in other places. Fair enough. There is also a recognition, however, that if you want computers and other ICTs to contribute directly to impacting the learning process in core subjects, you need to put them where core subjects are being taught -- like in the classroom.  The move toward 1-to-1 computing, where each student (and/or teacher) has her own dedicated laptop, can be seen in some ways as a further extension of this belief.

This is not to say that school computer labs are a bad idea. Or, for that matter, that they are a good idea. Rather, it is to argue that, where the decision is made to invest in them, it should be for the right reasons -- and not just because "that's what everyone else seems to be doing (or did in the past), so we should do it too".

2. ICT literacy classes are a bad idea

Why do you need to put computers in schools?  So that kids can 'learn how to use computers'.  How do kids best learn how to use computers?  By deliberately being taught their basic functions as part of a special 'computer class'. Right?

Some people don't think so, and contend that using ICTs primarily to build 'ICT literacy' tends to crowd out other educational uses of the technologies, and that desires to develop skills that conform to narrow definitions of 'ICT literacy' (i.e. basically the mechanical stuff -- opening a document, word processing, etc.) can often be met by utilizing ICTs in other ways.  Might it be better, they ask, to help students develop their 'computer skills' as a natural by-product of ICT use as part of other learning activities than to 'teach' them, for example, how an operating system works and how to use basic office productivity applications?  Of course local context is important here: What works in one place (or time) in this regard may not work so well in another. This is not to say that vocational computer-related instruction is a waste of time.  Certainly not!  (Although it may be worth asking what extent basic 'computer courses' are really appropriate in places where likely usage scenarios for ICTs going forward do not involve someone sitting at a desk, but rather using a mobile phone or -- soon -- a tablet device.)  Nor is it meant to imply that children do not need to learn how to perform basic tasks with a computer.  But there is more than one way to accomplish the task of making students 'ICT literate'.

3. Don't expect test scores to improve

Most 'research' studies I receive from vendors tout a marked, immediate positive impact on test scores as a result of their product or service. Precious few of these, at least in my experience, stand up to much scrutiny.

(Quick side note to vendors: I look at the methodologies used by your researchers before paying any attention to your conclusions.  The more open you are about how you have come to your conclusions, and what the limitations of your reasoning may be, the more interested I will become.)

While acknowledging that there are some good studies out there that do show a (modest) improvement in test scores as a result of computer use in schools, I don't think much has changed since infoDev's Knowledge Map on ICT use in education contended that "impact of ICT use on student achievement remains ... open to much reasonable debate".

My goal here isn't to revisit or summarize the 'reasonable debates' in this area.  Instead, I would like to turn things around for a second.  Where there has been compelling evidence of improvement in test scores, it may be worth asking: Are these bad tests? We have known for decades how useful 'computer-aided instruction' can be in promoting the rote memorization of facts.  'Drill and kill' is the derisive term some use to describe the use of computers as little more than digital flash cards.  In some cases, the use of 'drill and kill' educational software may indeed be the most 'effective' use of ICTs in schools, especially where rote memorization and regurgitation of facts is what is currently tested in national assessments. Just because something is expedient doesn't mean it is a good idea, however. 

Now, I am not against flash cards per se -- they certainly have their utility in some instances and contexts. (When I was learning Chinese I found them invaluable when trying to recognize common characters, for example, and three minutes using simple flash card mathematics apps on my phone with my son can serve as a useful diagnostic, providing me with quick insight into what concepts he may be having trouble with.) That said, essentially building an entire (expensive) roll-out of educational technology around the use of high tech flash cards ... well, that seems to me to be missing most of the potential power of what the technology can do. I expect that few people will disagree with what I've said here at a conceptual level.  That said, I challenge you to look at how computers are actually being used in your schools.

These days, the rhetoric around computer use in education is often that computers can be used to help develop sets of '21st century skills' (variously defined).  Few examination systems, however, do a very good job in testing these sorts of skills. If your rationale for putting computers in schools is to develop these sorts of 21st century skills, but your examinations don't test for them, don't expect test scores to improve.

(I'll also note parenthetically that, if you are moving more and more of your instructional and learning activities into the 'digital realm', but you are still testing your students using traditional pencil and paper exams ... well, you may also want to take a step back and reconsider some things.)

4. What students do outside the classroom with technology is more important than what they do inside it

"Technology is revolutionizing education everywhere but in the classroom" -- so goes a saying quite popular in many education and ICT communities.  Just because it may have past into cliche in some circles doesn't mean that it isn't true. While a review of research about the impact of ICT use in schools on educational outcomes around the world is decidedly mixed, results from the OECD research investigation of New Millennium Learners proposes (while controlling for things like income levels, etc.) interesting correlations between technology use outside of school and impact on learning.  We shouldn't confuse correlation with causation, of course.  That said, to what extent are you aware of how students are using technology outside of school, and using this information as an input to your decisions about how it is meant to be used in support of the formal learning processes in which your schools are engaged? If you are not doing this now, your calibrations for how technology is 'best' (and most cost effectively) used in schools may well be off the mark. 

5. Digital citizenship and child safety will become an important part of what schools teach

You may say that this something you agree with.  Why don't you want to hear this, then? Because few of you are doing it now -- or preparing to do it in any impactful way.  Yes, in many instances, filters have been installed on school servers to keep kids 'safe', and laws have been established to help 'protect kids from online predators', but 'keeping kids safe online' is not just about insulating children from threats and vigorously prosecuting those who seek to do them harm.   Schools are particularly well placed to help teach children to better identify and evaluate the various types of risks they may face when going online, and how to deal with them.  This is especially true in communities where computers are not available in all homes, but are increasingly to be found in schools, connected to the Internet.  At the same time, the proliferation of mobile phones and Internet cafes means that young people are increasingly operating in two separate digital worlds -- that of the controlled environment of (for example) a highly policed school computer lab, where 'digital literacy' often means instruction in basic word processing applications, and the 'anything goes' context of private Internet kiosks and personal mobile phones, where the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to navigate through one's 'digital life' are much more difficult to acquire. Might education systems have a role to play here beyond teaching basic 'computer literacy' and filtering objectionable content?

6. Most kids aren't 'digital natives'

One of the arguments often connected to discussions about technology use in schools is that 'children today are digital natives, and schools need to connect to them differently as a result'.

Proponents of this line of thinking contend that a new generation of young people have developed a set of attitudes and skills as a result of their exposure to, and use of, ICTs.  While we have all observed (certain groups of) young people as they (for example) quickly explore how a device's menu'ing system works, how to turn on unfamiliar gadget, or 'intuitively' discover the rules of the way a particular piece of software or hardware 'works' without being so 'instructed', we may do well to resist the impulse to extrapolate from such observations that all (or even most) children magically know how to use technology successfully and ethically in support of their own learning.

While the digital natives hypothesis is compelling in its simplicity, academic research in this area is painting a picture that is much more differentiated and nuanced than popular opinions that, when it comes to technology, kids naturally "get it". Quickly learning and demonstrating a mastery of the mechanics of a particular process or use of a given technology (posting to Facebook, for example, or playing a video game one has never seen before) shouldn't be confused with a mastery of how to successfully use various technology tools with which young people come into contact in ways that are relevant to their own lives and communities.

It is one thing to be able to 'find' a 'fact' using a search engine.  It is something else entirely to find the most relevant facts, and then successfully analyze and evaluate these 'facts' and their relevance to a particular task at hand, synthesizing this relevance and sharing the results of this processes with other to result in some sort of particular action or response.  The first demonstrates familiarity with a particular process, the second forms a fundamental part of many people's definition of 'learning'.

7. You will never 'catch up' (technological innovations will always outpace your ability to innovate on the policy side)

Education systems are often one of the most conservative institutions in a society. One thing I often hear from policymakers is that they feel 'far behind' when it comes to considerations of technology use in education.  My response to this may not be very comforting: You never will catch up, you will always be behind. 

Now, I must admit, this is said a little bit for effect (there are of course many educators who are at the cutting, if not the bleeding, edge of technology use), but at a certain point, it might be more useful to change your perspective than to look back fondly at the 'good old days' when technology was not such a continually disruptive force.

I don't mean this to imply that policies (nor the policymaking process, given that the process of consultation around policy formulation can perhaps be as important as the resulting policy that results) related to the use of ICTs in education have no value. Of course they do.  Articulating some sort of principle or rule to guide decisions (which is a basic definition of what a policy is) is quite important, I think, even in areas that are fast moving, like those related to technology. (Some may argue, in fact, that it is *especially* in areas that are fast moving where policy direction can be most helpful in many regards.) While it is important to acknowledge our limitations here, saying we will never catch up doesn't mean we shouldn't try -- and the way we frame our policies just might help us as we try to do so.

(A parenthetical note of caution: In some cases, where education systems have made a bold move to be 'visionary' and anticipate future trends, they have found that the abilities of some of the most senior officials to serve in effect as technology prognosticators has, to be charitable,  left a little to be desired. Buying into technologies and/or philosophies at scale that are 'experimental' -- especially those that are closely tied to a proprietary standard and/or single organization or vendor -- can leave education systems quite exposed if things do not work out exactly had been originally envisioned. One of the truisms of investments in technology is that things rarely proceed as neatly as planned.)

8. 'Cheating' may well increase

Wherever computers and the Internet are introduced into schools for the first time -- whether this in a suburban Canadian school in the 1990s or a rural school in South Asia in the 2010s -- run-of-the-mill 'copy-paste plagiarism' invariably sky rockets, and other, more inventive ways to cheat are subsequently discovered and put to use by students (a process enabled by the willingness of some to freely share their related 'expertise' via the Internet.) This is an issue that, in my experience working with education officials in high, middle and low income countries alike -- and almost without exception -- grows in importance over time as a preoccupation of policymakers charged with oversight of ICT/education issues within education systems.

9. Like it or not, mobile phones (and other mobile devices like tablets) are coming (fast)

Yes, 'mobile phones' (or whatever you choose to call the little handheld devices that have more computing power than what sat on the desktops in computer labs a generation ago) may not be able to do what it is possible to do with a PC connected to keyboard and large monitor. But they are the technologies that are increaslingy to be found in the pockets and pocketbooks of people around the world.  

This is not to say that students should not have laptops. Nor that they should not have interactive whiteboards, or _____ [insert name of another technology device here].  The technology choice should flow from a consideration of a lot of things (what's available, what's affordable, what's usable, what's appropriate, and most importantly: what's relevant for a particular learning or developmental objective). Yes, mobile phones may well be 'digital distraction devices' today in most classrooms.  (Talk to a teacher in a room with 30 students with laptops -- she might well say the same thing about those devices, with kids instant messaging each other and sneaking in quick trips to Facebook and check sports scores.)  That said, educational policymakers who do not include the use of mobile phones and other mobile devices like tablets as part of their future considerations of technology use in education are, in many ways, driving forward by looking in the rear view mirror.

10. _____

I have deliberately left #10 blank as an acknowledgement that there is much more 'conventional wisdom' related to the use of ICTs in education that could perhaps be challenged.  I also do it as an acknowledgement that my knowledge of the specific contexts of technology use in education, and among young people, pales in comparison to your knowledge of how ICTs are used in your own country or community.  There are a lot more things I could share on this topic, but I expect that, given your experience and expertise in this regard, you may wish to share some of them based on your own experience.  Please feel free to do so [below].



OK, so that's my list.  You may not agree with all of my points.  (To be honest, I may not agree with all of them, at least not 100%.) The purpose in presenting them is to provoke some different thinking around and approaches to some of these issues discussed.

Note: The public domain image of one of the three monkeys at the famous  Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan used above ("I don't want to hear this") was adapted from a picture on Wikimedia Commons taken by Frank "Fg2" Gualtieri.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000