New landmark OECD PISA study on 'Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection'

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OK, I think I'm developing the outline of something pretty interesting here
OK, I think I'm developing the outline of
something pretty interesting here
The OECD today released a landmark report on students, technology and learning based on data from  PISA, the international assessment of 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. This new publication presents the most detailed set of data and analysis to date on student access to computers, their use of computers, and learning outcomes (as measured by PISA).
Students, Computers and Learning:
Making the Connection

 principal author: Francesco Avvisati
Paris: OECD, 2015
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of a related blog post by the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher:
"Totally wired. That’s our image of most 15-year-olds and the world they inhabit. But a new, ground-breaking report on students’ digital skills and the learning environments designed to develop those skills, paints a very different picture. Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection finds that, despite the pervasiveness of information and communication technologies (ICT) in our daily lives, these technologies have not yet been as widely adopted in formal education. And where they are used in the classroom, their impact on student performance is mixed, at best."
Press reports today have (unsurprisingly) not been terribly nuanced or sophisticated in their understanding or analysis of what the OECD report actually says. Witness the Irish Times: "Ireland has one of the lowest rates of internet use in schools in the world but, ironically, it may be doing students more good than harm, according to a global study published on Tuesday" or the BBC: "Computers 'do not improve' pupil results, says OECD". The Register concludes that the main message is "Don't bother buying computers for schools, says OECD report". More sophisticated and substantive takes on these findings will hopefully emerge in the coming weeks. (I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that a more relevant, and practical, directive might be to figure out how to make good use of all of this technology rather than simply to avoid it entirely, but maybe I am a biased observer here.)
My very quick summary take on a few of the key findings, for what it might be worth:
  1. 'Computers' don't teach kids, teachers do (of course others do as well, including: peers; the students themselves; parents; etc.)
  2. Mere access to technology makes little impact. Simplistic policies to buy lots of computers aren't terribly effective at doing much more than … ensuring that you have a lot of computers.
  3. There is a big disconnect between student use of computers inside and outside of schools.
  4. Heavy use of computers by students often correlates to many things (lower performance, increased absenteeism, etc.) that aren’t terribly desirable.
  5. Education systems are struggling with all of this.
  6. More generally, this publication (and many of the initial reactions to it) highlights to me the fact that most people tend to pose the wrong question when it comes to technology use in education. They ask: "What's the impact of computers on learning?" The most sensible answer to that query is, I think: It depends on what you use them for, and how, and why. [We’ll explore some better questions to consider in a future EduTech blog post.]
  7. This report documents that, in OECD countries at least, there is increasingly a lot of technology in schools. However, it may not be used all that much (and is certainly used less by students in schools than they use outside of school).
  8. More importantly: It is clearly not being used terribly well. In aggregate, the mere existence of all of this tech isn’t making much of a difference on student learning (as we measure such things today).
  9. Given that we will live in an increasingly technology-saturated world, a key challenge for education systems will be how to use this stuff effectively, safely and equitably.
  10. Indeed: Few imagine a future in which there is less technology in our lives, and in our schools. Few would argue that potential uses of new technologies don't hold great promise for student learning. The challenge is: How to make this happen.
Buried in the report are lots of quite interesting, and potentially policy-relevant, data and insights -- such as the fact that, in many schools, technology use appears to be enabling pedagogical approaches that aren't as much in evidence when technology is not utilized. (We’ll examine at some of these sorts of insights in a later EduTech blog post.) Identifying and learning from such pockets of activity (and innovation?) should be a priority for policymakers and researchers going forward. The OECD report comments that “adding 21 st-century technologies to 20 th-century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching” and that “it is vital that teachers become active agents for change, not just in implementing technological innovations, but in designing them too.” That seems about right to me.
One phrase that I did not find in the report, nor during today’s webinar announcing its key findings, was ‘learning curve’. From my perspective here at the World Bank working with governments on related issues, is seems pretty clear that many education systems around the world are facing a rather steep learning curve when it comes to making effective use of their (often rather large) investments in educational technologies – and presumably will do so going forward as well.
For those interested in such things (a category to which a good many readers of the EduTech blog presumably belong), Students, Computers and Learning is well worth reading. If you don’t have time for the whole report (it’s pretty long), I suggest you at least read the executive summary – and not many of the related press reports that cherry pick from the summary to provide sensational headlines.  There is a lot here that’s worth considering.

Some related materials:  
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a girl at the Guimet Museum in Paris (" OK, I think I'm developing the outline of something pretty interesting here") comes from the French Wikipedian Kezia1 via Wikimedia Commons. This copylefted work of art is free; you can redistribute it and/or modify it according to terms of the Free Art License.


Michael Trucano

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

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