Digital in the classroom is not good or bad – it’s how it’s implemented that is important

The last OECD report on education entitled “Students, computers and Learning – Making the connection” was released yesterday, September 15. It’s a 200 pages document that comes with a lot of interesting information that can be useful for higher education – to such a point that this post is the first of a series of two that will rely on this report.

One of the major contributions of this report is to go beyond the current technological determinism that seems to have pervaded education (whether K-12 or Higher Education) and to take some distance from it. Before I get any further, though, I need to make it clear that I am personally convinced that technology and all the new tools that we have at our disposal are useful and are great supports for learning and discovery. Yet, this position does not prevent from critical thinking…

This OECD report relies on the last PISA report (2012) and makes the link between these PISA data / results and the use of digital tools in the classroom (and more largely, the level of investments in favour of Information and Communication Technologies – ICT). It observes that, contrary to what could have been expected given the hype in favour of new educational technologies, using ICT in the classroom or in pedagogical systems does not imply an increase in the students’ results. In fact, it rather works the other way around… In other words, it is not because they have an access to new technological devices or to the internet at school that students learn better, improve their reading or mathematical skills or are better able to reflect. Conversely, the report emphasizes the importance of mastering fundamental and basic knowledge in reading and mathematics. Whatever the quality of the devices, whatever the level of investments in new digital tools, whatever the kind of knowledge delivered through these devices, it is of the utmost importance that students first master the basics.

This should not come as a surprise. Accessing the devices is not the most important, while being able to understand what is ON the devices, i.e. the nature of the information that the device provides, is crucial. If students do not master these basic skills, then the support (that is, the device) may become more important than the content (that is, what’s on the screen and that they are supposed to learn). Accordingly, the “fun” side of the device may win over the “serious” side of the content.

But if these results may seem not so surprising, then educational policies should evolve and governments should think twice before announcing plans to invest 1 billion euros over 3 years in digital devices to equip pupils. The same comment applies at more local levels, when in higher education public universities or private schools (whether in business, engineering, art, etc.) announce large investment plans to equip their students. Countless are those investments that have eventually cost much more than initially considered, or that have delivered much lower pedagogical results than initially expected.

A typical explanation of these disappointing results is that introducing new devices and new pedagogy should be considered as a change management project, while unfortunately it is not (or at least, not enough). Briefly put, it means that the reasons for this change should be clearly stated and the consequences should be explained to all the actors who are involved in this change (professors, students, administrative employees, parents, etc.). It also means that before these new tools are implemented, these actors must be trained to use them, to make sure that they have the necessary proficiency in using them or, as far as professors are concerned, in implementing them correctly and efficiently in their pedagogical designs. Similar issues hampered, in the early 2000s, the effective development of e-learning tools in pedagogy – for instance, users had not been trained to use these tools on their own. However, it would seem like lessons from the past are rather hard to be taken into account…

Two other related additional explanations may also explain the (relative) failure of the use of digital tools in the classroom: the development of a so-called “EdTech” fad, and the lack of appropriate research. I will develop both points in my next post, with a more specific application to the case of business schools.

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