Do Schools Really Need More Tech?

Do Schools Really Need More Tech?

Monday, 21 November 2011

Media Type
TODAY online

Using more technology in our classrooms does not mean more learning takes place.

Local and international schools alike here are putting more PCs in classrooms and expanding technology usage dramatically. In some classrooms, even students in primary school use iPads and other gadgets.

The problem is, using all that technology may not have increased students' learning. Some teachers with new iPads and PCs or other gadgets may spend more time using or learning the technology and have less time for teaching the basics, like reading and writing and arithmetic. And while students can find more information, they may also be distracted from deeper learning.

One teacher here that I spoke to summarised it well. While students find technology engaging and interesting, she said, teachers find it challenging to come up with meaningful, engaging and effective ICT lessons. In some cases, she added, it can be difficult for teachers to be mindful about lesson goals and not just implement technology for the sake of it.

Research - or more pertinently, the lack of it - and anecdotal experience elsewhere is starting to call into question the hype over the impact of technology on actual learning. As Mr Matt Richtel wrote in The New York Times recently, schools in the United States are "spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning".

Former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Tom Vander Ark told Mr Richtel that even though more classroom technology is "one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today", "it's very difficult when we're pressed to come up with convincing data to gauge its educational value".

While the relative newness of technology in the classroom and the long duration required for studies means research on the effectiveness of classroom technology is somewhat limited so far, these conclusions are not necessarily new.

Research by Winona State University professor Carrie Fried published in Computers & Education in 2008, for example, showed that "the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning", posing more often than not as a distraction. A US Department of Education review of educational software in 2009 found a positive effect in only "one of the six reading products" and none of four maths products helped student achievement.

Studies in other regions show similar results. Mr John Harmen Valk of the Canada-based International Research Development Centre said that analysis of projects in six countries in Asia "indicates that while there is important evidence of mobile phones facilitating increased access, much less evidence exists as to how mobiles promote new learning".

Moreover, he said, "it is possible that investments in educational infrastructure and materials, as well as more traditional teacher training, might yield more significant beneficial educational outcomes".

A two-year World Bank-funded study of a programme in Colombia that placed computers in public schools "failed to find that the computers led to any measurable increase in student test scores". Researchers said the results do not mean that computers "cannot raise educational quality", but they do indicate that "being able to access technology is not always enough".

Some schools in other places have actually decided to use less technology. Waldorf education, which has more than 1,000 schools around the world, says it has found that mass media "works against the healthy development of sound thinking and seriously weakens a child's ability to deal with reality".

Moreover, Waldorf adds, "students accustomed to passively receiving impressions have difficulty making the inner effort necessary to sustain an imaginative train of thought or to follow a complicated mathematical process". As a result, they do not use or encourage electronic media.

Yet such findings do not mean that computers and tablets are not useful. The National Institute of Education's Chen Wenli, for example, found that it can effectively support instant formative feedback and interactions among students. Research by Becta in the UK showed that students using mobile learning technology increased their "competence in the use of IT" and "motivation and enthusiasm for their course".

A study led by Sarah Hennessy of Cambridge University on ICT in Africa found that it "can be an effective tool in supporting teaching and learning", even if it "does not by itself improve the quality of education". And other research shows that using computers or mobile phones can increase students' access to information.

Here in Singapore, the Ministry of Education's Third Masterplan for ICT in Education (2009-2014) includes a mention that "students will be required to use ICT to look for information, synthesise reports, give feedback on each others' work and collaborate".

Director of MOE's Educational Technology Division Cheah Horn Mun summed it up nicely in SingTeach recently, when he said that "while technology brings a lot of things to the table, we must also be cognizant of what we are losing". For example, he said, "the nature of the Internet is such that we may be losing our ability to read in depth".

While technology does increase access to information, independent studies so far seem to indicate that it does not necessarily result in better learning. This does not mean, though, that schools should remove their computers and tablets; students need to understand how to use technology.

But doing more to further improve teaching may be even more valuable in enhancing education than putting more technology in classrooms.

Article by Richard Hartung, a management consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.

Source: TODAY online, mediacorp