Students, computers and learning: 5 takeaways from *that* OECD report

It was with breathlessness more suited to the daily rag that the BBC ran the headline Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD while the Register yelled “Don’t bother buying computers for schools, says OECD report”, prompting an outpouring of reaction that, predictably, asserted the opposite.

OECD logoStill, we are sensible professionals who are quite capable of reading the 204 (!) pages of the actual report for ourselves, unfiltered by screaming headlines.

Let’s set aside the hysterics, take a breath and look at this report in measured way, asking ourselves what can educators take from this that is useful.


It’s important to note the constraints of this report:

  • Student achievement data is limited to PISA results, a narrow range of assessments around reading and maths.
  • The data was gathered in 2009 and 2012, as part of the PISA study, and was restricted to 15-16 year olds.
  • The ‘computer-based assessment’ tests in the report a narrow range of skills (reading & maths). The online activities do not align clearly with the kinds of pedagogies we might see in other OECD reports e.g. they looked for ‘browsing’ but not ‘creating’.
  • Early interpretations of this data have already been reported in previous OECD releases.

1. Catch our own bias

860181962_7aa9182419_mTo what extent do we think that computers are a ‘must have’ in schools – and what do we base this on? Technological determinism is not a new concept but it is worth questioning our bias and beliefs towards any aspect of education that we think is more effective than another. A good honest discussion is always helpful to position ourselves in relation to digital technologies, and not just accept things wholesale. This report helps spotlight the importance of this and has helpfully stimulated dialogue.

We must not be distracted by the technology but focus on the experiences we deliberately design. How do we justify ICT in use in school? Is it the promise of enhanced learning? ICT is in everyday use so we must use it too? We aim to bridge the equity divide? Reduce admin costs? Attract teachers? (p. 50)

In the report, there is a broad positive link between access to computers and student performance. The data that indicates that above average use of computers was associated with significantly poor results in reading/maths should at least encourage as to ask: what is happening in those spaces where there is high computer access in terms of cognitively deep learning design? Have we become distracted from learning design by the new, complicated and shiny? Do we use the same texts to support literacy as are typically used by young people online? Are we designing for advanced skills that will typically be needed in the future (e.g. problem solving)?

Equity in access does not reduce equity in learning – access to devices is only the first step. In terms of gender, boys tend to use them earlier than girls. The report tell us (in Chp. 5) that strong/weak use of the web correlates to socio-economic status and that, once we have bridged the “first order” divide and provided access to computers/connection, we still have a “second order” divide in proficiency and ability to make the most of online opportunities (e.g. se the potential in a MOOC).

2. What we know about effective learning is affirmed

6695933893_2f92b65517_mNo surprises in the report here. It clearly states that the teaching approaches we adopt are key, particularly in the way we deliberately design for deep, conceptual and higher-order thinking. Technologies can support learners to:

  • reach and acquire information in unlimited ways
  • access new channels for exploration, expression and creation
  • bridge previously disconnected silos through multi-media
  • extend the range of time and place for learning

… although it is noticeable in the report that much of the reported activities online involve browsing the web, rather than creating or collaborating around new knowledge.

“Adding 21st-century technologies to 20th-century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching…Teaching can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching” (pp. 3-4)

There is a need to “unlearn and relearn at a rapid pace” (p. 53). The TALIS report on which this report draws also reiterates that “integrating technology into teaching should always be done in the service of pedagogy” (p. 77)

Digital literacies – our abilities to understand, create, curate and navigate safely and effectively around the web – are important if we are to participate in the increasingly online world. How this is taught is at the hands of the teachers who know their students best, but the basic ability to understand and communicate is vital and it is useful to understand the complexity needed to weave navigation skills through task-related reading (Chp. 4) We see this coming through Fullan’s New Pedagogies work too.

The importance of students being supported to understand and use technologies safely and responsibly is in the report too, making an interesting link between emotional wellbeing and levels of socialization online, knowing that emotional belonging is key to being able to learn.

3. An invitation to reimagine

9153251161_c035177333_mI have blogged before about the OECD’s view on 21st-century skills and the role of technology therein [Have you joined the tech revolution?Harnessing the power of connectedness | Growing adaptive experts #ConnectAU15].

The OECD is of the view – as reflected in their Innovative Learning Environment series – that working in rich, student-centred ways are absolutely valid, and that technologies “provide great platforms” for collaboration, inquiry, real-time assessment, gaming and more. In fact, the report notes that teachers who are more inclined towards student-centred teaching are more likely to use digital resources effectively.  Think TPACK here:)

4. The importance of lining up the ducks

3954829088_0bb34e2b57_mThe value of professional learning is front and centre here, as is having a coherent policy and strategy from the government to the student that has a clear line of sight around what is effective and the resourcing needed to make this happen for schools. The value of research into new approaches is asserted here, too.


5. Teachers as change agents

6149718881_051a51b439_mThis is not a report that condemns teachers for poor teaching. It does not state that computers are distractions.

This is a report about reviewing the way we use them, and those understandings that are foundational so learners can make the best use of technologies. This report clearly asserts the absolute value and influence that educators have over the potential of our young people. The need for continued support, professional learning and a supportive system is front and centre here too. The report also notes how technologies are connecting educators to support exchange of ideas – professional learning as collaborative practice (p. 18).

A useful focus would be to support shared planning for learning that aligns deep, cognitive design with meaningful blend of technologies, so student can select them efficiently. The connection between the curriculum concepts, pedagogical approaches and the technologies being used will make the biggest difference to effective planning.

Further thoughts

What the data shows about New Zealand:

  • 96.8% students have one computer at home, an increase on 2009, above the OECD average, while the % of time students spent on devices is below the average.
  • NZ is also above average for computers per student at school and time spent on the internet at school – and below average for % using computers in maths.  There has been rapid shift to mobile computing.
  • NZ didn’t appear in the data for the digital reading assessment.
  • 80% disadvantaged students have access to the web at home in NZ.
  • NZ is above average for students stating they have a sense of belonging in school.
  • There is little difference between high and low socio-economic schools in NZ, compared to other OECD countries, in terms of access to computers (student-computer ratio).

Blogs and articles on this topic:

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5 thoughts on “Students, computers and learning: 5 takeaways from *that* OECD report

  1. I haven’t had a chance to read the actual report yet and was somewhat alarmed by the media’s take which appears to only reinforce their lack of understanding around the education of our children! I appreciate your breakdown here, Karen. It is affirming and normalises the journey I am on at the moment. The ability to unlearn and relearn quickly as an educator has become very apparent to me this year. The trick is to ensure that our teachers have a very deep and rich understanding of this…

    The OECD is of the view – as reflected in their Innovative Learning Environment series – that working in rich, student-centred ways are absolutely valid, and that technologies “provide great platforms” for collaboration, inquiry, real-time assessment, gaming and more. In fact, the report notes that teachers who are more inclined towards student-centred teaching are more likely to use digital resources effectively.

    Thanks, Karen!


  2. I agree that the tests are very narrow and do not truly reflect ‘learning’ and attainment. I have older students working predominantly on the computers in my subject and, as a whole, I believe they are learning more and attaining higher grades due to it. strange how computers were not long ago seen as the saviour of education and now, just because of one very biased headline, they are seen as the potential downfall in the OECD.


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