Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The OECD report on digital technologies in education

The hype around the report is getting quite a bit of media time. Some of it is highly superficial. The website providing the summary says this very early on:
Students, Computers and Learning: Making The Connection” says that even countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies (ICT) for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science.
I suspect some media have been lazy and taken the comment on face value. Since OECD PISA evaluations focus on reading, mathematics and and science,  these are the only areas it can comment on in relation to digital tools.

Digging a bit more, the report's conclusions are based on:
results from PISA 2012, the report discusses differences in access to and use of ICT – what are collectively known as the “digital divide” – that are related to students’ socio-economic status, gender, geographic location, and the school a child attends. The report highlights the importance of bolstering students’ ability to navigate through digital texts. It also examines the relationship among computer access in schools, computer use in classrooms, and performance in the PISA assessment. As the report makes clear, all students first need to be equipped with basic literacy and numeracy skills so that they can participate fully in the hyper-connected, digitised societies of the 21st century.
On page 3 of the report itself, it describes some interpretations of its findings that appear to have been ingnored in some of superficial hand-wringing I've seen. On New Zealand television for instance, Mike Hoskings on Seven Sharp recently made comments typical of these superficial responses. The OECD's interpretations include the unsurprising but deeply important points such as:

  • "building deep, conceptual understanding and higher order thinking requires intensive teacher-student interactions and technology sometimes distracts from this valuable human engagement"
  • "we have not yet become good enough at the kinds of pedagogies that make the most of technology: that adding 21st-century technologies to 20th-century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching"
  • And on page 4: "great technology cannot replace poor teaching".
The OECD also urges that this dilemma of a gap between the affordances of the technologies and the skills and pedagogical abilities of teachers to take advantage of this, is urgent. Digital technologies the report urges, is "the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge" (p. 4).

I am gratified that Karen Melhuish-Spencer's blog post also took this superficiality to task and delved into the report to mention the the kinds of things I've alluded to. She did a great job too, so it's a post worth reading! Another person who also took to the virtual pen to show her distaste for superficial and scare-mongering headlines, is Claire Amos. Her September 16 post is in agreement with both Karen and me. 

Essentially, we are in the position of knowing for certain that what teachers do and know matters for their learners. Without continual support and TIME to think, read, learn, and try stuff out in robust ways, teachers will be unable to leverage what is on offer and learners will be no better off than playing with shiny toys. This puts me in mind of a post I made earlier about mathematics teaching and learning, inspired by another blogger, Sean McHugh. Dianne, in an early post has also alluded to the idea of 'intellectual character' and its relationship to fostering deep thinking in learners.

New Zealand has high student to computer access, and this is likely to increase as ultra fast broadband is rolled out to all schools. The tables in the OECD report (see pages 60ff) indicate something of this high access as it was in 2012 when the data were collected. Then, schools will have uncapped internet. However, in my dealings with two large secondary schools in our area, the quality of the IT provider/support is neither reliable nor seemingly very aware of the need for nimble, not restrictive help. My knowledge of this is from numerous discussions with teachers who have to liaise with the providers. 

So the situation is by no means simple: I teach in initial teacher education (ITE) as well as working with teachers in secondary schools to track their ICT use. I therefore have a sense of what graduates bring with them to ITE. Their attitudes about what matters in the digital sphere often do not match their pedagogical understanding or their ability to design learning that uses these technologies to support learning rather than as an end in themselves. Some teachers in schools also struggle with this.

The tools themselves are not the answer - a dedicated focus on the pedagogical is crucial. And always has been. Let's take the advice from the report and look deeply at what it implies, not what the media superficials who don't do their homework, highlight.