Does Technology Lower Student Achievement?

Written by: Jason Burns

Primary Source: Green & Write, November 13, 2015

Greater use of technology by students may lead to worse student outcomes, according to a report issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in September. The OECD report looked at technology investment and use as well as student performance in reading, math, and science on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA),  an international assessment that is used to compare the achievement of students across countries.

As noted in the report: “Despite considerable investments in computers, Internet connections and software for educational use, there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores.” This analysis suggests that technology adoption and use are not a straightforward means to increase student learning.

Troubling Findings

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Many of the OECD report’s main findings about the outcomes of technology adoption and use are troubling. Looking at technology investment, such as buying devices and connecting schools to the internet, the OECD report found no link between greater investment and higher student achievement in math, reading, or science.

Examining technology use, it was found that when there was limited or moderate student use of technology in class, student performance was higher than when students did not use technology. However, contrary to what one might expect, above-average use of technology in class was associated with significantly lower student performance. Additionally, countries in which students used the internet in class less frequently saw students’ reading achievement increase more rapidly than in countries where students tended to use the internet more often during class.

Policy Implications

While the OECD report found some strong patterns in technology investment, technology use, and student outcomes, the authors point out that the observed relationships are not necessarily causal and therefore not as straightforward as they may seem. For instance, the above findings do not necessarily mean that more frequent computer/internet use in class causes students to learn less.

However, the authors of this study do draw some policy implications for this study. Perhaps the most important of these is that education systems and schools need to develop a coherent plan for the use of technology in instruction.

A Coherent Instructional Plan

The OECD report notes that a likely reason the relationship between greater technology use and lower student outcomes is the way that technology is used in those environments.

According to Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, “…we have not yet become good enough at the kind 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. If students use smartphones to copy and paste prefabricated answers to questions, it is unlikely to help them to become smarter.”

In other words, simply adding computers or tablets and internet access to classrooms should not be expected to transform instruction or boost student achievement. Instead, technology will need to be thoughtfully integrated into what both teachers and students do.

Technology Cannot Replace Poor Teaching

Research has consistently found that technology is not a panacea to fix public education (see here) and this OECD study adds to that body of work. At the same time, this does not mean that technology cannot be utilized to improve teaching and learning. Rather, the effectiveness of technology is dependent on how teachers and students use it to foster learning. Or, as put in this OECD report: “Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.” This underscores the fundamental importance of the role that teachers play in students’ learning.

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Jason Burns
Jason Burns is a second-year doctoral student in Educational Policy. His research interests include the application of theories from economics, behavioral economics, and psychology to understand how teachers, students, and administrators use information to make decisions. Before coming to MSU, Jason taught high school social studies, wrote curriculum, and developed assessments for Howard County Public Schools in suburban Maryland. Jason holds a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University.