Are schools ready to join the technological revolution?

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

When it comes to technology, education seems stuck in the age of chalkboards. But at an international conference on technology in education, held in Qingdao, China, last week, I got the feeling that educators and education ministers might finally be ready to join the technological revolution.

Right now, at a moment when information and communication technologies are changing the way we live in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, only around 37% of schools in Europe have high-end equipment and high-speed Internet connectivity, a figure which ranges from 5% in Poland to virtually 100% in Norway. But when asked, between 80% and 90% of school principals say that their schools are adequately equipped when it comes to computers and Internet connectivity – even principals in the many countries where the equipment is clearly substandard. So is technology not that important? Or are school leaders not aware of the potential of ICT to transform learning?

The situation is even more puzzling than that. PISA measured students’ digital literacy and the frequency and intensity with which students use computers at school (look out for the PISA report on digital technology in education to be published in September). One might think that the more students use computers at school, the better their digital skills. But in fact, the relationship is not so simple. Students who use computers moderately at school have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who rarely use computers; but students who use computers frequently at school do a lot worse, even after accounting for their socio-economic status and other background factors.

Put these data together and one can draw two conclusions:

One is that building deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking requires intensive teacher-student interactions, and technology just distracts from this valuable human engagement.

Another is that we haven’t 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, that’s surely not going to help them to become smarter. If we want students to become smarter than a smartphone, we need to think harder about the pedagogies we’re using to teach them.

Technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching. We also know from our TALIS survey that even in the best-performing school systems, teachers cite improving their ICT skills as the second most important priority for their professional development.

What can we take away from all this?

First, education is a personalised service, so technology can only go so far in improving learning outcomes.

Second, the impact of technology on education delivery remains suboptimal because we tend to overestimate the digital skills of both teachers and students, because of often naïve policy design and implementation strategies, because of a poor understanding of pedagogy, and because of the generally poor quality of educational software and courseware. Few children would choose to play a computer game of the same quality as the software that finds its way into many classrooms around the world.

What could we gain if we fixed these problems?

The most obvious gain would be to dramatically expand access to content. Why should students be limited to a textbook that was printed two years ago, and maybe designed ten years ago, when they could have access to the world’s best and most up-to-date textbook? Equally important, technology allows teachers and students to access specialised materials well beyond textbooks, in multiple formats, with little time and space constraints, as we saw at the Qingdao conference.

Second, technology provides great platforms for collaboration in knowledge creation, where teachers can share and enrich teaching materials. It can also make feedback to students, teachers and parents faster and more granular.

Third, technologies can support new, inquiry-based pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants. For example, we can enhance experiential learning, with remote and virtual labs, we can pursue project-based, hands-on and collaborative learning, and we could deliver more formative, real-time assessments. The conference in Qingdao displayed some interesting developments to that end, including highly interactive, non-linear courseware, based on state-of-the-art instructional design, sophisticated software for experimentation and simulation, social media to support learning and teaching communities, and using games for instruction.

But if we continue to dump technology on schools in a fragmented way, we won’t be able to deliver on any of these promises technology holds. Countries need to have a clear plan and build teachers’ capacity to make that happen; and policy makers need to become better at building support for this agenda.

Given the uncertainties that accompany all change, educators will always opt to maintain the status quo. If we want to mobilise support for more technology-rich schools, we need to become better at communicating the need and building support for change. We need to invest in capacity development and change-management skills, develop sound evidence and feed this evidence back to institutions, and back all that up with sustainable financing. Last but not least, it is vital that teachers become active agents for change, not just in implementing technological innovations, but in designing them too.

International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Post-2015 Education
PISA in Focus brief: Are boys and girls ready for the digital age?

Photo Credit: Digital classroom / @Shutterstock

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