Students, computers and learning: Where’s the connection?

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Totally wired. That’s our image of most 15-year-olds and the world they inhabit. But a new, ground-breaking report on students’ digital skills and the learning environments designed to develop those skills, paints a very different picture. Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection finds that, despite the pervasiveness of information and communication technologies (ICT) in our daily lives, these technologies have not yet been as widely adopted in formal education. And where they are used in the classroom, their impact on student performance is mixed, at best. This month’s PISA in Focus bores down deeper into the report to reveal a persistent disconnect between some students’ ability to read on paper and their ability to read on line.

PISA 2012 created a simulated browser environment, with websites, tabs and hyperlinks, in order to assess not only students’ reading performance, but also their web-browsing behaviour. Not surprisingly, the report finds that it is not possible for students to excel in online reading without being able to understand and draw correct inferences from print texts too. The top-performing countries/economies in the PISA assessment of online reading were Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Canada and Shanghai-China – which also were among the top performers in the print reading test.

But there’s more to digital reading than deciphering and comprehending text. Why are students in some countries/economies – notably Australia, Canada, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and the United States, among others – far better at reading digital texts than students in other countries/economies who score similarly in the print reading test? Because, PISA finds, they know how to navigate their way through and across digital texts.

On average, students in Singapore, followed by students in Australia, Korea, Canada, the United States and Ireland, rank the highest for the quality of their web-browsing behaviour. They assess which links to follow before clicking on them, and follow relevant links for as long as is needed to solve the given reading problem. But in Macao-China, Shanghai-China and Chinese Taipei, as many as one in five students visits more task-irrelevant pages than task-relevant ones. These students are persistent in their efforts, but they are digitally adrift. And across OECD countries, one in ten students showed only limited or no web-browsing activity, signalling a lack of basic computer skills, a lack of familiarity with web browsing or a lack of motivation.

As the results from the report show, the connections among students, computers and learning are neither simple nor hard-wired; and the real contributions ICT can make to teaching and learning have yet to be fully realised and exploited. But as long as computers and the Internet have a central role in our personal and professional lives, students who have not acquired basic skills in reading, writing and navigating through a digital landscape will find themselves dangerously disconnected from the economic, social and cultural life around them.

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