Computers in classrooms: a waste of money?

While the findings are quite complex, the take-out message from a recent OECD study is:

    On average, in the past 10 years there has been no appreciable improvement in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that have invested heavily in information and communication technologies for education.

The bad news does not end there, according to Manfred Spitzer in the New Scientist. An earlier study found that students aged 15 performed worse at school if they had a computer in their bedroom.


    In Israel, researchers found performance declined in elementary and middle schools with computers, and in Romania it has been reported that poorer children whose families received money to buy a computer performed worse in school than those without computers.

It seems that learning from screens tends to cause shallow processing of information in the brain, preventing memory encoding. Information online is less likely to be encoded in memory than that in books or journals.

Elsewhere US researchers found that taking lecture notes by longhand resulted in better learning than typing onto a laptop. In California students prefer reading from paper rather than an e-book by a wide margin.

Back in the first-linked OECD study:

    Students who use computers moderately at school tend to be somewhat more skilled in online reading than students who rarely use computers. But students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in reading, even after accounting for students’ background.

I’m sure proponents of the new technology will protest that computers need to be integrated intelligently and appropriately into the learning process, and that this is commonly not the case. Nevertheless, we should be aware that the simple supply of the technology to students in the school setting will do little if any good and may do harm.

16 thoughts on “Computers in classrooms: a waste of money?”

  1. Thanks a lot for raising this topic.

    The problems seems to be ones of overuse and overdependence.

    The mentality behind the worship of computers-in-schools seems little different from that of gun-nuts and their adoration of firearms. Computers and firearms are very useful tools – but that’s all they are: tools. When they are used as a substitute for more appropriate tools or for different approaches, their shortcomings become apparent.

    An anecdote: When my wife and I went to primary school, we learnt Mental Arithmetic, which was based, in part, on the now-despised repetition of “times tables”. Later, when we lived in a Chinese environment, we were surrounded by people using the Chinese abacus, the Suan Pan. A little game we played was to go into a shop, buy several items, then have the exact money ready to pay before the astonished shop-keeper had finished clicking the beads on the abacus. The fingers are swift but the brain is a lot swifter. We never let on how we did this magic.

    The suan pan is a simple and excellent calculator – but so too are the slide rule (remember it?) and mental arithmetic. Yet each are useless without sufficient practice to use them proficiently.

    Computers are fine in schools – just so long as they are kept in the tool-box along with all the other tools – and pulled out only when they are needed for a task for which other tools are a poor substitute.

    Unfortunately, there are such huge fortunes being made by forcing every student to have a gee-whiz toy that it would be very difficult indeed to ever have a rational approach to the use of computers in schools.

    Computers are not replacements for teachers nor for the necessity – and fun – of learning.

  2. Good to see that the educational limits/worth of computers is being res-assessed.
    I recall see the massive computer at Sydney Museum as a child. I think you could challenge it to noughts and crosses but it was understood you could not win because it was “better”. Same thing with computer chess.
    I suspect that a culture was generated based on the belief that computers would be the ultimate arbiters or whatever. The scientific context was also very fluid and we saw the transistor and many other educational options flowed out over the following years. Indeed an entire profession of educationalists evolved out of the research they were now capable of. They are still out there, wringing their hands wondering how they can spoon more stuff into the mouths of their (often) indifferent students.
    But I’m sure there is more to it. My anecdote is being in a group of around 30 first years who when presented with a blank map of Australia, about five students cannot place all the capital cities on that map. The explanation is that it is geography, and ” we weren’t taught that”.
    That got me to thinking that the expectation of (some) of these students assigned the responsibility for their ” learning” to the teaching there were exposed to. The thirst or quest for knowledge had not yet impacted these guys at a general level.

    What to do? I don’t know but it is good to see some review of computer worth, and hopefully some return to the olden days of learning.

  3. So we all agree that Rudds ( and Gillards, being education Minister responsible ) Digital Education Revolution program was a crap.
    And thankful that the ALP can’t successfully implement anything so that, in this instance, the harm was minimised.


    ( My anecdote- No kids I know got a Rudd/Gillard laptop so if they got one it was their parents choice, as it should be. Also good. )
    ( My anecdote 2 – My kids mental mathematics benefited greatly from simply playing darts with their Dad from a young age. Few kids of 12 know the way to peg out 167, or more importantly the sub 100 pegs when the first dart goes astray)

  4. Having trouble finding discussion in LP archives on this, surly there was some, little help ?

  5. GH: I get sick of hearing oldies that say things like:

    My anecdote is being in a group of around 30 first years who when presented with a blank map of Australia, about five students cannot place all the capital cities on that map.

    My question is “so what?” The crucial thing is that they know how to dig up the answers to trivial questions.
    My take is that what really counts in school is that kids My anecdote is being in a group of around 30 first years who when presented with a blank map of Australia, about five students cannot place all the capital cities on that map. The crucial thing is that kids learn how to learn and solve the new problems that they will have to face in their life.
    Haven’t got the link but research has found that playing computer games builds intelligence and manual skills. My own experience with computing over the last 50 years is that programming definitely builds up your ability to think logically and solve a range of problems.
    Can’t see how computing would build up reading or mental arithmetic skills.
    The researchers should be asked to go out and find what skills computers are good at helping kids learn instead of leaping around with delight at finding something computers aren’t very good at.

  6. Haven’t got the link but research has found that playing computer games builds intelligence and manual skills.

    My sample of 3 sons would destroy that finding.
    I do not have a link either.

  7. Also my research into Apprentice manual dexterity differs greatly from that.
    I’m thinking the Chifley Research Centre may have done the ” research ” your eluding to John.

  8. playing computer games builds intelligence and manual skills

    John, I think strategy and problem solving also, but I don’t have a link either.

    Jumpy, your sample of three sons with due respect is irrelevant, I’m afraid.

  9. Jumpy, your comment “thankful that the ALP can’t successfully implement anything” is the kind of unsupported ideological dumping on the ALP that gives me the squirts and I’d rather not see on my threads.

    But more seriously, we can’t conclude that “Digital Education Revolution program was a crap.” It’s a different world out there and “computer literacy” is now seen as an important goal in education. Kids need to be taught how to navigate and use to their benefit the digital world that has been created.

    I had a bit of a look at the issue back in 2010 and got the impression that most teachers were not at first base in incorporating the digital universe into their teaching/learning processes. I’d be astonished if much has changed, but I could be wrong.

    There is also a question as to whether what is being measured and held up as good by the OECD testing is what is going to give kids the best life chances.

  10. Jumpy, I don’t recall these issues being discussed at LP, but then my memory isn’t what it used to be!

  11. JD:
    I said: ” My anecdote is being in a group of around 30 first years who when presented with a blank map of Australia, about five students cannot place all the capital cities on that map.”

    JD said: My question is “so what?”

    Well John I have a view that current knowledge stands on the shoulders of existing knowledge. At some point there are foundations to knowledge, context and comprehension, without which cognition is stunted. I don’t see the remedy being to scurry off to primary school sites to get one’s head around something so fundamental. Basic knowledge links an activity (say programming) to the application of that programming to the task at hand and the real world.

  12. I put the question to my daughter who has just finished her HSC exams Wednesday (and is now here in Chicago as a marketing assistant for a trade show next week before blasting back latef in the week for her high school formal) and she said that where the teachers integrate the use of the computer into subject and is a support for the resourcs material, the computer in the class room is a huge accelerator.

    You don’t havd to be a genius to see where this is true. In the past few years YouTube has become ths world’s best deliverer of learning resources. People at every level are utilising instructional videos for everything from replacing a tablet battery to planting herbs, fixing the clutch on a car, or to changing a solar panel on the International Space Station.

    It might suit some peoples egos to disparage the technology generation initiatives, but I suggest that these are comments based on very little thought by people so far removed from the field and time of learning that there thoughts are completely worthless.

    As I am in Chicago here is an example of the power of computer based teaching material here is a powerful movie based teaching resource that left a permanent imprint of understanding on my mind, a movie I saw in 1973.

  13. Your daughter is right Bilb. Used well the computer allows people to spend their time learning how to think properly and work at understanding important concepts instead of wasting lots of time learning “facts” that will end up being of not much importance in the longer term.
    GH: Knowledge of the capital city names of Aus is not the sort of knowledge on which the future is built. People can learn this type of fact when they need them. The crucial thing is that they understand the concept and the implication of capital cities.

  14. John what you are saying is only a part of the game.
    At some point, information is received by the brain. Hopefully some part of that info is recognised and sequentially, things occur to that person and that triggers/permits further enquiry. But there has to be some “starter knowledge” to kick the process off. We need ” associations”. That knowledge and thought pathway is acquired in our early years. I don’t believe computers had too much to do with a very large proportion of the worlds older geniuses.
    Sure computers extend the range of ability of a person but I will maintain that you need to be able to count to ten, know where some cities might be, clear a letterbox of (snail) letters and even vote intelligently. Computers are used to circumvent these skills.

  15. Geof H you are definitely correct that manual skills are vital prerequisites for optimal development. Computers do not replace hand writing or art skills. Probably the biggest threat to mental dexterity comes from more basic calculators.

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