2 Sep 2021

Devices in schools linked to lower achievement in core subjects - report

11:32 am on 2 September 2021

Just when thousands of school kids are relying on computers to connect with their teachers, a new report has linked digital devices to worse achievement.

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Photo: 123RF

The Education Ministry paper says data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2018 shows New Zealand 15-year-olds in most cases do worse in reading, maths and science if they use a computer in the classroom.

"This research shows that there is an urgent need to identify how devices can be optimally used because aside from a few specific situations, device use at school is generally associated with poorer academic outcomes, even after accounting for student background," the report said.

It said the effect was strongest among young people who used tablets but negligible among those using laptops.

It also found a few exceptions.

The report said teens performed better in maths if their teachers were the ones using the computers. "Digital devices may have a place in mathematics lessons, and that is only in the teacher's hands," it said.

It said students did better in reading if they used their devices for more than an hour a week in English classes, and browsing the internet for schoolwork was also associated with better results.

The report said students should not be left to work on their own on computers because their academic outcomes were generally worse than if they were not using computers at all.

"While there do seem to be circumstances where using devices at school is better for learning than avoiding them, these stand against a backdrop of many situations where they appear a hindrance or have little impact either way," it said.

Derek Wenmoth from education consultancy CORE Education said it was not so much the technology that made a difference as the way it was used.

"As well as technology being used incredibly well and quite appropriately there's an enormous amount of time wasting and almost abdication that goes on with technology use in some circumstances," he said.

"So from that perspective it doesn't surprise me that there's a mixed result here or a view that it hasn't been assisting the teaching process as well as it might."

Wenmoth said many teachers were still figuring out how to best use computers in the classroom.

He said they needed to be very clear about why they were using devices and avoid using them for time-filling activities.

Wenmoth said improvements in schools' use of computers needed to happen across the entire system rather than in isolated schools, and teachers needed training in approaches that were proven to be effective.

Albany Senior High School principal Claire Amos said the study was not a signal to stop using computers, rather it was a call to use them better.

"What it demonstrates is that actually teaching with devices effectively is complex work and it needs to be invested in and it needs to be understood and our teachers need to really be supported to use the technology effectively," she said.

She said the study did not change the fact that children in lockdown needed digital devices more than ever.

"It's no longer a 'nice to have', we actually need digital devices. We need every young person to have the right digital device, we need them to have robust wifi and connection to school because actually it's the only option we have if we want to continue with teaching and learning, we want to continue with assessment, we want to continue connecting and looking after our young people."

Year 13 students Jess Darnley and Ashleigh Bindon have been using computers at school for years.

They were confident the way they used laptop computers at Albany Senior High School worked well.

Darnley said she had been using a computer for school work since using them for writing in Year 5-6 and now used them in all her subjects.

"It depends on the subject, but on the whole I really enjoy it. It means we have all these different programs and things that are available to help us learn," she said.

"On the whole I've generally found them really useful and we don't tend to waste time on them."

Bindon said she used her laptop a lot for working on documents and sharing documents with other students if they were doing group work.

"A bit of a hiccup with working with a laptop is you've got to be able type quickly if you want to get all the notes down when a teacher's talking or something. A healthy mix of paper and technology, it works really well for me," she said.

She said under lockdown a laptop ensured she could stay in touch with everyone.

"It's really good to have laptops for when you're needing feedback on work or those sorts of things because you're not having to wait for your teacher to see your written work."

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