Considering the Role of Computers in the Boarding School Classroom

| November 04, 2015

An OECD study, Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection gives parents and educators some data, and questions to consider, when we think about, and make decisions, around computers in the classroom and our goals for their use.

Writing for The Hechinger Report (and, U.S. News and World Report), journalist Jill Barshay does good work covering the Hechinger's press conference around the report and breaking down the study to help parents think about the questions they should ask and what they should consider when presented with computers in their student's classroom.

Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills, and the study's author reported, "Those that use the Internet every day do the worst...That's pretty sobering for us...We all hope that integrating more and more technology is going to help us enhance learning environments, make learning more interactive, introduce more experiential learning, and give students access to more advanced knowledge. But it doesn't seem to be working like this."(U.S. News)

Directly from the study:
"...This analysis shows that the reality in our schools lags considerably behind the promise of technology. In 2012, 96% of 15-year-old students in OECD countries reported that they have a computer at home, but only 72% reported that they use a desktop, laptop or tablet computer at school, and in some countries fewer than one in two students reported doing so. And even where computers are used in the classroom, their impact on student performance is mixed at best. Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics."(The Hechinger Report)
As is often the case, our understanding needs a bit more complexity.

While it turns out (and I think we know this), you can't replace the frameworks and processes of learning with computers (they're just tools), we might be able to selectively deploy computers to improve learning in some situations.

The study finds improved learning and achievement when teachers use computers to think effectively and collaborate about their lessons.

It also finds that American students read well on their screens- better than they read on the printed page and that these are two different kinds of reading.
So What's a Parent to Think About Computers in the Classroom?
Going back to what we know about the primacy of a good teacher, I would seek to find the school with the best teachers that fit your student.

Then, if the technology is a primary part of the school's practice, ask how the technology is used?

Ask, how the technology is crafted to help the student learn practices and processes?

Barshay again:
"In the end, 15-year-old students need good comprehension and analysis skills to do well in either the print or the digital worlds. This study leaves me thinking that technology holds a lot of promise, but that it's hard to implement properly. Yes, maybe there are superstar teachers in Silicon Valley who never get rattled by computer viruses, inspire their students with thrilling lab simulations and connect their classroom with Nobel Prize-winning researchers. But is it realistic to expect the majority of teachers to do that? Is the typical teacher's attempt to use technology in the classroom so riddled with problems that it's taking away valuable instructional time that could otherwise be spent teaching how to write a well-structured essay?"(U.S. News)
My thinking and experience goes a bit further. The best teaching instills a process, and control of the process, in a student. The student learns the pieces that go into- say...writing an essay. Then, through the physical labor of researching, thinking, writing and rewriting, the student comes to understand and control the process physically and cognitively. So that, he/she owns it; can take it elsewhere; apply it; tweak it; and, adapt it for use in another setting.

For me, it's this physical control of the process, and its imprint on the brain, that gets missed when a school skips straight to the screen.