By Dr. Uma Natarajan | Tuesday, 01 December 2015
The recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on technology and learning in classrooms made headlines all over the world. The Wall Street Journal and BBC globally as well as The Straits Times in Singapore, to name a few, published headlines like “Overexposure to computers causes educational outcomes to drop”, “Technology in classrooms doesn’t always boost education results “Computers do not improve pupils’ results”, and “Students don’t perform better with tech use in school”. The story that everyone wanted to hear was not anything new: technology spending in schools and classrooms is like a huge money pit. A number of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries have invested substantially in wiring their schools and classrooms, reducing pupil to computer ratio, training teachers, and pushing them to use the technology in teaching. But, as much as the report has managed to create sensational news, as someone who believes how technology can shape learning, I suggest we stop to think and probe the issue a little deeper. There is already a heavy criticism of the OECD PISA reports and ranking systems on the use of only a set of test scores to interpret a larger and complex phenomena of evaluating student learning.
Mr Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s Director of Education has said that the results should be interpreted in couple of ways: “how the foundational skills in mathematics and science are fundamental, (referring to Singapore students), also in shaping digital skills”; and the importance for schools to reflect if they are putting the technologies to effective use in the classrooms. The Ministry of Education in Singapore (MOE) which has funded technology heavily over the years through their various masterplan programs, responded to the OECD report by saying that they have focused their efforts on building their teachers’ capacities so the teachers can use technology meaningfully in the classrooms. That is what proponents of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK) argue ( Koehler and Mishra, 2009). TPACK is the basis of effective teaching with technology that requires an understanding of how learning and teaching evolves with the use of technological tools. It highlights the importance of building teacher capacities to use technologies in classroom to enhance the quality of teaching and learning.
Is it not clear already that technology is ubiquitous and students today find it very natural and easy to use technology as they grow up? The millennials that are in the classrooms may not be using technology in their classrooms enough but there is definitely enough technology in their out-of-school contexts for which we need more understanding beyond quantitative data snapshots. Technology is an “enabler” that empowers students to create, construct, reflect, synthesise, share and collaborate with one another. They are both consumers and producers of online data. All these are 21st century skills and competencies that have been emphasized over and over again. For example, students need the necessary information skills to sieve through information they read on the Internet and “synthesise” the relevant data they need. This is beyond “copying and pasting” for homework assignments. Technology grants the opportunity to look for the information you need; appreciating that there is no one “right” answer; build thinking skills in order to filter the information that is available out there on the web; asking the right questions while processing the information; and synthesizing an argument based on the data. All this encompasses learning how to use the technology tools and prepares students for the future.
Singapore, by the way, has recently laid out a vision to be a Smart Nation where students from 16 primary and secondary schools are exposed to coding skills using technology. The country continues to invest significant dollars in technology for education based on its unflinching belief that this can make life better for its students and for its citizens.
So, what is the answer to the question raised “Can students learn better with technology in classroom”? Well, there is no one empirical right answer to that but we should understand that technology in classrooms is a way forward for students from “teachers talking and students listening.”
Dr Uma Natarajan is a Principal Researcher at the HEAD Foundation. Her research interests include teacher education, ICT in education and teacher quality.
Koehler, M., & Mishra, P. (2009). What is technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK)? Contemporary issues in technology and teacher education, 9(1), 60-70.