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Using Educational Technology Effectively

by Tim Oughton

“Research strikes another blow to computer use in lessons,” the headline screamed. It came from a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that concluded students whose maths lessons involve consistent use of computers perform worse in tests than those who are taught using more low-tech methods. How could this be? Does one study prove a trend? Most sceptics, me included, would definitely say no.

However, in another study that was released last week, Dr Tom Macintyre of the University of Edinburgh examined data of nearly 7,000 Scottish 10-year olds and 14-year olds, drawn from the widely referenced Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS). His findings showed that 10-year-olds who used computers often during maths lessons scored significantly worse than those whose lessons never involved computers. Further, among the 14-year-olds, those who often used a computer for maths schoolwork – both in and out of school – scored significantly worse in maths than those who did not use computers at all.

At first glance these are challenging findings, especially to a chemistry teacher like myself who has spent years developing programmes that utilise modern tools in the delivery of the curriculum. However, there is more to this data than the numbers alone.

Both studies indicate that our teaching pedagogy needs to adapt alongside technology to ensure improved learning outcomes for students. Dr Macintyre suggests that it is not the fact that computers are used in teaching and learning that is driving these results, but more about just how technology is being incorporated into lessons. I am with him there – in the July issue of Channel I advocated for the use of technology in a modern 21st Century learning environment. The key element is effective use. It is what teachers do with technology that matters.

Macintyre’s study also found that that the use of computer technology in science lessons had a similar effect on the students’ scores in science tests. He concluded: “Often, in schools, there is an investment in hardware, but without a clear rationale as to how the equipment is to be deployed, and how it can be used most effectively to enhance the learning process. Is it is being pursued genuinely to enhance teaching and learning, or is it a bit of a gimmick?”

When it comes to measuring individual knowledge and skills objectively there would be many that would argue one-off international written tests are not necessarily the best indicators. I would argue that way too, but the trends that these studies have revealed should be a warning to all of us in schools (and parents at home) that it is how technology is used to enhance learning that is at the heart of the matter. Simply having a laptop, iPad, tablet, or any other personal learning device, is not a panacea for effective learning. Good teaching remains the key.