The Research Files Episode 14: Andreas Schleicher on the impact of technology on learning outcomes

You're listening to an episode of The Research Files, brought to you by Teacher magazine. Hello, I'm Jo Earp. A new OECD report titled Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connections finds that, where computers are used in the classroom, their impact on learning outcomes is, quote, 'mixed at best'. This month's guest on The Research Files is Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD's Directorate for Education and Skills. He joined me on the line from Paris, to talk about the report's implications for teachers and school leaders at the chalkface.

Jo Earp: Andreas Schleicher, welcome to The Research Files.

Andreas Schleicher: Thanks for having me.

Jo Earp: One of the heavily quoted parts of this OECD report is your comment that 'Technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching' and I guess that's the report in a nutshell really, isn't it?

AS: Yeah, I think what this data show is that actually those countries doing well in technology skills, where you have the most technology-savvy students in a way, they've typically placed the emphasis first on teachers – trying to connect teachers, trying to build networks of teaching, platforms for knowledge creation. And then, very cautiously actually, introduced technology in classrooms for students.

If you look to East Asia, that's particularly easy to see in countries like Singapore or Shanghai in China. But, in general, just sort of handing out 'tablets' has not been an effective strategy to improve learning outcomes.

JE: But, let's be clear though ... you're not saying technology is a bad thing – just that we need to match the right pedagogy with that technology? What exactly does that mean for teachers and school leaders on the ground, people listening to this?

AS: Well, it's a combination of 21st Century technology and 21st Century pedagogy that's going to make a difference, and that's where we see a difference.

What it means is that we have to invest in professionalisation, that we have to create a work environment that actually is more technology-rich, that technology becomes an integral part of advanced pedagogy.

And, that's often still missing – we still have a work organisation that is based on the Industrial Age, you know where we have fixed classroom hours, numbers of teachers and students and so on. That isn't well adapted to the potential of technology.

JE: But you're not saying that technology is a bad thing, to have it there is a good thing, isn't it?

AS: Well, absolutely. I think technology is there to stay. Technology has huge potential to transform, to fundamentally transform, learning processes. You know it can create a much more open pedagogical environment, it can connect the home environment and the school environment, it can give students access to the most advanced knowledge, anywhere, anytime, rather than giving them a textbook that was printed last year and maybe designed five years ago.

So, there's huge potential for technology to transform learning, but what our report clearly shows is that's not what's happening today.

JE: Now you've hypothesised, if you like, that technology could be distracting students and teachers from those intensive relationships needed to develop deep conceptual understanding, those higher-order thinking skills as well. What would be the solution to that? Some kind of time limit? Or, presumably it's a whole school approach that's needed?

AS: Yeah, you see that's a good question. If students end up cutting and pasting from Google to prefabricated questions, you know that's not giving any better learning than what we've got traditionally. What we actually see is it's the emphasis on conceptual understanding, on the intensive student-teacher relationship, that creates ... learning is a very social process and if we lose that and technology gets in the way of that, we may get outcomes that are worse than in a traditional learning environment.

In fact, that's what those data suggest – unfortunately, still, those students who use computers most intensively in schools are actually doing a lot worse than those [students] who use them moderately. So, it's really about transforming the learning environments ...

... I don't think it's a matter of number of minutes, number of hours, number of days [spent using technology]. It's really a question of how we can make technology a more integral part of whatever we do – how we work in school, how teachers connect with each other. You go to some of the top performers in China – teachers regularly load up their lessons, their lesson plans, and the more other people start to use them, comment on them, the more those teachers become popular in their system.

All of that is part of building a kind of professional environment and that's where we can actually make great use of technology as a start, and then progressively get students doing new things with technology rather than replicating 20th Century teaching with 21st Century technologies.

I think that's really what we need to see happen more at scale. And there are fantastic examples in almost any country. We have seen plenty of really, really good cases where this is done, but it's not happening in a [systemic sense] at this moment.

JE: Now, actually, in a recent episode of The Research Files we spoke to Julian Fraillon, from here at ACER, about the International Computer and Information Literacy Study. And there was evidence in that too that providing more technology is not always the solution. That it's about providing coherent learning programs, [and] explicitly teaching those skills.

Things like how to source reliable and relevant information online, thinking about intellectual property rights, and doing more than simply cutting and pasting and so on. That sounds like a similar message coming out of that report.

AS: We need to think about the design of instructional systems as a whole and then think about 'where does technology make a good difference? A productive difference'.

… It's the design of instructional systems that is what matters, not the delivery in a way. And today we talk about digital literacy – we wouldn't have talked about 'pencil literacy' a century ago. We talked about: What are the kind of skills, the kind of content that students need to master? What are the thinking skills? Whether that's problem solving, critical thinking, creative working.

It's those kinds of dimensions that we should put at the centre and see how technology can foster them.

JE: Finally then, before I let you go, we'll turn our attention back to the OECD report. It makes for difficult reading for some, I guess.

You've highlighted that just investing heavily in ICT for education doesn't led to appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, maths and science – which were the things that were considered. Looking specifically at Australia then, and it's an education system with a lot of technology, what are the actions it should be taking?

AS: Well actually, Australia is pretty much at the forefront of technology intensity. It's been sort of one of the first countries rolling out technologies ... where students have access to a wide range of devices. And where even the process of pedagogical integration is further than in other countries.

But again, when you look at learning outcomes we haven't seen really improvements in the quality of learning in Australia over the last years - at least not on our international metrics. In fact, we've seen a significant decline, particularly at the higher end of the scale distribution.

So also there it's a matter of making all of this part of a more integral approach to design of instructional systems, to teacher preparation, to the way we support and incentivise the use of technology in classrooms. I think there's still a long way to go for virtually any country, including Australia, to actually make that happen.

JE: Andreas Schleicher, that's all for now, thanks very much for taking the time to speak to Teacher.

AS: You're very welcome.

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To read the full OECD report Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, click the link.

Related Teacher content: Time online – is there a link to attendance and wellbeing?

To the full International Computer and Information Literacy Study 2013 national report, Australian students’ readiness for study, work and life in the digital age, click on the link, or for more on the report's findings, check out this infographic.