How much device use achieves the best outcomes?
The evidence for computer use in education is at best, mixed.
Moderate technology use seems to have some positive impact on student outcomes, including obtaining digital skills.
Improvements only occurred in certain areas of learning.
Students who frequently used computers at school had significantly lower educational outcomes.
Careful consideration is needed to use digital technology to its best effect.
Using technology in an education setting has much potential. But to date, the impact of computer use for learning on educational outcomes has been described as at best, mixed. Some individual studies show improvements while some show declines in performance.
A large review on the impacts of educational technology assessed the findings of 234 meta-analyses, involving 2.12 million students. Authors described the impacts of educational technology on learning outcomes pre-covid as ‘at best average, more likely well below,’ but noted that digital technologies had above average impacts for students with special learning needs.
The 2015 OECD report on the use of digital technologies in school, 'Students, computers and learning,' agrees that digital fluency is important for equal opportunities for employment and study on leaving school. However, they found that there is a limit to the amount of technology use that can achieve this.
The report analysed data from 64 countries when reviewing this topic. They found that students who used computers moderately, defined as 1 to 2 times per week, have some improvements in educational outcomes compared to students who rarely use computers (this included high schools). They noted improvements only occurred in certain areas, and there were no significant improvements in reading, science or mathematics.
Students who frequently used computers in school (defined as more than 25 minutes per day) had significantly lower educational outcomes.
Testing was done both on paper, and digitally. This is highly relevant, as 'needing to be prepared for digital assessment in high school and university' is one of the reasons given to parents for BYOD policies for young children. Singapore, with only moderate use of technology, came out top for digital skills.
Students' digital skills have been found to have declined in Australian research, in a comparison between digital literacy scores in 2011 with 2014, despite increased device use. Authors noted the declines were concerning and warrant serious attention. They noted that children learn very different skills on tablets and smartphones to the basic technology skills required for the workplace, and warned against assuming that children who use mobile devices were more widely competent with technology.
Among the seven countries and cities with the highest internet use in school, 3 had significant declines in reading, including New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden.
The OECD report noted that 'ensuring every child achieves a baseline proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more for creating equal opportunities than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high tech devices or services.'
They also found that 'extreme' internet use in school children, defined as '6 hours or more of device use outside of the school day,' is associated with poor academic performance, family and interpersonal problems, and physical weakness. This amount now matches the average for teen recreational internet use.
A recent report by the Reboot Foundation (2019) has also analysed the connection between educational technology and learning, using PISA and the 2017 NAEP (National Assessment of educational Progress) data, and their results have replicated the 2015 OECD results. They noted that "the results regarding tablet use in fourth-grade classes (equivalent of NZ Year 5) were particularly worrisome, and the data showed a clear negative relationship with testing outcomes. Fourth-grade students who reported using tablets in 'all or almost all' classes scored 14 points lower on the reading exam than students who reported 'never' using classroom tablets. This difference in scores is the equivalent of a full grade level, or a year’s worth of learning."
A meta-analysis by Higgins, Xiao & Katsipataki (2012) found that studies linking the use of technology with student performance show small positive changes, but noted that this is a correlation. Further analysis showed that the schools with higher ICT use in the studies had students who performed better, and the researchers concluded that the technology itself was unlikely to be the cause of the differences in pupil performance.
When the researchers analysed scientific studies with experimental design (that is, research that uses a control group and compares it against the intervention group), they found that technology-based interventions tend to produce slightly lower levels of improvement when compared with other researched interventions. They note that careful thought is needed to use technology to its best effect.
From their research analysis, they recommend that digital technology can be useful 'as a short but focused intervention to improve learning, particularly when there is regular and frequent use (about three times a week) over the course of about a term (5 - 10 weeks). Sustained use over a longer period is usually less effective at improving this kind of boost to attainment.'
While these research findings may have controlled for variables such as socio-economic status and prior performance, they all have limitations, and show associations between technology use and students learning; further research is needed.
References not included in hyperlinks:
Higgins, S., Xiao, Z., & Katsipataki, M.(2012). Impact of Digital Technology on Learning: A meta-analysis about the impact of digital technology on academic achievement [PDF file].