Where’s the proof that computers help learning?

In the second column of his three-part series, Jared Cooney Horvath explores why the desire to teach IT skills has morphed into the belief that everything should be taught via a computer
7th February 2020, 12:04am
Why Have We Let Computers Take Over Our Classrooms?

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Where’s the proof that computers help learning?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/wheres-proof-computers-help-learning

In my last column, we learned that students spend more than 2,000 hours each year using computers to passively consume rapidly shifting media content and less than 200 hours each year using computers for learning purposes (“Do computers aid learning? I know a dead parrot when I see one”, 24 January). In this column, I want to apply this understanding to three arguments commonly employed within the computers-in-education sphere.

1. ‘We should use computers as they have so much potential’

It’s important to remember that potential is what something could be, what it should be, what it ought to be - not what it actually is.

When we elevate potential above reality, we shift the burden of proof into outlandish realms. For example, imagine if pharmaceutical companies were allowed to sell drugs simply because they had the potential to cure diseases. In this instance, it wouldn’t matter how much evidence was accrued showing that the drugs did not work - there would always be the possibility that the next sick individual could be cured. It’s impossible to disprove potential.

Accordingly, educators should be asked to consider adopting tools en masse only after those tools have been unequivocally demonstrated to improve learning.

2. ‘We can’t ignore computers - they are ubiquitous’

There is no question that schools should explicitly teach computer skills and etiquette (in fact, many have been doing this effectively for decades). However, through some strange linguistic gymnastics, the argument has morphed into “schools should teach all skills through a computer”. While the former concerns curriculum, the latter shifts into pedagogy.

To understand the peculiarity of this, imagine if a series of research studies demonstrated that students who knew how to mix a martini showed better adjustment and were more successful in adult life. Following from this, it would make sense for schools to develop a course on mixology (curriculum). It would not, however, make sense for schools to begin teaching all subjects in a pub over cocktails (pedagogy).

Although explicitly teaching computer skills is worthwhile, it does not follow that all of education needs be amended to achieve this goal. When it comes to issues of pedagogy, we should select the tool best suited to the learning at hand - not select a tool simply because it exists.

3. ‘Edtech fails because teachers and students are using it badly’

There’s no doubt programmers have very specific intentions for how educational software should be employed. Unfortunately, these intentions are inconsequential. Once a tool makes it into the hands of the populace, it is they who will decide how it will (and will not) be utilised: users are the ultimate determiner of function.

Let’s dig a bit deeper. If it’s true that teachers and students are using computers the wrong way, then what is the correct way to use them? As outlined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development: “[Computer technology] is linked to better student performance … when computer software and internet connections help to increase study time and practice.”

The revelation that students “learn more when they spend more time learning” is not unique to computers. Literally any tool - from whiteboards to flashcards - will improve learning when it’s used to increase study time and practice.

The question of importance is whether or not computers actually do achieve this goal. As you’ve likely guessed, the answer is “no”.

In the end, the desire many feel for computers to transform schooling is not enough to demand wholesale change. By all means, let’s keep researching and experimenting. However, only after it’s clear when, where and under what circumstances computers reliably confer learning benefits should we consider how best to scale this tool throughout education.

Jared Cooney Horvath is a neuroscientist, educator and author. To ask our resident learning scientist a question, please email: AskALearningScientist@gmail.com

Part 1 of this series can be found in the 24 January edition of Tes.

Part 3 of this series will appear in the 21 February edition of Tes. 

This article originally appeared in the 7 February 2020 issue under the headline “Why have we let computers take over our classrooms?”

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