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Mixed blessings

The good news is that a rigorous report confirms computers can benefit learning. The bad news is that many of the improvements were so slight they may have been a fluke. Arnold Evans reports

The most authoritative study ever undertaken into the role of new technology in education confirms what many of us think - that ICT does help to raise standards.

The ImpaCT2 research, carried out from 1999 to 2000 in 60 British schools, shows GCSE students who make extensive use of ICT can boost their performance in modern languages, science and design and technology. There is also evidence that computer users are likely to perform better in English at key stage 2 and in science at key stage 3.

Although these findings deserve to make the headlines, it's too soon to crack open the champagne - the other results aren't nearly as impressive. For example, in maths at key stage 2 and key stage 3, pupils who use computers regularly make better progress than their contemporaries, but the difference is not big enough to be of "statistical significance" - in other words, the apparent improvement could be down to chance. The small improvements in GCSE geography and history fall into the same category and when it comes to science at key stage 2, computer users fare slightly worse than their contemporaries.

What makes ImpaCT2 significant is the sheer scale of the investigation and its innovative methodology. Previous research into the educational use of computers has relied on too small a sample of pupils studied over too short a time. The findings were then based on a crude comparison of a cohort of pupils who used ICT in their lessons with a cohort that didn't. The ImpaCT2 programme, on the other hand, has monitored 2,000 pupils over two academic years. Instead of comparing cohorts of pupils, the researchers compared each child's SATs or GCSE score with their predicted score.

These predicted scores aren't based on anything as straightforward (or potentially flawed) as teacher assessment, but are provided by the Curriculum Evaluation and Management Centre (CEM) at the University of Durham. It sounds uncomfortably Orwellian, but the number crunchers at CEM have compiled baseline data on so many pupils throughout the UK they can make informed guesses about how any one of the pupils is likely to perform in SATs or GCSE.

When a pupil did significantly better or worse than CEM had predicted, ImpaCT2 researchers were able to refer to a mass of evidence on how much use the individual had made of ICT. This had been compiled over the two years during which the pupils had completed questionnaires, talked to researchers and kept diaries of how, why and when they used computers in class. But the researchers took this record-keeping a stage further by recognising that children's experience of ICT isn't limited to the classroom and pupils also logged the occasions they used their home computers to help them with their school work.

The evidence of these diaries and the innovative follow-up interviews provides an intriguing glimpse into how children perceive the role of new technology in their lives and what they think they gain from it. This aspect of the research, featured in the November issue of Online, is described in a separate report.

ImpaCT2 reveals a number of intriguing anomalies which are sure to provide educationalists with much food for thought. For example, if ICT provides such an undeniable boost to attainment in science in secondary school, why aren't key stage 2 pupils also reaping the benefits? Because they are based on such extensive research, the ImpaCT2 statistics constitute a convincing argument for more science inset or better software or, at the very least, for junior school teachers to recognise that the computer, which is proving so effective in English, can also be used in science lessons.

The researchers conclude that the biggest improvements are achieved when computers are not only being used but used effectively. This and other issues are illustrated in a third report, which is published separately. They also emphasised that during the course of the study, the proportion of lessons which involved ICT was low.

As resources improve and teachers gain confidence, it's not too fanciful to assume new technology will begin to have a more dramatic effect on results. So although it might be too early to crack open the bubbly, the findings of ImpaCT2 suggest it's worth laying down a few bottles for the not too distant future.

The three separate reports on the ImpaCT2 programme are available in PDF format at Printed copies are available from Becta at the BETT show, stands X40, C30

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