At a time when school boards across Canada are equipping classrooms with new laptops, tablets and desktop computers to bring learning into the digital age, a global study raises questions over whether all that technology necessarily means better education results.
A report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released on Tuesday said the impact of information and communication technologies (ICT) on student performance is "mixed, at best."
Test results from 31 countries "show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education," the report said.
There has been a push to introduce computers into classrooms in developed countries, including Canada, as a teaching tool to make students more engaged and generate better education outcomes. But the OECD report supports some of the worries that have been put forward by teachers and unions: that the technology could be a distraction if not used and implemented properly.
According to the report's authors, where students frequently use computers in the classroom, the technology can become a distraction and education outcomes are weaker when compared with those classrooms where technology is used moderately for specific learning projects or once or twice a week.
Technology is most effective when students use the Internet in the classroom for guided research and project work, OECD analyst Francesco Avvisati said. The same technology can take away from learning when students use devices for online chatting – but even online software that drills students on their math skills does not consolidate their learning and lead to better results, he added.
Jim Slotta, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and Canada Research Chair in Education and Technology, said the report is encouraging because it paints a complex picture.
"If you read this report as saying that it's up in the air about whether technology is helpful for learning, that's the wrong reading," he said.
The data used by the OECD are based on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses 15-year-old students around the world on reading, math, science and digital reading.
Canadian data for how students used information and communication technologies in the classroom were not included in the study because information provided to the OECD is voluntary and the group did not receive that data.
Professor Slotta said the data used by the OECD are vexing to researchers because they draw on education systems from different cultural contexts and can be difficult to interpret, especially in relation to technology in the classroom.
"Personally, my feeling is that the research on how to use technology well for learning is just beginning to turn over some interesting, useful new leaves in the book," he said, adding that the OECD report covers the period from 2000 to 2012 without any mention of technological developments in the past three years.
Technology is most effective in the classroom when it is used to develop skills similar to those that adults are using in everyday life, such as finding resources, critiquing arguments, communicating with peers, solving problems and working with data, Prof. Slotta said.
"When you've set up a curriculum that is aligned with those kinds of practices, you won't see as much of a misfit as when you try to just bolt the technology on to the old paradigm of instruction with the problems, and homework and lecture content," he said.
One of the more ambitious education technology projects in Canada started last year when the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board started handing out tablet computers to all students in Grade 4 and above. Its goal is to put a tablet in the hands of every student by 2019.
Prince Edward Island is installing Wi-Fi in its schools, replacing 7,000 computers and aiming to have students bring their own devices to class.
"Technology can have a huge impact on student achievement and engagement because it is often what students choose to use every day to communicate, learn, create and collaborate with each other," Hal Perry, PEI's Education, Early Learning and Culture Minister, said last week.
The lessons of the OECD study apply to any country rolling out computer devices in classrooms, according to the report's authors.
"It is important that educators remain in the driver's seat, so to speak, when introducing technology in classrooms, that technology is not becoming too prominent – because it can distract," Mr. Avvisati said.
He said countries such as Japan, Korea and Germany have seen important strides in education outcomes without a massive injection of classroom technology – investment that they could probably afford.
The worry among parents is that a lack of classroom technology could mean that their children are left behind in the digital age.
But that lack of investment in classroom technology in some countries – and focus on the learning environment and the teacher-student relationship – has not affected digital reading skills, which is measured by the ability of children to navigate complex online searches, Mr. Avvisati said.
When it comes to digital reading skills, the OECD data on Canada show above-average results, with Canada ranking fifth behind Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Singapore.
The key to any technology rollout in the classroom is clear goals and training for teachers, but ultimately it is about training good teachers, Mr. Avvitsati said.
"We know that technology can really enhance good teaching, but the key ingredient is the good teaching to start with. [Technology is] more an amplifier and it's a tool for good teachers rather than a magic wand which transforms bad teachers into good ones. We see that the best teachers tend to use it moderately," he said.