Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Cargo Cult Education

Australia has just elected a new Labor government; the new leader, Kevin Rudd, in most respects appears to be a distinct improvement on his predecessor, Liberal (= conservative in Australia) prime minister John Howard.

One area where I am not convinced is Rudd's obsession with putting technology in the classroom.

Somewhere in the various newspaper articles about the Rudd transition, I saw the phrase "evidence-based".

I am curious what sort of evidence is behind the drive to put a computer on every high school desk. A computer is only a tool, not some kind of magic. I have seen plenty of evidence that dumping computers into a situation without a definite plan for their use is a waste. Consider for example the article in the New York Times (4 May 2007), "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops". This article reports on wide experience with excessive computers in the classroom getting in the way of learning – as well as bad experiences with the high cost of maintaining the computers.

All of this is quite predictable. Any organization in which technology is introduced with no strategy, and no plans for long-term costs like maintenance and support, is bound to run into trouble.

On a recent trip to Denmark, I put these views to academics, and they agreed with me. Since computers have become common in schools there, mathematics scores have declined, and the perceptions that computers are boys' toys has dramatically reduced the fraction of female students studying computer science. This specific evidence is anecdotal, but the fact that it is repeated in multiple parts of the world lends it some credibility.

What kind of evidence, in any case, is there to support putting computers in classrooms? I've been publishing in computer science education for 20 years, and have yet to find a convincing study showing that computers transform learning positively – outside of very specific contexts, with carefully planned use.

The notion that putting technology into classrooms will somehow magically transform learning is nothing more than cargo cultism.

The one variable which most consistently affects educational performance is the teacher. If the Rudd government is serious about transforming education, it should be looking at scarcity pay in areas like maths and science – a far better investment.

Postscript: A report (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, PIRLS) showing that England has top or near-top scores on two fronts is interesting reading. On the one front, computer gaming, 37% of English school kids play computer games for 3 or more hours a day (22% of these reportedly play games for 5 hours or more). The other? The biggest drop in reading skills between 2001 and 2006 in any developed country included in the report...

This bit is worth quoting:
There is a negative association between the amount of time spent reading stories and articles on the internet and reading achievement in most countries. The data ... suggests that 9–10 year-olds were considerably more likely to use computers for playing games than for reading on the internet and that spending three or more hours doing either was associated with lower reading attainment.

So there you have it: not only is spending time on the net not good for reading skills, but kids in any case prefer to play games. Will this be any different in Australia? Time will tell. But we have a proud tradition to uphold: waiting for the rest of the world to try something, then copying the mistakes ...

No comments: