New Technology in Schools: Is there a payoff?

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Carrying on with an interest in demonstrating the value of using ICT in education, I came across another report this morning that makes for interesting reading. New Technology in Schools: Is there a payoff? PDF by Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally and Olmo Silva has been published by the Centre for the Economics of Education, an independent research centre funded by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in the UK.

The writers come from an economic ROI perspective, and begin by pointing out the tension between the concerns of policy makers on the one hand and academic researchers on the other. The latter tending to express enthusiastic claims about the use of new technologies in schools, the former raising concerns about the methodological validity of much of the research undertaken.

In their paper they ask “whether the considerable investment in ICT has made any difference to educational standards’. The writers claim to find evidence for a positive causal impant of ICT investment on educational performance in primary schools – most evident in the teaching of English.

The paper is a very interesting (if lengthy) read, and one that many educators would do well to engage with as the whole issue of demonstrating “return on investment” is a recurring hot potato where spending on ICT is concerned. In saying that, however, it’s not exactly easy bedtime reading, with lots of sophisticated research language used throughout and contextual references to the UK in terms of policy and reforms etc.

I am still left pondering however, the overall usefulness of this sort of study. So much of how these findings can be interpreted depends on the shared understandings we have of the nature an purpose of schools and schooling. While the writers are at pains to demonstrate empirical links between ICT use and achievement, there are some quite bigger issues that float around in my mind about the influence of curriculum changes and understandings, pedagogical styles and approaches and cultural and contextual issues.

At yet another level, the whole study is premised on the idea that the purpose of using ICT in education is to improve achievement – and thus the link must be evident. While we must be able to defend our use of ICT in classrooms, I’m not so sure the link with achievement is the way to go. When my eldest daughters were going through secondary school neither I nor they were particularly interested in whether they “learned English better” using a computer than without – rather, these were tools that are already a part of their life – tools they use in a variety of ways to create and communicate, as a part of thier everyday existence. More importantly, the things they learned by learning about, with and through ICTs have prepared them for their out of school lives in which these sorts of technologies are taken for granted in the workplace.

My conclusion – a very useful piece of research, fills a much needed ‘hole’ in the existing literature – but not to be read in isolation and without considering a myriad of other purposes, goals and outcomes associated with why we are using ICTs in education.

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