Walk through most schools in Canada and you'll find technology creeping out of computer labs and into conventional classrooms — but that's not always a good development, according to a new report.
Projectors, interactive whiteboards, tablets and laptops are playing a larger role in education in Canada and around the world. But a new report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is cautioning governments not to view technology as an education panacea.
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"Technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching," the Students, Computers, and Learning report says.
"While PISA (OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment) results suggest that limited use of computers at school may be better than not using computers at all, using them more intensively than the current OECD average tends be associated with significantly poorer student performance."
Canadian students spend above average time on computers at home, the report states; however, student use at school is on par with the OECD average.
Researchers found that for every school computer in Canada there are 2.8 students, fewer computers per student than in the United Kingdom, which has 1.4 students per computer, or the United States, which has 1.8. Both those countries fared worse than Canada in math scores, the OECD report says.
"I think the surprising part was the fact that the very heavy computer users did perform poorly," said Ron Owston, dean of the faculty of education at York University.
'I think the surprising part was the fact that the very heavy computer users did perform poorly' - Ron Owston, Faculty of Education, York University
The study is relevant to any school board considering a significant investment in more technology, Owston said.
"It's really the first international analysis of student digital skills," he said. "We now have a baseline for future comparisons."
The OECD found in countries where it is more common to surf the internet at school, reading skills declined between 2000 and 2012. Owston said he'd like to see more detail about what students were doing online, because it's important to know if that time was spent researching an assignment or scrolling through Facebook.
"There are some uses that really prove quite effective," he said.
His research indicates when students use word processors instead of writing by hand, they write more and their writing skills are notably better, he said.
In science class, computers can offer a view into chemical experiments students would never be able to conduct in real life, Owston added.
The OECD report found outcomes in education only improved when technology was present if the computers or iPads helped students study or practice skills they learned in class.
Owston said the lesson for Canadian schools is if they expand the role of technology in the classroom, teachers need to learn how to appropriately employ it. It can't be a student free-for-all.
"The key to all this is teacher support and professional development," he said.