SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Will more computers help under-performing schools?
, August 2, 2008
Is giving a personal computer to every high school student the solution to declining educational outcomes? Kevin Donnelly argues that government would do better to develop a more rigorous curriculum and reward good teachers.Remember last year's election campaign promise, in a policy document authorised by Kevin Rudd, to "revolutionise classroom education by putting a computer on the desk of every upper secondary student and by providing Australian schools with fibre-optic connections"?
The image of the then Opposition leader holding a laptop, described as the toolbox of the future, compared to John Howard's wooden and misplaced foray into YouTube
, was effective politics and even better theatre.
Fast-forward to the recent COAG meeting, where the Commonwealth Government was forced to promise additional millions to get the computer program running, and it is clear there is a huge gap between campaign slogans and translating spin into reality.
From the beginning, school principals knew the policy was under-funded. A budget of $1 billion over four years to provide every secondary student in years 9 to 12 with computers and internet access, as originally promised, was never enough.Far from certain
Even worse, throwing more money at the ALP's digital revolution might make sense if we knew that computers and the internet made for higher standards and better learning. However, this is far from certain.
In their study into whether computer use raises achievement, as measured by students' performance in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, two German researchers, Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessman conclude, "The availability of computers at school is unrelated to student performance".
Monash University academic Ilana Snyder, in her recent book, The Literacy Wars
(reviewed by Bill James in News Weekly
, April 12, 2008), also questions the value of imposing technology on schools. Despite the hype and claims of computer-manufacturers and retailers about technology transforming learning, Snyder suggests that, based on recent experience, little has changed in the classroom.
In addition to acknowledging that many teachers doubt the value of information technology - English teachers, in particular, prefer the human interaction represented by face-to-face learning and the ease and familiarity of print - Snyder admits: "There is still no commanding body of evidence demonstrating that students' sustained use of the internet, word-processing and other popular applications has had any impact on academic achievement."
When she was Western Australia's Labor Minister for Education, Ljiljanna Ravlich argued that children did not have to be taught historical facts and dates as they could surf the Net.
Contemporary education is based on the idea that students do not have to be taught - teachers are facilitators or guides by their side, and children are knowledge-navigators.
Ignored is the evidence that teachers, along with the quality of the curriculum, are the most important factor in strong educational outcomes. While teachers cost more than computers, are not as easy to access as the internet and have minds of their own, they are irreplaceable.
Students, if they are taught how to use it, also have a very portable, cost-effective and versatile computer sitting on their shoulders.
Wiser heads know that memorisation and learning by rote, whether times tables, nursery rhymes or historical facts and dates - especially during the primary school years - are crucial for developing higher order skills.
Research into how children best learn is clear. The basics have to be taught until they become second nature and can be recalled automatically - just witness how many young people in the supermarket or local store find it impossible to add up, subtract or divide unless they have a calculator.
It's also vital that children learn how to read difficult and challenging print material and how to write correct, standard English. The abbreviated, bastardised English used when SMS-messaging and using Facebook
should not be centre-stage in the classroom.
There is no denying that computers and the internet are valuable learning tools. However, equally as undeniable is the fact that education is essentially a human affair.
Instead of investing millions in unproven technology, governments should give first priority to rewarding teachers and developing a rigorous curriculum with a strong cultural and ethical base.
After all, it is a mistake to confuse information with knowledge and understanding with wisdom.- Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Strategies and author of Dumbing Down (available for $24.95 from News Weekly Books).