Computers in schools and poor results: Correlation does not imply causation

correlationJust because there are computers in schools and our results are getting worse, does not mean the computers are to blame.

The OECD has published a major report on computers in schools which is very nicely summarised in an Australian context by Save our Schools. The problem, though, is that there is a real danger here of imputing causation into correlation. Australia has a very high spend on computers in schools and our students’ access is the best in the OECD, yet our results in maths and science are falling. The implication of the reports is that this is either due to the high use of computers or, at very least, that the use of computers is not delivering on a promise to improve educational outcomes.

The results also show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education.

The first point I would take issue on this with lies in the fact that Australia’s results in PISA generally, and the STEM subjects in particular, have been declining for quite some time now. If you look at the dramatically falling number of students choosing to study maths or science for the HSC that will come as no surprise. You’ll be even less surprised if you look at the howls of pain and derision hurled at the government when it recently suggested making maths or science compulsory for the HSC. As a nation, Australia, is failing to properly educate our children and that has nothing intrinsically to do with computers. It has everything to do with poorly remunerated and poorly recognised teachers working in an under-funded system which seems to actively discourage students from doing ‘harder’ subjects. Being taught HSC science by someone without a science degree is a far more low-hanging target than blaming computers for poor results. In other words, no matter how many computers are involved in the system our results in maths and science would be declining.

And, as an aside, we continually fail to have any sort of national conversation about what we consider to be good results. We bemoan the fact that our PISA rankings are falling behind countries like Korea and China without discussing whether we seriously want our 13-year-old sons and daughters sitting in cramming schools at midnight. Or whether the educational results in terms of productivity, skills, or just generally turning out a well-rounded human being can be predicted from those PISA scores.

Anyway, the second point I would make is that these reports confuse ‘having a computer’ with ‘doing something useful with a computer’. As a recent Australian report showed, if you actively use the computer as an education tool results do improve. If you have a computer and use it as a glorified note-taking device, then it’s no surprise that results go down. There is no reason that an investment in ICT should show any change to educational outcomes unless it is matched by an investment in changing the way ICT is used in education.

The only extent to which it is absolutely plausible to blame computers for the current poor results is to the extent that they have pulled money away from training teachers and attention away from more systemic problems with education. And it’s hard to seriously blame computers for either of those things. We seem to have a deeply ingrained unwillingness to recognise and deal with the real problems facing our education system – from inequality of funding, through to poor training of teachers, through to a confusion between HSC results and an education.

The only conclusion I’m prepared to draw from the OECD report is that Australia has a lot of computers in our schools – and we’re not using them properly. That’s an opportunity if ever there was one: But it’s going to require some serious changes to our education system to gain any advantage from that opportunity.

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