This week’s blog post is based on Chapter Seven of Jared Cooney Horvath and David Bott’s book entitled 10 Things Schools Get Wrong: And How We Can Get Them Right. The chapter formed the basis of this week’s Teaching and Learning Reading Group, hosted here at Eton.
Horvath and Bott open this chapter by claiming that, in a perfect world, any individual making a claim is shouldered with the responsibility of proving that claim, which essentially elevates established knowledge over proposed knowledge. In education, this means that teaching approaches have to demonstrate a positive impact and teachers should not have to prove that an approach does not improve learning. However, sadly this is not always the case. In education, external hype often shifts the burden of proof back to the teacher, and this, Horvath and Bott argue, can lead to impaired learning. They claim that, recently, this shift has been most obvious in the adoption of computers and internet technologies.
This hype has extended into every corner of the education system. Advocates for the use of computers in schools tend to make the following claims.
- Computers have so much potential.
The problem with this claim is that potential derives from what something could be, what it should be and what it ought to be – not what it actually is. Potential reflects faith, belief and desire. Schools and teachers should be basing decisions on approaches which unequivocally demonstrate they improve learning, not when people ‘believe’ they should.
- Computers are ubiquitous.
In the modern age, computers are everywhere but just because they are, doesn’t mean they need to be used in schools, Horvath and Bott argue. When it comes to effective teaching and learning, we should select the tool best suited to the job, not the tool which is most prevalent.
- Teachers and students are using computers incorrectly.
There is no doubt that computers could be used better to help improve learning. Although engineers and programmers who work on educational software may intend for it to be used in a certain way, once a tool has made it into the hands of the populace, it is they who decide how it will be, and will not be, used.
The authors also list and then rebut ’10 Minor Apologies’, as listed here:
- We need more time and research to determine how best to utilise computers.
- Computers make learning fast.
- Computers make learning fun
- Computers can help students develop 21st century skills.
- Computers are adaptive and can guide learning.
- Computers increase enrolment/decrease costs/improve profit margins.
- Computers make it easy to collect and analyse data.
- Computers allow access to a wealth of information.
- Computers allow students to choose topics and create personal learning pathways.
- Computers allow students to access classes whenever and wherever.
These claims have evidently gained momentum and in a recent international survey, 92% of students reported having access to a computer at school. In the US, yearly expenditure on K-12 learning software exceeded $8 Billion, whereas, in the UK, each school spends on average £400,000 on computers every year. This data was collected prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and therefore, one assumes these figures are now even higher. Despite this, the beneficial impact of computers on learning has not yet been clearly established. An OECD international review of the impact of computers in education found that:
‘The results show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics, or science in countries that had invested heavily in [computers] for education… Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes… And perhaps the most disappointing finding if the report is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.’
In fact, Horvath and Bott go on to list 50 ‘negative’ studies which demonstrate that computers and internet technologies significantly impair learning when compared to traditional learning methods. They also list 50 ‘positive’ ones; however, out of these 22 studies merely demonstrate that computers do not harm learning or have the same impact as traditional teaching methods.
Nevertheless, this relatively robust evidence seems to have little impact on schools’ use of educational technology. Horvath and Bott argue that this is perhaps because students see a computer’s ‘primary function’ as something different. The primary function of a tool is largely dictated by how individuals utilise a tool and in a recent survey which explored how over 1500 students aged 8-18 used computers, they found:
– Students played on average 10 hours 44 minutes of video games per week
– Students watched on average 10 hours 2 minutes of television or film clips per week
– Students scrolled on social media for an average for 8 hours 14 minutes per week
– Students play music on average 7 hours 32 minutes per week
– Students spend on average 3 hours and 25 minutes doing homework per week
– Students spend on average 2 hours and 5 minutes doing schoolwork per week
Tasks listed above are not always done in isolation and approximately 30% of computer time is spent multitasking.
As you can see from this data, working on schoolwork or homework is not the primary function of a computer for the majority of students. Instead, they are predominantly using their computers for various forms of media and entertainment and this is perhaps why students typically spend less than 6 minutes working on homework before accessing social media and engaging with other digital distractions. Worryingly, in class, students typically spend 38 minutes of each hour off task.
Horvath and Bott suggest that this is not because students have particularly short attention spans – although they can often struggle with lack of attention and shallow thinking – it’s because they have thousands of hours of previous use which defines a computer’s primary function as a tool to consume rapidly shifting media content. Therefore, it’s not that students cannot use computers for learning, it’s just that they are so often not used for learning. In order to effectively learn while using a computer, students must spend a significant amount of cognitive effort to reprogram themselves.
How can we successfully use computers for learning?
When schools are required to close, whether that is due to a global disaster, a pandemic or political upheaval, teachers often have no choice but to rely on distance learning. In these instances, any form of learning is better than no learning.
Secondly, for students with specific learning needs, computers can be a godsend. For example, if a student has an auditory or motor impairment, computers can transcribe lectures or type up notes from dictation. However, although these can be useful for some students, others, with no underlying disability, may use these tools to indulge personal learning preferences and avoid the often difficult process of learning.
Finally, computer simulation can be effective when practising those skills which would be too difficult or dangerous in real life. For example, when a pilot is practising a mid-air emergency manoeuvre.
Nevertheless, despite these benefits, Horvath and Bott argue that we must rationally debate the merits of all emerging educational tools and only consider adopting those which demonstrate a clear positive impact on learning.
 Weston, M. E., & Bain, A, (2010), ‘The End of Techno-critique: The Naked Truth about 1: 1 Laptop Initiatives and Educational Change’, Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, Vol. 9.
 Peng, G. (2017), ‘Do Computer Skills Affect Worker Employment? An Empirical Study from CPS Surveys’, Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 74, pp.26-34.
 OECD, (2015), ‘Students, Computers, and Learning: Making the Connection’, PISA, OECD Publishing.
 OECD, (2015).
 Anon., (2015), ‘SIAA Estimates $8.38 Billion US Market for PreK-12 Educational Software and Digital Content’, Software and Information Industry Association Online, Available at: https://www.siia.net/Press/SIIA-Estimates-838-Billion-Dollars-US-Market-for-PreK12-Educational-Software-and-Digital-Content.
Bundell, R, (2018), How Schools Spend Their Money on IT, Available at: https://commercial.co.uk/schoolspendingedtech/.
 OECD, (2015).
 These studies can be found listed in Horvath and Bott’s online bibliography, which is available here: https://www.10thingsbook.com/_files/ugd/9e4ab0_f311096ef8344dbf98ed44ce0fa936a1.pdf
 Rideout, V, (2019), ‘The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens’, Available at: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/the-common-sensecensus-media-use-by-tweens-and-teens-2019.
 Rosen, L. D., Carrier, L. M., & Cheever, N. A., (2013), ‘Facebook and Texting Made Me Do It: Media-induced Task-switching While Studying, Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 29(3), pp. 948-958.
 Ragan, E. D., Jennings, S. R., Massey, J. D., & Doolittle, P. E., (2014), Unregulated Use of Laptops Over Time in Large Lecture Classes, Computers & Education, Vol. 78, pp. 78-86.
 Dell, A. G., Newton, D. A., & Petroff, J. G., Assistive Technology in the Classroom: Enhancing the School Experiences of Students with Disabilities, (Boston: Pearson, 2012), p. 366.
 Page, R. L., (2000), ‘Brief History of Flight Simulation’, SimTecT 2000 Proceedings, pp.11- 17.