The changing nature of literacy. Part 3: Computers

This post is the third part in a four-part series on how education delivery is changing, and the set of literacies required in today’s world. Part 1 looked at the changing world of textbooks; Part 2 looked at direct instruction/lecturing. This post looks at computer learning.

The use of computers in schools and for children at home is another of those issues that has generated a lot of controversy. But like e-readers, they’re not going back in the box. Indeed, there’s apparently been a surge of iPads into preschool and kindergarten classrooms. There are clear dangers with this — and equally clear potential benefits. As always, it all depends how you do it.

But the types of guidance and restrictions needed are different at different ages. Kindergarten is different from elementary is different from middle grade is different from high school, although media reports (and even researchers) rarely emphasize this.

Media reports last year cited two research studies as evidence that home computers have a negative effect on student achievement, particularly for students from low-income households. One involved 5th to 8th students in North Carolina ; the other Romanian students aged 7 to 22.

The Romanian study (pdf) concerned low-income families who won government vouchers for the purchase of a personal computer. The study found that, although there was an increase in computer skills and fluency and even an apparent increase in general cognitive ability, academic performance (in math, English, and Romanian) was negatively affected. Use of the computers was mostly focused on games, at the expense of doing homework and reading for pleasure (and watching TV).

Interestingly, children with parents who imposed rules on computer use were significantly less skilled and fluent on the computer, but no better on homework or academic achievement. On the other hand, those who had parents who imposed rules on homework retained the benefits in terms of computer skills, and the negative impact on academic achievement was significantly reduced.

Additionally, there was some evidence that younger children showed the biggest gains in general cognitive ability.

Similarly, the North Carolina study (pdf) found that students who gained access to a home computer between 5th and 8th grade tended to show a persistent decline in reading and math test scores. But these results are very specific and shouldn’t be generalized. Those who already had computers prior to the 5th grade scored significantly above average, and showed improvement over time.

An Italian study also found positive benefits of computer ownership - PISA achievement significantly correlated with 15-year-olds' use of computers at home as an educational tool. However, there seemed to be an optimal level, with the effect becoming smaller the more often they used the computer and even becoming negative if they used school computers almost every day.

The North Carolina and Romanian studies indicate that the problem appears to be when computer use knocks out more beneficial activities such as doing homework and reading for pleasure. It's unsurprising that this might be more likely to occur among children and adolescents who gain ready access to a computer after many years of "deprivation".

In Britain the e-Learning Foundation has recently come out claiming that over a million children will perform significantly worse on exams (an average grade lower) because they don’t have internet access at home. This idea is based on research showing that students who use revision materials on the internet to help them revise have an advantage over those students who don’t have access to such materials. Surely no surprise there! And no contradiction to the previous research. There is undoubtedly a lot of very good educational material on the internet, and even if you have a good teacher, getting a different take on things can help you understand more fully. If you have a poor teacher, this is even more true!

So it all comes down to how computers are being used (and what their use is knocking out, for there is only so much time in the day). Bearing on this point, two programs in the U.S. have with some apparent success introduced computers into disadvantaged homes in such a way that they support a more effective home-learning environment and thus improve academic achievement.

There’s also an argument that laptops have shown little benefit in general because the schools in which they’re used have, by and large, good teachers and good students. But the true value of laptops is for those without access to good teachers. For ten years, computers have been placed into brick walls in public places in hundreds of villages and slums in India, Cambodia and Africa, with apparently very successful results.

An extension of the project has involved British grandparents, many of them retired teachers, volunteering their time to talk, using Skype, to children in the slums and villages of India. From this has developed the model of a Self-organised learning environment (Sole), where children work in self-organized groups of four or five, exploring ideas using computers, the exploration triggered (but not constrained) by questions set by teachers.

I must admit, while I applaud this sort of thing, I have to shake my head at the surprise that this sort of activity is effective, and the comment that the students “maintain their own order”. My children had a Montessori education in their early years — in Montessori schools children habitually “self-organize” and teach themselves (with of course the teachers’ guidance, and the use of the resources provided).

But of course, it helps to have the right resources. Five years gathering data from math-tutoring programs has revealed how 10th and 11th grade students use a help button, which offers progressively more in-depth hints and eventually gives the answer to the question. Basically, most students (70-75%) strenuously resist seeking help, even after several errors. When they do eventually give in and ask for a hint, they do so only because they have given up trying to solve the problem and are aiming to cheat — 82% of those using the hint tool didn’t stop to read it, just clicked through all the hints to get to the answer.

Most recently, then, the researchers changed a geometry tutoring program so that the help tool would encourage students to reflect on their problem-solving strategies — for example, by opening a help window if a student seems to be guessing, or doesn’t seem to reading the hints. In pilot studies, the new help tutor significantly improved students’ help-seeking behavior. (There's an article on this on Education Week but it's only available to subscribers I'm afraid)

But perhaps these children wouldn’t so misunderstand the use of the help button if they’d been taught in a learning environment that encouraged peer-tutoring. As any teacher knows, the best way to learn something is to teach it!

Teachable Agents software allows students to customize a virtual agent and teach it mathematics or science concepts. The agent questions, misunderstands, and otherwise learns realistically. Pilot studies of these programs have included kindergarten through to college.

Additionally, the virtual agent always explains how it came to an answer, and this seems to transfer to the student-teachers, helping them learn how to reason. (Subscribers to Education Week can read more about this here - sorry, I'm really not shilling for Education Week; if you register with them, which is free, you get to read a lot of these articles before they vanish behind a paywall)

But I'd like to note (because it sounds a wonderful program) that you don’t need fancy software to harness the power of peer-tutoring. The Learning Community Project (English translation) operates in nearly 600 rural schools in Mexico and is planned to go into nearly 7000 rural and urban schools. In this model, students choose a learning project and explore it, guided by adult tutors. They then formally present the results of their inquiry to fellow students, tutors, and parents. When they have developed mastery in an area, they tutor other students who are exploring that area. The learning of students and the training of tutors builds a fund of common knowledge that is available in the community of neighboring schools.

But anyway, the message seems clear, if rather obvious: computers and the internet can be a very positive tool for learning, but, as with books and lectures, there are right ways and wrong ways of implementing these delivery systems.

In the next and lash post in this series, I'll discuss what literacy means in today's world, and the new  learning models that are being developed.

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