By Sally Absher

A frequent agenda item at monthly Board of Education meetings is approval for purchase of technology using PTA or School Coupon Book funds. Several board members, most notably Doug Harris and Tracie Sanger, have been outspoken in their support for system-wide 1:1 technology. But the Washington Post had an interesting article on September 15, “The problem with one of the biggest changes in education around the world.”

Author Roberto A. Ferdman says there is “an interesting thing happening in countries where kids are the most comfortable with computers: they aren’t reading all that well.”

“In fact,” he says, “the more children use computers at school, the more their reading abilities seem to suffer.”

Ferdman cites a new report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that shows the relationship between reading abilities and computer use at school in developed countries around the world, including the U.S., Germany, China, Japan and Australia. He says “it doesn’t bode well for those pushing for ceiling-less introductions of technology into classrooms.”

The ODEC report, “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection,” examined the results of digital reading and computer-based mathematics tests in the OECD Programme for International Assessment (PISA).

The PISA is a triennial international survey that aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. The most recently published results are from the 2012 assessment. Sixty five countries, including the U.S., participated in PISA 2012.

“The findings,” according to the report, “tell us that, despite the pervasiveness of information and communication technologies (ICT) in our daily lives, these technologies have not yet been as widely adopted in formal education. But where they are used in the classroom, their impact on student performance is mixed, at best. In fact, PISA results show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had heavily invested in ICT for education.”

“Overall, the use of computers does not seem to confer a specific advantage in online reading,” the report says. “Even specific online reading skills do not benefit from high levels of computer use at school.”

The use of computers doesn’t seem to help print reading, either. In fact, the ODEC report shows that the best readers tend to be those who use computers “slightly less than average,” and that the more often kids use computers to browse the internet, email, chat, and engage in computer-based learning, the more negative impact on their reading skills.

The accompanying figure from the report illustrates the relationship between frequency of computer use at school and digital reading skills. Source: OECD (2015) Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, OECD publishing, Paris.

One explanation is that the time kids spend on their computers, especially engaged in computer chatting, is time they aren’t spending improving their reading skills. Using email and browsing, which involve reading and processing longer texts, appear to have less of a negative impact on reading proficiency.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the OECD and lead author of the study, calls the data “sobering.” He claims that computers aren’t helping student achievement in the ways we have been led to believe, citing the fact that some of the highest performing education systems are typically quite cautious about introducing technology in the classroom.

In fact, in 2012, 96% of 15-year-old students in OECD countries reported they have a computer at home, and 72% reported they use a computer (desktop, laptop, or tablet) at school. But only 42% of students in Korea and 38% of students in Shanghai-China reported they use computers at school – yet students in these countries were among the top performers in the digital reading and computer-based mathematics tests reported by PISA in 2012.

This suggests that “many of the evaluation and task-management skills that are essential for online navigation may also be taught and learned with conventional, analogue pedagogies and tools.”

In contrast, “in countries where it is more common for students to use the internet at school for schoolwork, students’ performance in reading declined between 2009 and 2012, on average.”

Schleicher said, “In most countries, the current use of technology is already past the point of optimal use in schools. We’re at a point where computers are actually hurting learning.”

Jill Barshay also reported on the OECD report (, September 21, 2015), noting that U.S. students are much better at “digital reading” than they are at traditional print reading, with the U.S. ranked among the group of top performing nations in this category. In math, the U.S. was near the worldwide average on the digital test, while usually ranking below average on the print test.

She mentions a press briefing where Schleicher noted that countries such as Singapore and Shanghai, China, which are cautious about giving computers to students, have sharply increased computer use among teachers.

But, she asks, “Is the typical teacher’s attempt to use technology in the classroom so riddled with problems that it’s taking away valuable instructional time that could otherwise be spent teaching how to write a well-structured essay?”

“Perhaps,”Barshay concludes, “it’s best to invest the computer money into hiring, paying, and training good teachers.”