Computer Use May Not Help Students

Media Appearances, Education, Frontier Centre

Filling classrooms with computers does not seem to be making students any smarter and may actually be harming the education of younger children, a new report suggests.

The analysis questions the millions of dollars that are being spent each year by school boards across the country to make sure elementary and high school students have access to the best technology.

Released by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy think-tank, it cites several studies — including an international review that found students with less access to computers actually earned higher grades in math, reading and science.

The report was penned by Manitoba high school teacher Michael Zwaagstra, someone with first-hand knowledge of the ways computers are changing classrooms.

“More computer access does not automatically mean a better education,” Mr. Zwaagstra said yesterday after teaching a class in Grunthal, Man., about 65 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.

Mr. Zwaagstra said the push to make students computer literate could come at the cost of teaching them such basic subjects as reading by cutting into class time.

“I’m not a Luddite trying to say there shouldn’t be any computers anywhere,” the 32year-old said. “I’m just simply issuing a call for some balance.”

His main concerns are not for high school students, but for children in Grade 1 or Grade 2. He questioned how much sense it makes to teach young elementary school students to use computers and software that inevitably will be obsolete in just a few years.

“[Students’] time would be better spent getting a solid grasp of the basics — such as reading and mathematics,” the report said.

Manitoba spends more than $26-million annually on information technology in schools.

The province of Ontario offers school boards $60 per high school pupil, which can be spent on computer hardware, software and other technology services. Boards are offered $46 for each elementary student.

Mr. Zwaagstra, whose report focused on Manitoba, said the money could instead be spent on capital costs for schools and hiring more teachers.

The Manitoba government says its schools integrate computers into their lesson plans.

“We have a balanced approach to our curriculum, and we see information technology as one of those basic skills for students,” said Darryl Gervais, a government co-ordinator of instruction, curriculum and assessment.

Manitoba expects school divisions to spend $32.3-million on computer equipment, services and salaries for related personnel in the 2007-08 budget year.

The Zwaagstra report cites a 2004 analysis by a pair of University of Munich economists.

They looked at the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, which tests 15-year-old students in dozens of countries, including Canada.

The review found that when variables such as household income were taken into account, students with the most access to computers at home and at school had lower scores in math, reading and science than students with less computer access. It concluded that while moderate computer use was beneficial, excessive access had a negative impact on students.

“We must not delude ourselves into thinking that more computer use increases academic achievement,” writes Mr. Zwaagstra, who is also a city councillor in Steinbach, Man.

One expert said that if there was a problem adapting classrooms to technology, it was the lack of funding for teachers’ professional development.

“It’s not the computer that makes kids smarter or not smarter, it’s what they’re doing with the technology,” said Don Herbert Krug, a professor of curriculum studies at the University of British Columbia. Still, he said, computers offer schools the chance not just to augment traditional lessons, but to teach students about things, such as cyberbullying, that have become commonplace in today’s society.

“[Education] is not just for down the road into employment, it’s really to help socialize people into particular ways of living around how society is progressing.”