By Maureen McTaggart
Are the New Millennium Learners Making the Grade?Governments around the world should highlight the importance of computers and technology for education if schools are to help students bridge a second, emerging digital divide that “separates those with the competences and skills to benefit from computer use from those who do not”.

Given the correlation of these skills to economic, social and cultural success, says a new OECD report, governments should “do their best to engage teachers and schools in raising the frequency of computer use to a relevant level“. As well as bridging a digital divide that is much more than just access to technology, will would improve pupil attainment and demonstrate that schools and teachers are serious about their roles in developing learners fit for a technology-rich world.

Published by Paris-based economic development organisation OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Are the New Millennium Learners Making the Grade? Technology Use and Educational Performance in PISA updates the findings of a 2006 report – Are Students Ready for a Technology-Rich World: What PISA Studies Tell Us.

The report examines whether there is equitable access to computers across countries. It also looks at student familiarity with ICT: where, how long and how often they use and have been using computers, how confident they feel, for which tasks they use them and “what the relation is between these characteristics and students’ performance”.

The data used to inform the study comes from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) collected every three years from some 20 million 15-year-olds and their teachers in OECD member countries. It is a fascinating insight in to the impact of the significant investment that has been made to enhance the role of technology in education.

It reveals that 15-year-old students who use ICT “are far from a homogeneous group”. However, regardless of gender and socio-economic status, less than one per cent admits to never having used a computer. And despite increasing investment in schools’ ICT infrastructure the OECD average is five students per computer, 50 per cent less than it was in 2000. Maybe that is why more than 80 per cent of the learners surveyed say they use computers at home but a majority report not using them at school.

The report also discloses that digital media is a popular educational resource with learners and: “As access to digital media and the internet at home increases, the importance of books as tools for coursework decreases. This is an important finding because it gives support to the assumption that school use of digital media can help to reduce the digital divide”.

Other findings reveal that In almost all OECD countries learners mainly use computers for the internet or for entertainment. More than 60 per cent frequently use their computers for email or chatting, and just over half of them regularly download music (58 per cent) and play games (54 per cent).

'Obsolete guidelines currently drive education technology'

While the report recognises the investment countries are making in education technology, it questions whether they are fulfilling expectations and calls for a “fine-tuned” framework of “tailored educational policies” to lead the discussion about the effectiveness of technology in the classroom instead of the obsolete guidelines that currently drive education technology.

Its authors say one of the main handicaps of understanding the role of ICT in education is “data availability”. However,  “Education’s role in preparing students for adult life means that it must provide students with the skills needed in a society in which ICT-related and skills and competences are increasingly indispensable.”

The report has six key policy implications:

  1. Raise awareness among educators, parents and policy makers of the consequences of increasingly ICT familiarity;
  2. Identify and foster the development of 21st century skills and competences;
  3. Address the second digital divide;
  4. Adopt holistic policy approaches to ICT in education; Adapt school learning environments as computer ratios improve and digital learning resources increase;
  5. Adapt school learning environments as computer ratios improve and digital learning resources increase;
  6. Promote greater computer use at school and experimental research on its effects.

More information

Are the New Millennium Learners Making the Grade? Technology Use and Educational Performance in PISA 2006 (ISBN 9789264076044) costs £25 but you can download an 11-page summary here or a related earlier paper here. This work, part of the OECD's initiative looking at New Millennium Learners (NML), is a follow-up to a 2006 study, Are Students Ready for a Technology-Rich World? What PISA Studies Tell Us.