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How We Use Technology in Education is More Important than Which Technology We Use

Cristobal Cobo

IL facts


After ten years of continuous effort to bring digital technologies to the classroom (particularly in the secondary and tertiary education levels) the European Commission has acknowledged in several policy assessments that the impact of these regional investments in technology have not been as effective as it was expected (see The use of ICT to support innovation and lifelong learning for all – A report on progress).

From these evaluations arose the discussion that in addition to the public initiatives that encourage and promote the acquisition of technology, it is also compulsory to develop e-skills that enable the proficient use of the Internet and other technologies.

Recently, CERI from the OECD published an interesting analysis based on the results of PISA 2006. This report, Are the New Millennium Learners Making the Grade?, analyzed the influence of computers in the performance of the students. Some of the main results of this study are:

  1. There is evidence of a second “digital divide” emerging […] between those students who have the skills to benefit from computer use and those who don’t. Although the data do not prove a causal connection between familiarity with computers and performance, they show that better-performing students are more familiar with computers.
  2. Noteworthy, the use of ICT in schools do not lead to having better results in subject-based standardized tests such as PISA 2006.

Interestingly this broadly adopted test highlights the existence of a correlation between better performance and higher use of computers at home.

Can developing countries emend and do better than the European policies? What lesson can be learned from the European experience and the OECD report?

The Second “Digital Divide”

There are several reliable studies to understand the “digital literacy” from a broader perspective (See e-competencies research). This means not only to focus on the development of certain specific abilities for the use of software but also being able to transit towards a strategic use of the knowledge and information through the ICT in a more holistic sense (360º). This will demand to rethink certain strategies of the current educational policies in order to transform ICT users into “e-skilled digital citizens” (see knowledge brokers) capable to face the challenge and take advantage of the knowledge-based society.

For instance, the EU Commission but also the EU industrial sector has highlighted the importance of adopting common initiatives to rethink the educational system in order to promote the development of XXI century skills in the coming generation of professionals (IDC Skills for Innovation Survey), previously referred to as the “second digital divide”.

The reduction of this “divide” will demand a transversal, multidisciplinary and mid but also long term collaboration between the private and public sector. But also it will demand a more ecological approach to combine formal and informal environments of learning.

It is expected that the design of the 2015 EU Digital Agenda will be a supportive instrument to enhance these initiatives and strategies oriented to reduce this not-always-visible “second digital divide”.

Finally, it might be fair to say that the problem is not due to the technologies by itself, but because the lack creativity and innovativeness of how ICT have been integrated in the core educational activities.

A lesson already learned is: What technologies are being used is not as important as how we are using them. From the perspective of developing countries that has to be understood as stronger opportunities for open source and/or low cost technologies as equally valuable instruments to better prepare learners for the already changing society.

These trends bring new questions to be explored. How are students using the computer at home? How relevant is the “technological capital” that they acquire within the family or community? What are their strategies to transfer skills and knowledge in informal environments? Are we ready to explore more flexible strategies of learning? Do we have the mechanisms to promote and validate the informal use of technology? And finally, What are the impacts of these massive investments in technology in the classroom?

Some of these questions will be explored in the next publication: Invisible Learning: Toward a new ecology of education (see this post or presentation). This book written together with John Moravec will be published as an open conversation of how we can better connect formal, non-formal, informal, lifelong and serendipic learning for building better education futures.

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21 Responses to “How We Use Technology in Education is More Important than Which Technology We Use”

  1. AlexandraD

    Ah, the correlation/causation conundrum. Children with computers at home tend to do better in school? So do children with electricity at home, or children whose parents vacation in foreign countries. Many years ago, a UNESCO study on literacy found that among the factors positively correlated with adult literacy in Iran was the ownership of ballpoint pens, duh.

    Conversely, several recent studies (I believe flagged here) have shown that the introduction of computers into economically-disadvantaged homes does not by itself drive up school results of children in them; indeed, it can have the opposite result. We need a better way to get at the influence of technology (or lack of it) on the development of learning skills and on learning results.

    • I agree completely. It seems many of these studies ignore the gigantic "confounding variables" of poverty and parental interaction like the proverbial elephants in the room. Studies are now showing that learning ability in children who's parents don't interact with them can be adversely affected as early as the age of two. This correlates strongly with poverty levels in that those living in poverty are less likely to interact with their children or to provide an environment rich in learning opportunities. Is it any wonder when opportunities such as computers often cost more than parents can afford. And, once the computer is in the home, there is the cost of software and the ongoing cost of a decent internet connection.

      In my opinion, computers in the home are not primary causal factors in better education. They are merely indicators of parents' ability to and concern for providing a rich learning environment for their children. Even though I am a firm believer that well designed eLearning systems can work wonders, I would much prefer those systems to be working wonders on children who's learning ability hasn't already been stunted by an inadequate learning environment in their pre-school years.

    • A good person to discuss this question with would be Ken Stark from the Helios Project.

      His blog archive has a lot of stories http://linuxlock.blogspot.com/

      He gives out refurbished computers to school children who ask for them. He is rather confident the receivers of the computers have a real educational need for them.

      • Thanks for this reference!! I am 100% convince of refurbished computers, specially for a large program, but I like some aspects of the Helios Project. It brings together the children and their parents.

        I don't know the details of the program, but I hope it passes some of the knowledge and experience to the children and the parents, so they can maintain and repair their computer. That would not only make the program sustainable, but it would also pass some of the importante knowledge and expertise built by the experts in charge of the program.

        • I am 100% convinced of the folloy of refurbished computers in large scale programs as refurbishing computers take too much time, dedication, and support per computer to really scale.Lets take the Helios Project you reference – they say that "Since 2005 we have provided 1102 disadvantaged Austin-area kids and their families a computer" or only ~200 computers per year. That's less than an average grade cohort in most school systems and requires the serious dedication of at least 16 people as listed on their site. This simply does not scale beyond a hobby.That said, refurbished computers are great as a hobby. They get kids, parents and geeks together in ways no other activity could and do spark the desire for a career in ICT among some recipients. But if you're talking a large scale roll-out, like a school system or larger, only new computers can be deployed at the speed required to have success.

          • I totally agree that using second hand computers is out of the question for a large roll-out.

            My point was different. Grant Robertson wrote:

            "In my opinion, computers in the home are not primary causal factors in better education. They are merely indicators of parents' ability to and concern for providing a rich learning environment for their children."

            There is a dearth of information on this, due to the confounding factors. But the Helios project delivered some 1000+ computers to children in poor families targeted at use in education.

            So they might have the experience of seeing Home-ICT in action in education with less confounding factors. They DO believe it is important.

        • I meant to say.. I am not 100% sure about refurbished, specially for large scale programs!!! We used them in Costa Rica for my research program. It cost a lot of money to refurbish and they lasted less than one year! I agree with Wayan.

    • Alexandra, it depends of what you measure. Some aspects of educations have changed for sure, but evaluations and standardized test is not one of them.

    • Chijioke J. Evoh

      For the most part, the debate on the impact of ICTs in education is driven by the need to justify investment in educational technologies. This is rational and logical. It must be underscored that the research findings in ICT in education, some of which have been cited in this blog, are beset with methodological challenges. For this reason, the impact of ICTs in education production function will continue to be a subject of debate for years to come. Like other factors that impact the education outcome, ICTs work in conjunction with other variables to improve learning.

      As Sanna Jarvela rightly argued, by themselves, even the most sophisticated technologies cannot improve learning or thinking. Rather, educators, aided by technology, can create learning environments that support higher-order thinking and constructive discussion. It must be reiterated that educational technologies are complex artifacts. Effective integration of ICTs in the classroom is time consuming because it involves many other external factors. Therefore, it is crucial to understand that the implementation of a sustainable ICT in education programs both in developed and in developing countries will take time to yield expected results.

      • "It must be underscored that the research findings in ICT in education, some of which have been cited in this blog, are beset with methodological challenges. For this reason, the impact of ICTs in education production function will continue to be a subject of debate for years to come."

        We contributed to this debate here on ETD in November 2009: /archive/assessing-ict4e-

        And indeed, it is difficult to decide what to measure and how.

  2. first thank you for this interesting post
    Yes the economically disadvantaged countries are not the same when it comes to the introducation of ICT into schools .Instead of producing good results it only deteriorates the situation . Both teachers and students are confused how to better benefit from web2.0 technologies in their educational environment and hopefully this is only the first step confusion and not a lifelong one .

    • I wonder what kind of technologies you are talking about? and what kind of education are you imagining for economically disadvantaged countries? I would say the opportunities should be even better, so is the investment, so they can break the cycle.

      I think it is wrong to think that people in economically disadvantaged countries are not capable of using technologies. In fact, in many occasions they can be more creative and inventive about the resources they have and how to get the maximun benefit. I believe the problem sometimes comes from us trying to impose not only the technology, but a foreign education that has nothing to do with their problems, and their needs, and that doesn't take into account the existing loca assets.

      • It is neither the technology nor the imposition of ‘Foreign Education’ reasons for the slow progress of “Technology aided Education” in economically disadvantaged countries. To a greater extent, it is the shortsightedness and lacunae in the policies and planning and more so ineffective monitoring of the implementation of the programmes that causes damage. Generally Technologists are not Pedagogy experts and vice-versa, particularly in the context of economically disadvantaged countries. No much of local R&D/Surveys, .data are available to decide what is best for the country. Over and above their investment capacity is low compared to the mammoth number of schools, colleges. In such a situation there is need to empower the policy makers and those who matter in implementation by bringing them close to both Technology people and Pedagogy experts frequently in planning and implementation of policies and progrmmes. It may help. This could also help integration of technology with pedagogy and not giving them in isolation

        • Agree.. working together with local experts as well as international ones is a good approach to design strong, relevant programs! About your statement… "Generally Technologists are not Pedagogy experts and vice-versa". In OLPC programs we see, as times goes by, that the two profiles become difficult to differentiate. Teachers become more and more technical and developers and tech support team members undersand better the pedagogical philosophy and goals.

  3. Thanks to both. Unfortunately the discussion about ICT and learning/education has been either oversimplified or exaggerated. With such a extreme positions is not easy to have an inclusive perspective able to frame strength and weakness of the technologies in education.

    I'm sure that there are a lot of potential in them (a significant portion of theoretical analysis highlight the only this aspect, the potential of the ICT as a "silver bullet" in education ) but unfortunately we see quite often that in different corners of the world (either western or oriental) the same mistakes, such us: top-down approach; use of summative assessment to evaluate its impact in learning; uncreative use of technology and a lot of restrictions in term of blocking access to certain services or contents (e.g. youtube, facebook, etc.), only use of privative software, etc. etc…

    Among other things, in invisible learning we analyse the importance of developing a "digital maturity" to promote the design and implementation of more pertinent policies that lead to the use of ICT in the classroom.

    Thanks again

  4. I think there is a lot of potential in invisible learning.I would have loved to read more about invisible learning, and how to empower teachers to value and integrate some of the powerful learning that happens in informal settings, outside the classroom. We look forward to your book.

    We have not paid enough attention to is how to empower the teachers to value informal and non-formal learning, and it is one of the discussions we have had in the community of OLPC. Some of the programs now are not only supporting, but encouraging activities outside the "academic" environment.

    I would add that one of the aspects of invisible that I like and wrote a bit about in my dissertation is the invisible technology. What I mean is that at the end it is only the skills developed by the children, not the technology itself. The goal should be centered in the children… how they become better learners, sophisticated thinker and tinkers, eloquent, etc.

    • I would love to read about your idea of the "invisible technology"! Also, I´m happy to know that this "invisible" approach is ringing some bells, basically because (I think) this has to be understood, rather than a new extra label for education ("collaborative learning", "peer based …", "distance ….", etc) as an invitation to explore many think that we ignore but we have taken for granted.

      Talk to you soon.

  5. I very much impressive to read this post. Nice informative, I will go to bookmarking this.

  6. Molly Momma

    As an educator, I'm a big believer in technology, but I have some concerns about how tech is implemented in schools. Here are some thoughts that I'd love for you to check out. Thank you! http://educationmom.com/2012/05/30/em-gem-10-tech


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