Thursday 27 October 2016

Gerry Shiel: We need to learn more lessons about using computers in schools

In my opinion....

Gerry Shiel

Published 16/09/2015 | 02:30

Ireland does not come out well on overall indicators on use of computers in school
Ireland does not come out well on overall indicators on use of computers in school

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment( PISA) report, Students, Computers and Learning, published yesterday, is based on data collected in 2012. It describes the performance of 15-year-olds on computer-based tests of reading (digital reading) and mathematics, and on student usage of computing devices at home and at school.

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As reported in 2013, Ireland ranked eighth of 32 countries on digital reading, with a score that was significantly higher than the average, but significantly lower than the four highest-performing countries (Singapore, Hong-Kong China, Korea and Japan). Ireland's performance was helped by strong print-reading skills and efficient browsing and navigational skills among our students.

Ireland ranked 19th on computer-based maths, with a score that was not significantly different from the average. This was lower than on print-based maths where students in Ireland performed significantly above the average. Ireland's performance on computer-based maths reflects the difficulties students in Ireland experience with mathematical problem solving in real-life contexts, as well as insufficient practice in using computer tools to solve such problems.

Ireland is identified as a country in which performance on maths items that require use of a computer is below the expected level, when proficiency on maths items not requiring computer tools is taken into account.

Ireland does not come out well either on overall indicators of student use of computers at school in general (38th of 42 countries), in mathematics classes (also 38th, with almost no change since 2009), or at home for school-related work (39th).

But Ireland is in good company. Other bottom markers on these indicators include Finland, Shanghai-China, Japan and Korea. However, unlike Ireland, these countries are among the highest performers on paper-based maths, computer-based maths, or both.

The report notes some usage of computers by teachers in Ireland to demonstrate aspects of maths. However, despite widespread availability of apps and other digital tools, there is a reluctance to involve students in tasks such as using spreadsheets, drawing graphs of functions and constructing geometric figures with any degree of frequency.

This, in turn, may be related to assessment issues (current paper-based assessment practices, especially in State exams, may not encourage computer usage in maths lessons), and lack of access to infrastructure (students need ongoing access to mobile computing devices).

From a curriculum perspective, third-year students (60pc of the PISA 2012 sample) were the last cohort not to study Junior Cycle maths under the Project Maths syllabus.

The OECD report indicates that teachers who are more comfortable with student-oriented practices, formative assessment, group work and project work are more likely to integrate use of computers into maths lessons. In Ireland, we need to combine use of digital maths tools with an enhanced focus on building students' mathematical problem solving and spatial reasoning skills. This will require sustained effort and resources.

A new Digital Strategy for Schools will be launched in the next few weeks.

One hopes that this will provide post-primary schools with the knowledge and resources to use recently installed high-speed broadband to maximum effect in enabling all students to acquire the competencies for literacy, numeracy and ICT set out in the new Junior Cycle framework.

Gerry Shiel is a Research Fellow at the Educational Research Centre, St. Patrick's College, Dublin, the Irish National Centre for PISA

Irish Independent

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