Vast amounts of money and time are being spent on ensuring our kids have access to the latest technology in schools. But there's growing international disquiet over how much value it is bringing to the education system, writes Patrice Dougan.

Hands dirty, digging in the garden, and lighting fires with a flint - it's not your typical picture of pupils hard at work. But for the children at Michael Park School in Ellerslie, it's just a normal day.

A little over 2km away is a very different picture. Children at Stanhope Rd School are sitting at their desks with iPads or chromebooks, accessing the internet and displaying their work on screens.

These two schools show the dichotomy within education - and many parents' minds - over the importance of technology in the classroom and how beneficial it is for kids.

The classroom landscape looks very different from most parents' own experience of school. Now every school is connected to the internet, with high-end equipment.


Though some schools may provide devices for pupils, many schools are operating a "bring your own device" policy, where parents must fork out hundreds of dollars for an iPad or tablet for their child, adding to the already growing financial pressure.

John Vallance, headmaster of Sydney Grammar School, recently described the billions of dollars spent on computers in Australian schools as a "scandalous waste of money". Schools were spending a "disproportionate amount of their money on technology that doesn't really bring any measurable, or non-measurable, benefits", he said.

Last month Andreas Schleicher, the education chief of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), told a global education forum: "The reality is that technology is doing more harm than good in our schools today."

It followed an OECD report last September which found "no noticeable improvement" in the results of pupils in countries that had invested heavily in technology across reading, maths and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests.

Students who use tablets and computers often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately, the think-tank's research found.

Among the seven countries with the highest level of internet use in school, it found Australia, New Zealand and Sweden had experienced "significant declines" in reading performance. Three more - Spain, Norway and Denmark - had results that had "stagnated".

Ironically, a large number of Silicon Valley employees - including those from Google, Apple and Yahoo - are opting to send their own children to private schools that eschew technology until the child is 12.

Junior school class 1 from Michael Park School taste from the edible garden. Photo / Michael Craig
Junior school class 1 from Michael Park School taste from the edible garden. Photo / Michael Craig

It's the lack of evidence that contributed to Michael Park School's decision to implement a "no tech" policy in the junior school, says principal Adam Dubignon.

The school belongs to the Rudolf Steiner group, which encourages a more holistic approach to education - emphasising imagination in learning, with hands-on experiences.

"From our point of view the capacity for imaginative thinking and pictorial thinking are fundamental building blocks for critical thinking skills that you want later on in life," he says.

"If you put kids in front of devices - which is a more passive kind of learning in terms of what it's asking from the child - then you're not nourishing that development in the same way.

"And we feel that this rush to put devices in classrooms, there's not a lot of rigorous, empirical peer-reviewed research that says that's a good idea and what the long-term effects of that are."

Pupils at the junior school do not use any technology in class, but a "selective introduction of ICT" is phased in from Years 7 and 8.

At high school ICT becomes "a big part" of the curriculum, with BYOD, school Wi-Fi, and assignments to prepare students for the modern world.

This approach means the pupils are "certainly not" deprived of any skills they might need to effectively compete in the workplace, Dubignon says. "I think the fundamental keys to learning actually are not something that's gained through a device, it is gained through learning capacities or competencies that are developed within the students."

He repeatedly refers to the "passive" and "idle" nature of using a tablet or laptop to learn, compared to experiencing things first hand.

"You just don't experience it in the same way when you're doing it through a digital device, looking at events on a screen."

Jordan Coleman and Kauri Ngahungahu, both 6, use iPads at Stanhope Rd School. Photo / Dean Purcell
Jordan Coleman and Kauri Ngahungahu, both 6, use iPads at Stanhope Rd School. Photo / Dean Purcell

Between 2011 and 2014, the Education Ministry spent $35 million on training teachers in digital education skills. Ultra-fast broadband has been rolled out to all schools in a $1.25 billion project. After that, individual schools decide how they deliver the curriculum and whether and how they use technology.

Most are embracing it.

A 2014 report into the use of digital technologies in schools found about 90 per cent were using online resources or learning games to some extent, with 70 per cent saying digital technologies had a positive effect on teaching and learning.

In March, internet usage in schools soared past 1 petabyte for the first time, according to data from Network for Learning (N4L) the Crown company tasked with providing all New Zealand schools with equitable internet access.

That's equivalent to 10 billion photos on Facebook or 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text. About 25 per cent of that traffic was video streaming, the company said, equating to 554,000 minutes - more than a year's worth of high-definition TV.

For Corinne Hansell, principal of Stanhope Rd School, the benefits are clear.

"It increases their oral language because they are collaborative, which is our big word, in their problem-solving and their accessing of the curriculum, so there's a lot more oral language and outcomes from that."

A strong advocate of e-learning, she says technology "absolutely" makes a difference, with pupils able to "access the world".

Stanhope Rd School has 60 chromebooks, about 50 iPads and 50 desktop computers (two to each classroom) all funded by the school, or fund-raised for by parents. The pupils share devices, which they use from Year 1 to Year 8, across all curriculum subjects.

The mix of devices helps develop strong decision-making skills, Hansell says, as the pupils learn to choose which device is appropriate for what they want to do - desktop for film-making, chromebook for publishing, iPad for apps.

"We're developing student agency around being independent learners," she says. "And within that independent learning comes really quality decision-making around who they collaborate with, what tools they collaborate with and what learning outcome they would like to achieve, so their decision-making is really important."

The devices are certainly not used for games, she says. "Oh heck no. No, it's linked [to what the pupils are learning].

"When the teachers do their planning, the ICT access is linked to their focus in their lessons, so it's not just games.

"In fact, we're really hot on that. It's actually to promote a particular learning intention."

The technology "supports learning", she says. Pupils might brainstorm over a hard-copy chart, and then turn to the technology to further inquire into what they're studying.

"If you're just putting the technology in front of kids and turning on screens and getting them to access cute, friendly stuff then the investment of money does not result in the required outcomes.

"But if you're using the learning intentions to drive the technology, and the kids ... [are] able to tag the learning technologies into their learning goals, then it's a way more valuable exercise."

Dr Jenny Poskitt, senior lecturer of education at Massey University, agrees. She has conducted studies into the effectiveness of technology in the classroom, comparing tech versus no tech classes in one primary school, and looking at the achievement rates of an intermediate year group using devices.

She says technology can be beneficial, if used correctly. "It can make a difference if it's used as a tool or a vehicle to give variety and pertinent challenge," she said. "It's certainly really effective for research, researching up to date information, and presentation of results, those kind of time-consuming tasks.

"But it does not substitute for effective teaching, questioning, collaborative learning with other students and with the teacher."

Her study - due to be published in the next edition of the Australian Journal of Middle Schooling - compared two Year 4 classes and two Year 5-6 classes, with tests on literacy comprehension taken at the start of the term and repeated at the end.

"In the Year 4 class the results were very similar, so it didn't matter whether there was technology or not, they made similar gains," she says. "In Year 5-6, the technology class made three and four times the gains, so they were significantly better than the non-technology."

However, across the four classes in the intermediate school study, one made "amazing gains", two improved to meet the national expectation, and one "went backwards".

The difference was how the technology was used, she says.

"It's about integrating the technology into the classroom, so the technology becomes another tool for learning, just like another book or another journal article to read."

Opting for inexpensive software, free online tools, and sharing devices meant it didn't need to be expensive for schools to get the most out of using technology, she said.

But in the end, "the big difference actually is the teacher", Poskitt says.

"Essentially it's about teachers who understand how technology might be used, who link it into what they're learning. The ones that were really effective were very targeted in what they used and why they used it."

The Ministry of Education backs up this view. Karl Le Quesne, associate deputy secretary of early learning and student achievement, says young people "need to be tech-savvy" in today's digital world.

"Technology provides access to a wealth of knowledge and new ways of learning.

"This includes connecting with each other and with experts, learning independently, and pursuing their own interests further than has ever been possible."

However "technology on its own is not enough - quality teaching, supported by technology, is key to raising achievement."