Using computers in schools

Nowadays every school has to have computers. I don't refer to legal requirementbut to perception. Schools are judged on how many computers they have. It would be more to the point if they were judged on their computer-savvy.

I'm a fan of computers; my computer is a vital part of my work. I believe computer literacy is as important for our children to acquire as any other "basic skill". But I'm not a fan of the wholesale introduction of computers into our schools, particularly the junior ones. How many computers a school has is not the issue - the issue is, how do they use them?

In many cases, the answer is: poorly.

The reasons are simple enough. Foremost, the teachers have insufficient training and experience with computers. Relatedly, computers are not yet an integrated part of the school curriculum, and every school and teacher re-invents the wheel, trying to find good software, trying to work out how to fit it into the classroom curriculum, trying to work out schedules to make sure every student gets a fair go, struggling with the lack of technical support. And of course, in many cases (perhaps most), the computers are old, with the associated problems of being more likely to have technical problems, being slow, limited in memory, incompatible with current software, and so on.

The most important problems schools have with computers:

  • lack of financial resources (to buy enough computers, up-to-date computers, enough printers and other peripherals, licenses for good software, technical support)
  • the inability of teachers to know how to use the computers effectively
  • difficulty in integrating computers into the school / classroom curriculum (problems of use, of scheduling, of time)

Using computers effectively is much more than simply being able to type an essay or produce a graph. Parents and educators who deplore the obsession with computers in schools see computers as eroding children's basic skills and knowledge, because they only see computers being used as copy-and-paste and making-it-pretty devices. But computers have potential far beyond that.

Computers can be used to help:

  • extend the scope of searches
  • retrieve precisely targeted data with greater speed and accuracy
  • increase the amount of data held ready for use
  • sift relevant data from irrelevant
  • turn data into information

The true value of a computer isn't seen until the user can use it not only as a presentation tool (for making work attractive), and as a productivity tool (for producing work more quickly, effectively, thoroughly), but also as a cognitive tool.

Using computers as cognitive tools

A cognitive tool helps you think.

Many people thought computers would revolutionize education by providing individual instruction in the form of tutorials. In particular, as a means of drilling students. Drilling can be helpful to overlearn a skill to achieve automaticity, but it doesn’t help transfer to meaningful problems. That is, you can learn a skill, you can rote-learn facts, but drilling doesn't help meaningful learning - it doesn't teach understanding.

Although computer tutorials have become somewhat more sophisticated, they still only present a single interpretation of the world - they don’t allow students to find their own meaning. They don't teach students to reflect on and analyze their own performance.

“I do not believe that students learn from computers or teachers — which has been a traditional assumption of most schooling. Rather, students learn from thinking in meaningful ways. Thinking is engaged by activities, which can be fostered by computers or teachers.” (Jonassen, p4)

So, the computer itself isn't the issue - the issue, as always, is what you do with it. For example, when the Web is simply used as a source of material that can be downloaded and pasted without thought, then no, it is not of value. But when the learner searches the Web, evaluates the information, finds the gold in the dross, uses that to construct a knowledge base, to develop meaning, then yes, it is a valuable resource.

Computers can support meaningful learning by

  • reducing time spent on mechanical tasks such as rewriting, producing graphs, etc
  • helping find information
  • helping organize information
  • making it easier to share information and ideas with others

Related articles/sites on the Web:

A recent news articles on the subject of compulsory laptops at a Seattle school

New York Times articles about computers in education: Technology critic takes on computers in schools ; Making the most of the Internet's potential for education

An Atlantic monthly column: The computer delusion

A Boston Globe column about computers for young children: Computers, software can harm emotional, social development


Jonassen, David H. 2000. Computers as Mindtools for schools: Engaging critical thinking. (2nd ed.) NJ: Prentice-Hall

Is technology affecting attention & thought?

Student with iPad

Duncan Jefferies on the Guardian's Teacher Network:

The right sort of video game can increase your intelligence

Games that use the n-back task, designed to challenge working memory, may improve fluid intelligence, but only if the games are at the right level of difficulty for the individual.

It has been difficult to train individuals in such a way that they improve in general skills rather than the specific ones used in training. However, recently some success has been achieved using what is called an “n-back” task, a task that involves presenting a series of visual and/or auditory cues to a subject and asking the subject to respond if that cue has occurred, to start with, one time back. If the subject scores well, the number of times back is increased each round.

In the latest study, 62 elementary and middle school children completed a month of training on a computer program, five times a week, for 15 minutes at a time. While the active control group trained on a knowledge and vocabulary-based task, the experimental group was given a demanding spatial task in which they were presented with a sequence of images at one of six locations, one at a time, at a rate of 3s. The child had to press one key whenever the current image was at the same location as the one n items back in the series, and another key if it wasn’t. Both tasks employed themed graphics to make the task more appealing and game-like.

How far back the child needed to remember depended on their performance — if they were struggling, n would be decreased; if they were meeting the challenge, n would be increased.

Although the experimental and active control groups showed little difference on abstract reasoning tasks (reflecting fluid intelligence) at the end of the training, when the experimental group was divided into two subgroups on the basis of training gain, the story was different. Those who showed substantial improvement on the training task over the month were significantly better than the others, on the abstract reasoning task. Moreover, this improvement was maintained at follow-up testing three months later.

The key to success seems to be whether or not the games hit the “sweet spot” for the individual — fun and challenging, but not so challenging as to be frustrating. Those who showed the least improvement rated the game as more difficult, while those who improved the most found it challenging but not overwhelming.

You can try this task yourself at


Jaeggi, Susanne M, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Priti Shah. “Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2011 (June 13, 2011): 2-7.

[1183] Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl M., Jonides J., & Perrig W. J. (2008).  From the Cover: Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105(19), 6829 - 6833.

The changing nature of literacy. Part 3: Computers

This post is the third part in a four-part series on how education delivery is changing, and the set of literacies required in today’s world. Part 1 looked at the changing world of textbooks; Part 2 looked at direct instruction/lecturing. This post looks at computer learning.

Children with home computers likely to have lower test scores

An American study suggests that getting a home computer can have a negative effect on reading and math scores in middle-grade students, particularly those from disadvantaged families.

Data from North Carolina's mandated End-of-Grade tests (2000-2005), which includes student reports on how frequently they use a home computer for schoolwork, watch TV or read for pleasure, reveals that students in grades five through eight (c.10-13), particularly those from disadvantaged families, tended to have lower reading and math scores after they got a home computer. The researchers suggest that the greater negative effect in disadvantaged households may reflect less parental monitoring.


[1635] Vigdor, J. L., & Ladd H. F. (2010).  Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series. No. 16078,

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