The Straits Times says

Don't put tech 'cart' before horse

One might be deflated by a study of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which signalled the neutral or even negative effect of the use of much-vaunted technology in certain classrooms. Could it be a case of putting the proverbial cart before the horse - a useful tool being seen as a surrogate teacher?

The think-tank found that countries investing heavily in information and communication technologies for education have not seen noticeable improvement in their students' performances in international tests on reading, mathematics and science. If anything, students who use computers very frequently at school do much worse in the three-yearly Programme for International Student Assessment tests run by the OECD. Those who use computers moderately at school show slightly better learning outcomes overall.

These findings should not be dismissed by those here who make a virtue of going digital. Technology does not always act as a vaulting horse; human efforts remain the workhorse in raising educational standards across the board. Nor is technology use in schools a great social leveller. As the report noted, it has not closed the digital skills gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students - not surprising, as better-off students have both superior access to digital technology as well as cultural capital to optimise usage.

Yet, it would be a mistake to dismiss the value of technology in general. OECD director for education and skills Andreas Schleicher noted that "technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge". More accurately, it offers unbounded access to information. But real-life and online guides are the ones who can teach the young to process, appraise and apply that information - thus converting it into useful knowledge. And, as importantly, technology is so embedded in daily life that the young ought to be familiar with its machine qualities and utilitarian applications at the very least while growing up.

The report is right to emphasise understanding and higher-order thinking skills that require close teacher-student interactions. Technology should not distract from this engagement. While technology can amplify outstanding teaching, great technology cannot cure the ills of poor or inadequate guidance. Just supplying expensive digital tools to schools and making them available at home will not make the young able learners as a matter of course. It bears repeating that one should not aim at just leaving people overawed by gee-whiz technology that is summoned at some cost and considerable effort - like the live three-dimensional holographic lecture that was showcased recently at the Singapore Technology-Enabled Learning Experience conference. What should impress instead is the quality of the interaction between a top-notch lecturer and Singaporean learners.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'Don't put tech 'cart' before horse'. Print Edition | Subscribe