‘Click bait’ hijacks the real story about technology in Australian schools

from Jane Hunter

A recent education report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said, among many other things, young people first “need to be equipped with basic literacy and numeracy skills so they can participate fully in the hyper-connected, digitized society of the 21st Century”. It went on to make tenuous links between too much technology and falling literacy and numeracy, but first warned, quite early in the report, that “the findings must not lead to despair”.

That was all it took. What followed was a media frenzy, here and overseas, which produced a range of very negative stories. For example: “Are iPads a waste of money? OECD report says yes” stated The Age; in the Huffington Post in the United States: “Putting more technology in schools may not make kids smarter: OECD Report“; and in the United Kingdom the title of a BBC News story “Computers ‘do not improve pupils results says OECD“.

If you look closely at the report Students, Computers and Learning, which uses results from the 2012 PISA computer-based assessment of ICT literacy of students aged 15 in 31 countries across the globe, it is saying there is much good news. The leaps of logic in the interpretation and application of findings in the report picked up by various media outlets are considerable and unfortunate.

The examples I gave are just three of at least twelve damaging stories I read after the report’s release. They show how complex education issues in schools, and for principals, teachers, students and jurisdictions are increasingly reduced to the ‘education sound bite’. This kind of reportage serves as click bait for online readers.

Politicians may then take what reporters say as ‘gospel’. However, far more insidious, is the harmful effect such headlines have on teacher morale and the public’s view of education and schools more generally.

The real story about technology in Australian schools

In 2015 teachers’ work in technology-enhanced learning in classrooms in NSW is exciting. I have carried out research in a number of Australian primary and high schools since 2011 and my research shows there is good progress with technology enhanced learning and the pace is hastening. This research is ongoing.

Students are doing tech well in many Australian schools. They are stepping up to embrace the challenges that learning effectively with technologies demands. Results in student assessment in these schools show this. However connectivity in many schools is still far from ideal and even within major cities it is variable.

I agree with the OECD report where it states, “young people do want to be taught how to search more effectively”. My recent research indicates that. It also demonstrates that in some high schools in particular classrooms, students want teachers to leave behind the industrial model of “talking at them”, using “mindless work sheets” and “copying endless notes off the board”. Students desire many more opportunities to problem solve, work in teams, carry out long-term real-world projects, create films/animations, and use inquiry and project-based learning. The OECD report says this too.

I know from first hand experience that technology inequities exist in our schools and the “digital divide” is real. I also understand most schools make provisions for providing computers and other mobile devices to students who cannot afford them.

Something that has not been reported widely is that groundbreaking programs like the Digital Education Revolution (DER) meant for the first time every student from Year 9 onwards in an Australian public school had access to a small technological device. The program was not perfect but what it did do effectively (and there are evaluations that show this) is it placed technology in the hands of students who could not normally afford it. DER served to ‘whet the appetite’ of technological things to come, like educational apps, augmented reality, 3D printing, maker labs, geo spatial technologies, code and digital games. It enabled tech-savvy ‘early adopter teachers’ to play with technology, to see how it changed core concepts and how learning inside classrooms could be more engaging and motivating for young people, whose ‘digital bedrooms’ at home were a parallel universe to their lives at school.

Technology hardware and software is expensive. Governments must replace outdated equipment. Provide more time for professional development. This is vital investment that will allow teachers, as the OECD report contends, to become “active agents of change”.

I am about to start teaching a digital technologies course in a doctoral program for teachers in the School of Education at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in the United States. This is relevant because yesterday the school received a $5.6M gift from an alumnus. The donor, who wanted to remain anonymous, hopes the philanthropic commitment will inspire others. “Without properly trained teachers, our country would not have an educated population. Teachers are critical if we want a strong and vibrant society,” said the donor.

We need the Australian public and politicians to understand, and actively support, what is going on in our schools and in teacher education in universities, but how can we do this when complex issues are reduced to the lowest common denominator in the media? We are doing all educators a disservice when stories about technology in schools are hijacked as ‘click bait’.


This post was recently published on the blog of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE), EduResearch Matters.

Postscript (Nov. 19th, 2015)

This week ACARA has released the 2014 NAP – ICT literacy report. It shows: “a decline in ICT literacy in Year 6 and 10”. Predictably it has been reported in the Australian media using headlines like “Texting isn’t enough: Australian students’ computer skills drop, new report shows” and in The Conversation on 18 November “ICT literacy is failing in schools. Here’s why”.

In this latest ACARA test more than 10,500 students were assessed in 2014 on their ICT knowledge, understanding and skills. The report shows that 55% of students in year 6 achieved the expected standards, and 52% of students in year 10 completed ‘challenging but reasonable’ tasks, for example, the creation of tables and charts, sorting data in a spreadsheet and editing graphics and text.

Dr Mike Phillips, lecturer in Digital Technologies at Monash University, author of The Conversation piece says: “this equates to a 6% and 13% decrease for years 6 and 10 respectively over the last three years”. Four reasons are cited for the decline: “late introduction of the digital technologies curriculum, teachers not equipped with the skills they need, too much choice in the range of available digital tools, and outdated examination of technology skills in ACARA’s ICT test/s”.

I agree in principle with the reasons mentioned to explain why this might be occurring – however I urge caution around concluding that technology enhanced learning and Australian students’ digital skills are in decline more generally.

In my research in many NSW public primary and high schools this year I do not see evidence (forthcoming series of research papers) of this marked decline. What I am seeing in many primary schools are huge shifts in teachers’ technology enhanced learning practices, and often it’s how teachers support very young students to develop their digital skills using a range of devices. In high schools, the picture is less rosy. But it’s improving. For example, in one study and this is supported by findings from two others, Year 10 students want more support to know how to search effectively for information, they require clear scaffolds to complete open-ended/project-based tasks and students also want to know how to take efficient notes using their mobile devices.

As stated previously, until connectivity improves, technology enhanced learning in schools remains hard. In many NSW public schools, even within the Sydney CBD access is poor. Reliable, fast internet must be a standard requirement for education in all Australian schools. It is coming … but not quickly enough.

The current NAP test in ICT is limited in what it tests in years 6 and 10 and this goes to the nature of national testing in this country more generally (as identified in recent publication by Lingard, Thompson and Sellar in National testing in schools: an Australian assessment, 2016).

ACARA’s new Digital Technologies curriculum and remember these latest NAP – ICT literacy results were a response to an ‘old curriculum’ that encouraged teachers to approach using technology isolated from its pedagogical and content potential in classroom learning. For instance, knowing how to do use an excel spreadsheet does not translate into students demonstrating higher order thinking skills in Science.

In a series of timely papers on Revisiting the Digital Education Revolution in Point and Counterpoint in Curriculum Perspectives, September 2015, 35(2): Kathryn Moyle (Guest Editor) reflects upon what progress has been made towards the aims of the DER; the series includes a paper by a school student who was a beneficiary of one of the DER computers, a teacher who worked in schools during the time of the DER, a state-based policy officer and another officer who worked at the national level of DER implementation. The papers are well worth a read. In summary they conclude that time and further research are needed to really understand the impact of DER, as long term commitment by government was not prioritized around policy on infrastructure and connectivity.

Having just spent the past three months in a number of US schools in three states examining technology-enhanced learning in classrooms I can but concur that these two factors are the most important baseline requirements. Ongoing professional learning, and giving teachers ‘time to play’ with new tools are also critical. As Wagner and Dintersmith (2015) conclude in Most Likely to Succeed – and this applies equally to the Australian education context, it is time to re-imagine our schools.


Dr Jane Hunter teaches pre-service teachers in curriculum, pedagogy and technology enhanced learning in the School of Education at Western Sydney University. She is a researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at the same institution. Jane is the author of Technology integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK, New York: Routledge published earlier this year. In March 2016 she is a keynote speaker at the Future Schools Conference in Sydney.