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The dilemma of computers in schools July 22, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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From Dr. Joanne Orlando

In this post, Dr Orlando reflects upon the considerable investment Australian governments are making in placing computers in Australian schools, and suggests that the provision of the hardware is just a first step if we are to see a positive impact on student learning.


If you spent millions of dollars putting computers into schools, what do you think would happen? Do you think students will achieve better results in their learning? Do you think teachers will change their practice and adopt new ways of teaching? Do you think that governments will change the teaching and learning they expect to take place in schools?

Computers have been associated with developing the 21st century skills students will need for the future workplace. Late last year the Federal government implemented the Digital Education Revolution into Australian schools. This four-year initiative was the government’s response to capitalising on the benefits that computers potentially hold for student learning. In NSW this initiative has a budget cost of over $400 million (Federal government funding) and $25 million (NSW State government funding). It focuses on providing every Year 9 student and teacher in every Government secondary school in Australia with a laptop for the next four years.

Research to date however suggests that initiatives which focus primarily on resourcing schools with computers are not successful. Placing computers in schools does not seem to enhance student learning and achievement.

Teachers’ lack of performance or unwillingness to change is often given for as the reason for lack of success of initiatives which focus on resourcing schools with computers. This is however a one-dimensional response to a complex and important issue. It also does not provide insight into how we can actually make the most of using computers to enhance student learning and meaningfully prepare our students for the future workforce.

Schools are multifaceted and complicated environments. Expecting one new addition (computers) to change schools and raise standards is simplistic and unhelpful. Considering the complexity of the environments that these computers are being placed in will give us greater insight into reflecting on why teachers choose to use computers in their teaching in the ways they do (or don’t).  It will also support signposting where future planning might take place to facilitate future advancement and growth of the use of computers in schools that will support reaching the goal of enhancing student learning.

For example, a current and significant issue for schools and teachers is that while the government is resourcing schools with laptops they are simultaneously increasing pressure on teachers in terms of accountability. This is evident with the publication of league tables in high profile newspapers and the MySchool website. This accountability is linked to nation-wide standardised test scores. There is sufficient research to show that standardised tests encourage teaching which is traditional and teacher-centred. This of course is at odds with the creative software available on school computers and the use of these for the development of 21st century skills. Add to the mix other significant factors such as the diverse student abilities and experiences, and recent and significant changes to the curriculum.

The resourcing of schools with computers is a substantial beginning step for enhancing student learning. A second step now, if we really aim to use computers to their full potential to support student learning, is to contextualise computers within the schools and classrooms where they have been placed. Let’s not rely on the rhetoric about what computers are able to do. We need to shift our focus to thinking about and planning for how computers might be used in ways that are meaningful to our students and our teachers within today’s schools.

Joanne Orlando is a lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.


1. Associate Professor Christine Woodrow - July 22, 2010

Dr Orlando raises some important issues here in shifting the focus away from the hardware. There is however a bigger issue. This is what seems to me to be an inherent dichotomy between “21st century” learning using digital tools and the “19th century” construction of schooling . The biggest challenge I see is how to collaboratively re-imagine the education of young people. Is schooling as we know it still the most appropriate structure for this ? A few years ago I was invovled in a ‘knowledge producing’ school. Here children were working collaboratively with the community (police, industry, museum) using digital tools to identify and respond to community issues, such as speeding, unemployment, and the promotion of local products. This work seeems a long way from narrowly defined core national curriculum and NAPLAN scores. The question for us revolves around the role of teacher education in undertaking this task of re-imagining and ‘leading’ education in new directions.

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