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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 13:02 GMT
Computers improve exam results: Discuss.
Every school in England is to have broadband internet access, PM Tony Blair has vowed. But do schools + computers = better grades?
Within three years, every primary and secondary school in England will have high-speed internet access, the Prime Minister himself proudly pledged as he launched a 1bn project to get public services online.

A good thing? Even Mr Blair's honourable friends on the opposition benches were hard-pressed to criticise this hi-tech spending spree and "warmly welcomed" the move.

PM Tony Blair encouraging internet use
PM Tony Blair encourages school internet use
In Edinburgh, ministers of the Scottish Assembly are willing to overcome geographical problems to hook up even remote rural classrooms to the broadband network.

On countless school open evenings and in school prospectuses, parents are encouraged to marvel at the computer hardware available to pupils. One supermarket chain has even become synonymous with its civic-minded initiative to put even more whirring plastic boxes on school desks.

Great, except that voices are emerging that suggest the funding rush to computerise the classroom may not equate to improved standards.

In Israel, nine-year-olds learning with computers scored lower marks in maths than their contemporaries taught with just textbooks and blackboards, according to a study by the respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Better than chalk?

In other subjects, Israeli students between nine and 13 years of age using computers didn't fall behind computerless rivals, but didn't outstrip them in exams either.

"The costs are clear-cut and the benefits are murky," said MIT's Dr Joshua Angrist.

In the US, Stanford University's Larry Cuban is even more damning of the opinion that computers are inherently good for school pupils.

"Computers have been oversold and underused," Mr Cuban said his recent book on IT in the classroom.

A nursery pupil with a computer
Does it help or hinder?
Cramming schools with hard drives and monitors is no panacea for educational failure, he says. Without less glamorous reforms of the basic structure of schools, he predicts standards will not improve, "no matter how much money is sunk into information technology".

Mr Cuban particularly fears that school administrators - swept along in the current wave of enthusiasm for classroom IT - might fund computers before putting money into such things as cutting class sizes.

A recent report by the British schools watchdog, Ofsted, measured the impact classroom computer and internet use only by suggesting it "engages pupils and sustains their attention".

Tricky calculations

Research by Becta - the government agency responsible for advising on IT use in education - comparing the grades of pupils with high and low IT use was equally inconclusive.

A three-year study in 60 English schools found IT contributed to a "statistically significant" improvement in achievement in some subjects, but the report shied away from describing the effect as "large".

Becta's head of practice, Helen Walker, says it is too early to write off the contribution computers may make to improving exam grades, since the technology has only taken the "first step of a very, very long journey" .

President Bush reads at a school
Would a person and a book be better?
"People might ask: 'Where is the evidence?' It is slowly being compiled. And we are already seeing a real change in pupils."

Ms Walker points to the "dynamic" and "engaging" use of video conferencing, e-mail and foreign websites to enliven language lessons.

She says Becta is keen to identify good IT teaching practice - "what works and what doesn't" - to put classroom PCs to the best use.

Despite the critics, Shropshire secondary school teacher Jonathan Boyle is in little doubt that computers have had a dramatic effect on his students.

"When I started teaching 12 years ago, we had one computer. Now I have 41 in my room for 24 students. They've raised standards by an incredible amount."

Mr Boyle - who teaches design - says recent GCSE exam results were almost all A and B grades. "We're finding ourselves not getting C grades any more."

See also:

19 Nov 02 | Technology
01 Nov 02 | Education
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