When schools shut down, many students around the world were shut out, as their education systems were ill-prepared for online learning. The OECD’s 2018 PISA report revealed wide disparities between countries and socio-economic groups on the availability of adequate technology and schools’ capacity to use digital tools to enhance learning. Andreas Schleicher (OECD) argues that corrections are needed so that digital education does not amplify inequalities.
This article is part of our dossier "Digital classrooms - Transatlantic perspectives on lessons from the pandemic".
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, 1.6 billion students around the world where locked out of their schools already during the first phase of the pandemic in winter and spring 2020. Some of them were able to find their way around closed school doors through alternative learning opportunities, supported by their parents and eager to learn. But many remained shut out when their school shut down, particularly those from the most marginalised groups, who did not have access to digital learning resources or lacked the support, resilience and engagement to learn on their own.
During the pandemic, remote learning became the lifeline for education, and the opportunities that digital technologies offer go well beyond a stop-gap solution during the crisis. Digital technology allows to find entirely new answers to what people learn, how people learn, where people learn and when they learn. Technology can enable teachers and students to access specialised materials well beyond textbooks, in multiple formats and in ways that can bridge time and space. Alongside teachers, intelligent digital learning systems cannot not just teach students science, but they can simultaneously observe how they study, the kind of tasks and thinking that interest students, and the kind of problems that they find boring or difficult. The systems can then adapt the learning experience to suit personal learning styles with great granularity and precision. Similarly, virtual laboratories can give students the opportunity to design, conduct and learn from experiments, rather than just learning about them.
Moreover, digital technologies cannot just change methods of teaching and learning, they can also elevate the role of teachers from imparting received knowledge towards working as co-creators of knowledge, as coaches, as mentors and as evaluators.
This being said, the Covid-19 crisis struck at a point when most of the education systems in the OECD were not ready for the world of digital learning opportunities. In the international teachers survey TALIS from 2018 a quarter of school principals across participating countries said that shortage or inadequacy of digital technology was hindering learning quite a bit or a lot, a figure that ranged from 2% in Singapore, to 30% in France and Italy. Those figures may even understate the problem, as not all principals will be aware of the opportunities that modern technology can provide for instruction.
It is worth reviewing how well education systems are prepared, with special attention to those countries that are at the frontier of learning today. The following does this on the basis of the latest PISA analyses. Are schools equipped to teach – and are students ready to learn – remotely?
Availability of technology at school
On average across OECD countries in 2018, there was almost one computer available at school for educational purposes for every 15-year old student (the computer-student ratio is equal to 0.8). In Austria, Luxembourg, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, the computer-student ratio was 1.25 or more, while in Germany, there was only one computer available for every 2 students (ratio = 0.61) .
In most countries, the distribution of computers tended to be more equitable in schools than in homes, highlighting the important role that schools play in ensuring equitable access to technology.
There has been notable progress in equipping schools with computers, with a widespread increase in the computer-student ratio between 2009 and 2018. The largest increases in the average number of computers per 15-year-old student were observed in Estonia, Iceland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. In Germany, the student computer ratio did not change significantly over the same period. On average across OECD countries, there was one additional computer available per every four students in 2018 than was available in 2009 (0.26 of an additional computer per student).
Adequacy of the technology available at school
Making digital devices available at school will not pay dividends unless those devices are adequate to the teaching and learning tasks at hand. PISA 2018 found that little more than two in three 15-year-old students were enrolled in a school whose principal reported that the digital devices at school are sufficiently powerful, in terms of computing capacity. In Japan, less than half of students were enrolled in such a school, and in Kosovo just one in five students were.
Differences between advantaged and disadvantaged schools were significant. Equally important, while in the four Chinese provinces that participated in PISA 2018 (Beijing, Jiangsu, Shanghai and Zhejiang), as well as in Denmark, Lithuania, Singapore and Slovenia, 9 out of 10 students were in schools whose school principal reported that their school’s Internet bandwidth or speed is sufficient, only 6 in 10 students attended such schools, on average across OECD countries.
Some 40% of all computers available to 15-year-olds in school are portable. In a few high-income countries, most computers available at school are portable: in Denmark, Norway, Singapore and Sweden, 9 out of 10 computers are portable, and in the United States, 8 out of 10 computers are portable. By contrast, in 50 countries and economies, only 30%, at most, of all computers available at school are portable (Germany: 25%). In Cyprus, Georgia, Jordan, Malta, Morocco, the Philippines and Thailand, only 1 in 10 computers, at most, are portable.
Portable computers are more frequently available in private than in public schools, and in socio-economically advantaged than in disadvantaged schools, on average across OECD countries. Indeed, the growth in the availability of portable computers at school between 2015 and 2018 was due to gains amongst schools in the second, third and top quarters of the distribution of schools’ socio-economic profile, while amongst disadvantaged schools, the share of portable computers did not change during the period. As a result, the disparity in access to portable computers related to socio-economic status increased between 2015 and 2018.
In addition, the infrastructure needed to use digital technologies effectively is not universally available. On average across OECD countries in 2018, more than 65% of students attended a school whose principal reported that the school’s capacity to enhance learning and teaching using digital devices is sufficient in terms of the adequacy of software available, the computing capacity of digital devices, the Internet bandwidth or speed, and the number of digital devices connected to the Internet. Around 55% of students attended a school where an effective online learning platform is available to them, on average across OECD countries.
But differences between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in this regard are notable. For example, 71% of students attended schools where appropriate software is provided. However, significantly more students in advantaged schools (77% of students in advantaged schools) than in disadvantaged schools (65% of students in disadvantaged schools) were able to benefit from adequate software at school.
Teachers’ capacity to use technology
PISA 2018 asked school principals about different aspects of their school’s capacity to enhance teaching and learning using digital devices. On average across OECD countries in 2018, 65% of 15-year-olds were enrolled in schools whose principal reported that teachers have the necessary technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices in instruction. The proportion varied considerably between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. In Sweden, for example, 89% of students in advantaged schools attended such a school, but only 54% of students in disadvantaged schools did.
On average across OECD countries, about 60% of 15-year-old students were enrolled in schools whose principal reported that teachers have sufficient time to prepare lessons integrating digital devices, ranging from close to 90% of students in the four Chinese provinces that participated in PISA 2018 to little more than 10% of students in Japan.
The picture was similar when it comes to the availability of professional resources for teachers to learn how to use the digital devices. About 55% of students were in schools where teachers are provided with incentives to integrate digital devices into their teaching or have sufficiently qualified technical assistant staff.
School practices for using digital devices effectively
The effectiveness of using digital devices and ICT to enhance teaching and learning may also depend on schools’ policies and practices. PISA 2018 asked school principals whether they had formal guidelines (e.g. written statements, programmes or policies) or specific practices (e.g. regularly scheduled meetings) that focus on how to use digital devices effectively in the classroom.
On average across OECD countries, the most common school practices intended to improve learning through the use of digital devices were: having regular discussions between principals and teachers about the use of digital devices for pedagogical purposes (63% of students attended schools that practice this – Germany: 45%, USA 74% ); having written school statements about the use of digital devices (62% of students – Germany 58%, USA 90%); and having a specific programme to prepare students for responsible Internet behaviour (60% of students – Germany: 74%, USA: 55%).
School guidelines and practices to enhance teaching and learning using digital devices were more often observed in socio-economically advantaged schools than disadvantaged schools. Across OECD countries, some 23% of the differences in reading performance could be accounted for by the percentage of students in schools whose principal reported that their school has its own written statement about the use of digital devices.
The results show that it is important to distinguish between the quantity and quality of digital devices. While the number of computers available to students in advantaged and disadvantaged schools were nearly the same, portable computers, including laptops and tablets, were more prevalent in advantaged schools. The ability to provide remote education for all students depends crucially on the availability of digital devices at home. Data show that the distribution of computers at home is less equitable, so it would be particularly important to provide portable digital devices to students in disadvantaged schools.
The results also show significant disparities in the availability of computers with sufficient power and Internet bandwidth or speed. Disadvantaged schools should be provided with sufficient bandwidth since PISA finds that that particular resource is associated with greater equity at a system level.
In order to use the hardware efficiently, adequate software and digitally qualified teachers must also be available. Having adequate software and an effective online learning platform was also unevenly distributed between advantaged and disadvantaged schools. It would be useful to develop software and online platforms that are accessible to all schools. There were more teachers with the necessary skills to integrate digital devices into instruction, and more qualified technical assistant staff, in advantaged schools than in disadvantaged schools. More than one in three teachers lack fundamental technical and pedagogical skills, so providing teachers with the necessary training would certainly improve online teaching. It would also be helpful to offer schools guidelines for the use digital devices since having such guidelines is associated with greater equity in the system.
Even while addressing the suddenly urgent issue of connectivity, and even – perhaps especially – as the global economy contracts as a result of the pandemic, education policy makers still need to consider other basic questions if they want to be able to provide all students with the best education possible. For example:
Is having more computers at school related to better educational performance?
Access to the Internet was virtually universal in most education systems that participated in PISA 2018. In 55 out of 79 countries and economies, 9 out of 10 computers available to 15-years old for educational purposes at school were connected to the Internet. On average across OECD countries, having more computers at school that are connected to the Internet was positively associated with reading performance. Students in schools whose principal reported that the school’s Internet bandwidth or speed is sufficient scored 10 score points higher in reading, on average across OECD countries, than students in schools whose principals did not report adequate Internet speed. However, after accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, these positive associations disappeared, as students in advantaged schools, where computers are more often connected to the Internet and the connection is faster, tended to score higher.
Internet connectivity was strongly associated with mean reading performance at the system level. High-performing countries and economies tended to have more school computers (those available to 15-year-olds for educational purposes) that are connected to the Internet. This positive relationship is observed, even after accounting for per capita GDP, across all participating countries and economies. Differences in Internet connectivity accounted for as much as 57% of the differences in mean reading performance across all participating countries and economies in PISA 2018. In addition, schools’ Internet bandwidth or speed was positively correlated to mean reading performance, and to equity in reading performance, across all participating countries and economies, before and after accounting for per capita GDP.
But access to adequate hardware is just one component of digital learning; teachers need to know how to use technology to enhance their instruction. PISA 2018 found that a school’s capacity to enhance teaching and learning using digital devices is greater in socio-economically advantaged schools than disadvantaged schools. On average across OECD countries, students in advantaged schools were more likely to attend a school whose principal agreed that the school’s capacity for using digital devices is sufficient.
Students attending schools with a greater capacity to enhance teaching and learning using digital devices scored higher in reading, on average across OECD countries. For example, students in schools where teachers have the necessary technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices in instruction scored 5 points higher than students in schools where teachers did not have these skills, although this difference was not statistically significant after accounting for socio-economic status.
Having the right software for learning was also related to reading performance. Some 34% of the variation in mean reading performance across all countries/economies could be accounted for by differences in the availability of adequate software.
It is important, too, for schools to clarify how computers are to be used in their classrooms. Doing so can provide a blueprint for teachers as they design lessons that may include web-based material. Across all participating countries and economies, school systems with a higher percentage of students in schools whose principals reported that their school has its own written statement about the use of digital devices generally showed higher mean performance in reading, mathematics and science.
At the system level, both the absolute level of and disparities in digital resources are associated with countries’/economies’ performance and degree of equity in education, as shown in the Box. Providing all schools, including disadvantaged schools, with greater access to digital devices and guidelines for using them appropriately would be crucial for both performance and equity.
How equitably are digital resources distributed?
An effective online learning platform – especially when remote learning becomes education’s lifeline – has become a must-have if countries are to make good use of whatever computer hardware they make available to their students. On average across OECD countries in 2018, just about half of 15-year-olds were enrolled in schools whose principal reported that an effective online learning support platform is available. Again, there were large variations within and across countries, especially related to schools’ socio-economic profile. Across OECD countries, on average, 58.8% of students in advantaged schools attended a school whose principal reported that the school has an effective online learning platform (Germany: 38%, USA: 74%), while only 48.8% of students in disadvantaged schools attended such a school (Germany: 30%, USA: 72%). In the four Chinese provinces that participated in PISA 2018, Denmark and Singapore, 9 out of 10 students were enrolled in schools that have an effective online learning support platform; in Argentina, Belarus, Costa Rica, Japan, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Morocco, the Republic of North Macedonia, Panama and Peru, less than 30% of students were enrolled in such a school.
Across OECD countries, about 15% of the difference in equity in reading performance could be accounted for by the percentage of students in schools whose principal agreed or strongly agreed that "an effective online learning support platform is available”. The correlation was weaker, but statistically significant, across all countries/economies. Across all participating countries and economies, having an effective online platform was also associated with better performance at the system level.
Can schools compensate for disadvantage at home?
In many countries, disadvantaged students often do not have a quiet place to study at home. This makes it even more important that schools provide such a space for their students. It is an investment that pays off in student outcomes – at both the school and system levels. PISA 2018 found that in 20 countries and economies, attending a school that provides space where students can do their homework is associated with higher scores in reading, after accounting for the socio-economic profile of students and schools. Students who have access to a room at school for doing homework scored 14 points higher in reading than students without access to such a room at school, on average across OECD countries; after accounting for socio-economic status, they scored 4 points higher.
Across all countries and economies, and after accounting for per capita GDP, there was a strong correlation between the share of students who have access to a room at school for doing homework and mean performance in reading, mathematics and science. Across OECD countries, the correlations were weaker, but they were also statistically significant in the three core subjects, after accounting for per capita GDP.
But the share of students in disadvantaged schools whose school provides a room for homework was about 7 percentage points smaller than the share of students in advantaged schools whose school provides such a space, on average. This indicates that the students who could benefit the most from this precious resource – a space dedicated to quiet study – are less likely to have access to it.
The bottom line
Digital technology holds great promise to provide learners with access to high quality learning. However, most education systems need to pay close attention that technology will not further amplify existing inequalities in access and quality of learning. This is not just a matter of providing access to technology and open learning resources, but will also require maintaining effective social relationships between families, teachers and students, particularly for those students who lack the resilience, learning strategies or engagement to learn on their own. Technology can amplify the work of great teachers, but it will not replace teachers.
This article is part of our dossier "Digital classrooms - Transatlantic perspectives on lessons from the pandemic".