OECD Observer
Digital learning in schools

Schools are places of learning and producing the innovators of tomorrow. But did you know that in most OECD countries, schools lag behind workplaces and homes in the adoption of information and communication technology (ICT) tools?

The good news is that digital devices are becoming more commonplace in schools. In 2012, more than nine out of ten 15-year-old students in Australia and Denmark used computers at school at least on a weekly basis. So did 57% of students, on average, across the 29 OECD countries with available data, an increase by 4 percentage points since 2009.

Yet in the past, greater use of computers at school often did not translate into better learning. There is no positive association, for instance, between the extent to which computers are used at school and students’ performance in mathematics, according to OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). And in Japan,Korea, Shanghai-China and Singapore, whose students’ topped PISA rankings in 2012, use of computers at school is below the OECD average.

So what are the benefits of learning with digital tools?

ICT tools have the potential to improve education and teaching in several ways. The widespread presence of ICT to perform everyday productive and leisure activities creates a demand for specific skills and knowledge related to their use–and possibly reduces the importance of some of the skills that schools have traditionally taught. Schools can also play an important role in promoting responsible uses of the internet and raising awareness on new threats, as reminded in an OECD council recommendation (The Protection of Children Online, February 2012). And finally, even without adding new missions to schools, existing practices may be enhanced by the possibilities afforded by ICT tools, making the learners’ experience more engaging and fostering deep learning.

However, as in traditional class settings, the role of the teacher is as crucial as ever. Great teachers often get better results when using technology; poor teachers, unfortunately, cannot be replaced by technology.

Indeed, teachers must ensure that the conditions which promote deep learning are met in the digital classroom as well as in the traditional classroom. New devices may help teachers create these conditions, but the principles of effective learning are the same whether computers are involved or not: our human brain, after all, is the same, even when a screen is placed in front of our eyes. In any situation, learning requires time and practice, is most rapid when driven by the learners’ needs, and can be effectively supported by social interactions.

Digital learning is effective when the new tools are used to extend study time and practice, such as when we practise a foreign language with an online partner, but often digital tools encourage multi-tasking, which harms learning. Digital tools can also help students assume control over the learning situation, e.g. by individualising the pace with which new material is introduced, or by providing immediate feedback on how well they are learning. Furthermore, new devices can support collaborative learning, which is a powerful learning situation, by having students “teach” to each other new concepts that they have learned, and interact with other students and teachers in different countries.

Unfortunately, past experiences with ICT in schools show that mere access to ICT did not always translate into good use of the tools. Teachers often received little support to integrate the new tools into their practice. After several decades of ICT programmes in education, it is now clear that giving students access to digital devices and connecting all schools to the internet, while expensive, is the easier part of the equation. Key to improving students’ outcomes is a concerted strategy that includes developing better learning materials, attracting good teachers in the profession, encouraging teachers’ own learning and professional growth, and improving our ability to measure what students have learned–all efforts that require significant resources and the ability to plan in the long term.

Still, despite these challenges, there is no doubt that technology is transforming education. Today, digital literacy–which includes the ability to understand and interact with everyday ICT tools–is officially part of the core curriculum in countries such as France and Norway. Estonia has led the way in introducing coding–the writing of machine instructions in a programming language–in primary and secondary classes, and is now being followed by many other countries, including England and Italy. Australia has included ICT literacy among the domains on which the quality of its school system is assessed, through its National Assessment Programme.

The OECD takes this advent of technology seriously too: in 2015, PISA will assess students entirely on screen–opening up a range of new possibilities for measuring what students can create and truly achieve, not just in virtual environments, but in the real world, too.


OECD (2014), PISA 2012 Data Set (database), http://pisa2012.acer.edu.au/downloads.php [version: 22 June 2014].

OECD (2012), “The Protection of Children Online”, Recommendation of the OECD Council, OECD, Paris, http://www.oecd.org/sti/ieconomy/childrenonline_with_cover.pdf.

OECD (2011), PISA 2009 Data Set (database) December, http://pisa2009.acer.edu.au/downloads.php. [version: 11 December 2011].

©OECD Observer No 301, Q4 2014

See also:

OECD Directorate for Education and Skills