School & District Management

International Study Finds Major Inequities in Computer Literacy

By Alyson Klein — November 05, 2019 3 min read
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Having access to a computer or tablet doesn’t necessarily make students computer literate, according to a study released Tuesday that looked at computer literacy rates across a dozen countries.

The study also found greater variation in achievement levels within each nation than it found between countries, said Dirk Hastedt, the executive director of the by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which released the analysis. That points to a major equity issue, he explained.

For instance, students in the 95th percentile when it comes to computer literacy skills in one of the highest-scoring countries who participated in the study, South Korea scored an average of 682 on the assessment. (The scale was 1 to 700.)

That’s only 118 points higher than those in one of the lowest scoring countries, Kazakshstan. But it’s a whopping 312 points higher than the lowest 5 percent of students in South Korea.

On average, students of higher socio-economic status, as measured by family conditions such as parental occupation and education, and the number of books in the home, had significantly higher computer literacy scores.

For instance, students who reported that their parents had a bachelor’s degree or higher scored an average of 518. Those whose parents did not hold a bachelor’s degree scored an average of 487. And those who reported having a parent with high occupational status scored an average of 522, compared to 485 for those with parents of low-to-medium occupational status.

The countries and states that participated in the study include Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Luxembourg, Portugal, Uruguay, and the United States. Other parts of those countries—including Moscow in the Russia Federation and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, joined so they could benchmark their results against other nations. The U.S did not meet the participation threshold for the study, so its results aren’t as considered as comparable.

Middling Performance From U.S. Students

Denmark and South Korea were the top performaers on the assessment. The United States scored in the middle of the pack. Researchers conducted a 40-minute assessment for a sample group of students, and a background questionnaire for teachers, principals, and technical coordinators. The IEA assessed more than 46,000 students, 26,000 teachers, and 2,200 schools in 14 countries and territories for the study.

In evaluating students’ computer literacy, the study considered students’ ability to do things like edit digital photographs, create a database using Microsoft or Access, write or edit text for a school assignment, search for relevant information for a school project on the internet, creating a multimedia presentation, or judge whether you can trust information you find on the internet.

The study found that if a student doesn’t learn such skills at home, it’s unlikely that their teacher will be able to fill in the gaps, Hastedt said.

“Certain things you need to know in today’s world are not taught in school,” Hastedt said. “Teachers think students already know it, and this is not true.”

What’s more, teachers themselves may not be proficient at some computer-literacy skills. While 95 percent of teachers said they were comfortable using the internet to find resources, just 57 percent said they were confident in using digital tools for online collaboration.

“Teachers don’t feel self-confident in using computers,” Hastedt said. “We make sure that there are devices in schools but we don’t necessarily make sure that the teachers” understand how to help students learn to use them effectively. In part it’s a generational issue, he added. The study saw a huge difference between younger teachers—defined as those younger than 40 and older teachers when it comes to how comfortable educators were in helping students learn to use devices.

“There’s a clear need to get all of our teachers up-to-speed,” Hastedt said.

Strong Showing for Girls

And overall, girls outperformed boys on computer literacy skills. They scored an average of 505, compared with 498 for boys. That tracks with the results of the National Assessment for Educational Progress in Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL), which also found girls significantly outpacing boys. It’s also consistent with the last time the study was conducted, in 2013.

“Most people think boys are better in computers and tech, but this is not what we found,” Hastedt said. “It’s actually the girls who do better.”

The biggest surprise of the report? Not much has changed since the last survey in 2013.

“Computers are used in very old fashioned ways,” Hastedt said. “Basic computer literacy skills are not taught to all students.”

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.

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