Computers in class: do they do more harm than good?

Although there is broad agreement that ignoring technology is not an option, many teachers remain unconvinced about the merits of some computer-based approaches

Do educational apps and technology represent the future of teaching and learning in the classroom?

You might expect someone such as Derek Breen, who teaches coding to children, to give an emphatic thumbs-up.

But he’s not convinced. Many applications take the worst parts of education and might lead to a reduction in language and reading skills, he believes.

“A lot of educational games are trying to take tasks that kids would do on paper or in a workbook and put them into a computer, adding little bits of animation or sound effects to make it feel like a game,” says Breen. “In reality, this is taking the worst of education, which is memorisation and drills.”


Breen, the author of Scratch for Dummies, a book that teaches the Scratch computer programme to children, says students need to learn through discovery and educational exercises. Simply inputting information into Microsoft Excel or Word is of limited value, he argues.

Coding, on the other hand – which can involve students working out the mechanism behind a music video or video game – is a far more effective way of using technology to enrich learning.

The results of an OECD report have led many people to question the growing use of technology in education. Forty-four countries took part in the survey, and the results showed there had been no improvement in performance in reading or maths in countries that invested heavily in technology in schools.

The report suggested technology was distracting from interaction between the students and the teacher and also that many teachers did not know how to teach through technology.

These findings are especially significant given the sums of money being invested in technology in the education system.

The five-year plan identifies the rollout of wireless networks within schools as “a key Government priority”.

Some €30 million is to be invested in this and other elements of the strategy next year, rising to €50 million in 2020.

Major issues

Prof Mark Brown, director of the National Institute for Digital Learning at DCU, agrees that there are major issues with how technology is delivered in the classroom.

“If we don’t invest in the people who implement it, then we are almost doomed to fail,” he says.

Steven Daly, manager of Camara Ireland, a nonprofit that teaches children about technology, agrees. "Technology isn't a silver bullet for education – it's just a tool with which to do education," he says.

“The core principles of good teaching don’t change just because the device has moved from a blackboard to a screen. You need an innovative curriculum, good pedagogy. Teachers need training and skills to deliver it.”

Ireland cannot be accused of putting too much emphasis on technology in the classroom. It rated just below average in terms of computer usage in the OECD report. Most students spent 25 minutes a day or less on computers. In the report, anything beyond this showed negative results. (This survey was taken three years ago, so the time spent on computers might well have increased.)

Computing in Clondalkin

In Coláiste Bríde in Clondalkin, transition year students have two 40-minute classes of ICT a week. On top of this, they use technology in their other subjects. There are three computer labs in the school. Interactive white boards and PowerPoint are also used.

Sarah-Jayne Carey, the ICT co-ordinator for Coláiste Bríde, says these are just a platform for learning. Traditional teaching in a classroom environment remains very important for students, she says.

Sean Gallagher, director of ICT at the Professional Development Service for Teachers, which is funded by the Department of Education, says approaches that engage and involve students are crucial.

“The challenge for us as teachers is to have active learning methods where the student is an active participant in their learning,” Gallagher says.

“If a teacher is up at a board all day then their teaching methods haven’t changed with technology if they are using PowerPoint in the same way.”

Not everyone is convinced that we need technology in the classroom.

After all, some schools in the very heart of the tech industry – Silicon Valley, California –have scrapped technology completely and reverted to pen and paper.

They argue that their approach emphasises the role of imagination in learning and integrates the intellectual, practical and creative development of pupils.

The fact that parents working for cutting-edge technology companies are questioning the value of computers in education raises a question: is the dream of high-tech classrooms really in the best interests of the next generation?

The OECD report, however, states that ignoring technology isn’t an option; it is in virtually every part of our lives. Students who are unable to use it simply won’t have the skill sets needed for the modern workplace.

Need for caution

Andreas Schleicher, who is the OECD director for education, advises that we must be cautious about our use of technology in the classroom, while at the same time we must try to embrace it.

Brown says students stand to benefit hugely if technology is harnessed in the right way by trained teachers. “If we invest our money in technology and not in teachers and training, then we are almost doomed to fail.”

Overall, he is positive about the promise of technology, not just in teaching and learning but in its potential to narrow the gap in educational participation across the social divide. “I think we are living in very exciting times . . . Technology, when used appropriately, can enrich face-to-face experiences and vice versa,” he says.

“We live in a digital world and therefore we should look at the ways we can harness technology. It is equally important to understand where we don’t want technology to be used to replace things that are already effective.”


  • Scratch: A free computer programming language that allows students from eight years of age to create interactive stories, games and animations. It can help students improve skills such as spatial awareness, problem-solving and understanding directions. It provides a stepping stone to more advanced programming such as HTML.
  • Mangahigh: An online maths-based game used by primary-school teachers. Teachers create a login and can keep track of their students' progress through reports and a grading system. It is suitable for a classroom of different abilities. More than 40,000 maths questions are asked via games, so students are kept engaged in their learning.
  • Class Dojo: An online tool that helps teachers track a students' behaviour. It acts like a conventional behaviour chart. Dojo points are awarded for positive behaviour, and parents can also log on to see their children's performance. Other functions include sending emails to parents, uploading class photographs and posting announcements. It is free to use.
  • Plickers: An app that allows teachers to poll their pupils. Each child receives a piece of card or paper clicker. They are asked a question and hold up their cards in a certain way to denote their answer. The teacher then scans the cards with the camera function on the app. It saves the data for each student and creates a poll. This is a quick process that allows all students to be assessed at the same time. It is available to download from both iTunes and Google Play for Android.