A warning about computers in the classroom

When it comes to improving education, many have pointed to the importance of technology in the classroom. Using computers is supposed to make students more excited to learn, enable them to absorb concepts at their own pace and stay focused for longer periods.

However, that may not be the case, according to a new study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a global group with 34 member countries interested in progress and world trade. According to the OECD's results, "students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in reading, even after accounting for students' background." And difficulty in reading could also hamper advancement in mathematics and science.

The self-described "first-of-its-kind internationally comparative analysis" of digital skills and learning environments found "no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in (information and communication technology, or ICT) for education."

Availability of computers in classrooms lagged behind computer access in homes in OECD countries, according to the study. While 96 percent of 15-year-old students had a computer at home in 2012, only 72 percent had access in school. Some countries reported an in-school rate under 50 percent. Germany, Italy and Japan had only one computer for every four 15-year-old students.

But even where schools had computers, their impact on educational results were "mixed at best." Students who made moderate use of computers at school had "somewhat better learning outcomes" than those who rarely used them. But students who made heavy use of computers had worse outcomes, even considering economic and social backgrounds and demographics.

Some cases also showed that classroom technology wasn't necessary for achievement. South Korea was in the top three of mathematics and reading, yet only 42 percent of Korean students said they had used computers at school.

The study also found that technology did little in bridging the skills gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students. More effective in creating equal opportunities than pushing more technology into the classroom, said the OECD, was to ensure a "baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics."

That means the hope that computers could substitute for a lack of basic learning and fundamental skill acquisition and provide a relatively easy fix might be baseless.

Additionally, the study said students spending six or more hours on computers per weekday when out of school were at risk of feeling lonely at school, arriving late or skipping days.

The study did try to identify potential positive uses of technology, like providing the most recent version of textbooks or enabling collaborative approaches to learning.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.