What can the PISA 2018 scores tell us about digital natives?

Posted on 07-12-2019

Every three years, the OECD’s PISA tests report on student performance in maths, reading and science in dozens of countries. They also choose one subject in particular to focus on in more detail. This year it was the turn of reading, the first time it had had this extra attention since 2009.

As the PISA report acknowledges, a lot has happened to the world since 2009. A great deal of the reading done by children and adults nowadays is online, and there are also greater concerns around fake news. PISA 2018 has responded to these changes by introducing a lot more computer-based reading tasks that are designed to ‘make use of the affordances of computer-based testing and that reflect the new situations in which students apply their reading skills in real life.’ Back in 2009, there were some ‘electronic reading tasks’, as they were termed then, but they were optional. (There were also computer-based tasks in 2015, but they were not new ones that had been specifically developed for computers).

These types of tasks allow us to investigate the hypothesis of the ‘digital native’, which is that young people are particularly skilled at navigating online environments because they have grown up using them.

Students did not perform particularly well on the 2009 electronic reading tasks. One task required students to look at the first ten items of an internet search for ice cream and answer the following question: You want to know if ice cream can be part of a healthy diet. Which search result is most likely to give accurate advice?  Only the first four search items were displayed, with students having to scroll down to read the rest.

Only one third of students got this question right.

In a paper on this task and the others from this assessment, two researchers concluded that:

‘Most 15-year-olds students do not know how to begin evaluating material they encounter on the internet. There is ample evidence that a majority of students consider it first in terms of relevance or interest, rather than looking at the reliability of its source.’

Still, the 2009 tasks were optional, and 2009 was a long time ago. Students today spend a lot more time on the internet. The current PISA survey actually has data on this, showing the change in time spent on the internet from 2012 to today. On average, across the OECD countries, students spend

  • 46 minutes more on the internet in school each school day
  • 67 minutes more on the internet at home each school day
  • 73 minutes more on the internet at home each weekend day

Obviously ‘time spent on the internet’ is a category that can cover a lot of things, but perhaps this extra time online has led to an improvement in students’ online reading abilities.

However, the results show that on many of the skills PISA deem most relevant to modern online reading, students did not do that well. In their own words, ‘fewer than 1 in 10 students in OECD countries was able to distinguish between fact and opinion’. Not only that, but many of the new questions involve integrating information from more than one text, and teasing out the conflicts and disagreements within them. Again, students did not do particularly well on these tasks.

An example of one of the tasks will demonstrate this. Students were given three online texts about the island of Rapa Nui, and then asked to identify the differences in the authors’ viewpoints. They could click back and forward between the three articles, as follows.

Although PISA have not yet released the question level analysis, they have said that getting this question right corresponds to a level 5, which only 8.7% of students achieve on average. (Incidentally, this question is also an example of how a closed selected-response question can still be very challenging).

It may well be that these are just particularly challenging tasks that both students and adults would struggle with. And questions remain about whether digital tasks like this are the right way to assess reading, and what it means for how we should teach it, too. I’ll explore what else the PISA data tells us about this in a subsequent blog.

The impact of technology on education is also the topic of my new book, Teachers vs. Tech, which will be published by Oxford University Press next year. You can sign up to my mailing list here for more updates about it.

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