Need we be alarmed?

Yet another ‘disturbing’ (sic) report released pointing to the negative impact of technology on the learning of young people. The report published by Cranfield School of Management (UK) concludes that technology addiction amongst teenagers is having a disruptive effect on their learning.

Now I have to confess that I have not actually read the full report – just the BBC news item and a couple of other references to it, however, if the quality of this reporting is anything to judge the actual research by, we have a problem!

The report summarises the (not surprisingly IMHO) high levels of use by young people of a variety of technologies, before drawing some conclusions from what the researchers found. Some of the key findings reported are listed below, with my commentary in italics…

  • The study of 267 pupils aged 11 to 18 found 63% felt addicted to the internet and 53% to their mobile phones. This appears to be a self-reported statistic, and has interestingly been used to inform the title of the report. I’m keen to know how they define addiction? What are the indicators the young people used to respond to – or was it simply a feeling they had?
  • Just over one in five (20.2%) said they left the phone on in lessons – which is usually forbidden by schools. Should this statistic be a surprise – and what of the ‘forbidden by schools’? Does this represent a bias in the way mobile phones are regarded in a school setting? What’s wrong with having a mobile left on in class – provided the appropriate courtesies are observed about sound off and avoiding distracting behaviour etc.?
  • They can’t get motivated to read for a long period of time. I’d agree – there’s plenty of emerging evidence to suggest we are facing a problem in the development of surface vs. deep reading – but the concept of motivation needs exploring further. Is what is being read simply the class text for a subject, or something chose by the student etc.?
  • On plagiarism: For their homework, instead of reading the book, [young people] go on the internet and lift it, rather than reading it and understanding it and putting it in their own words. I remember this was the approach I took to many essays and assignments I had to write – long before computers were invented. I initially thought the photocopier was the greatest thing to come along when I didn’t have to write out all the stuff long hand, and then came computers and the internet! The problem here isn’t the technology used to access and re-produce content – the problem is about the activity that has been set, the parameters of assessment, and the development of skills and understandings that enable students to know and act on the appropriate ways of referencing other people’s work.
  • On text messaging: [young people] have invented a new language. This kind of abbreviation they unconsciously bring into their assignments. So they will have difficulty communicating with others and making themselves understood. Of course, language should evolve but maybe not so quickly. Sorry folks – we’re not going to slow down this pace of change – we have to learn how best to assimilate these developments, and equip ourselves and our students with strategies for making appropriate choices about the style of language they use and in what context etc. We already do this with formal/informal writing distinctions etc. After all, a key part of what we are constantly doing in the education process is making what is implicit (‘unconscious’) explicit (‘conscious’) isn’t it?

I re-iterate, I haven’t read the report – so I don’t want to cast judgement on the researchers at Cranfield, however, we certainly need to do a far better job of reporting the research if this is the case, as the alarmist language used in these releases distracts from where the real thinking needs to be devoted. It’s useful to have updates (albeit from small-ish samples) suggesting what the current rates of technology uses are – but let’s think more critically when we interpret these sorts of findings so that we are better positioned to act in a positive and pro-active manner in our schools and classrooms.

11 thoughts on “Need we be alarmed?

  1. While having not read the report you have made some appropriate observations here Derek. Is the question here: Are students learning needs so different from our own that they need to be protected from technology so that they learn and develop to their potential? My gut feeling is no but we have some work to do to ensure this is not the case. We do know they are supposed to be governed more by their amygdala, a brain structure, linked with a person’s mental and emotional state. Should we be thinking more about what we a trying to get them to learn at this time? A statement like Technology addiction is having a disruptive effect on teenagers learning is a bit like saying “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”. This study appears to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. We are still developing as digital practitioners and as such we are still learning to make technology addiction beneficial to student learning. Is technology addiction as part of a good learning programme a bad thing? If we met someone from the 1900’s we would like see them as mentally disabled. When we look back at ourselves in 30 years time will we appear this way also. I believe I am becoming more literate, articulate and capable in many spheres through my use of technology. I have to work hard to make sure I have real actions and a physical life not just a digital one. For students I see this as a central personal learning task. There are huge boulders in the river downstream for sure: but unless we can get students to learn with technology I think we will struggle to kayak past them.

  2. I agree with Dave, “unless we can get students to learn with technology I think we will struggle to kayak past them.” We have to get into their world! One of my three teenagers is practically wired in technology. Ipod in her ears, cell phone in each hand, and multi tasking on her laptop, social networking,as well as researching, while doing her homework. I might add, the t.v is also sometimes on! She loathes completing her wider reading responses, but recently sat down to read the last Harry Potter book in three days! (despite the fact that this book was not one on the school list of books to read) I don’t think technology has prevented her from learning to read. If anything, she has been reading to learn. She is teaching me! We have to find what makes the learner tick, provide meaningful content from “their world” and allow them to use all technology available to them to do so. Too often I hear from her that school is boring and feel sad that we are turning our kids off learning! There is a lot of flashy IT gear out there,but if we just take a moment to watch the kids using their choice of technology and ask ourselves how we might be able to use it to improve teaching and learning …we will have self motivated learners!

  3. To my mind the issues isn’t what technology we use or don’t use in teaching, but rather how we engage students & motivate them. Having just watched one of my children waste the last 3 years at school because no teachers have looked at him as a person & how he learns, I feel it’s time we got back to basics.

  4. Kids are “addicted to technology”, 700,000 preditors on the net at any given time, 671% increase in malicious sites, lives ruined by cyberbullying. Just another day of technology stories on my news feed. Some research from Europe showed the internet was negatively reported on 7 times for every positive report. Is that a fair representation of the impact of the internet? Not at all. Its just a reflection of how the media works. However, that’s what people see. Its no wonder schools struggle to convince their communities of the need to invest in more technology when the community sees technology through the eyes of the media.
    As for this “research”. Self describing addiction? Its not credible. For the young its cool to be “addicted” to your phone or computer. Its not addiction as its being reported.

  5. 63% felt addicted to the internet and 53% to their mobile phones:
    – the most interesting thing about this is that it’s that way around. I’d have expected phones to come out on top – but of course ‘feeling addicted’ is different from frequency of use.
    They can’t get motivated to read for a long period of time:
    – Is that a technology issue? Maybe it has as much to do with the way we have taught basic reading skills over the past decade or so (whole language, decoding skills, increasing numbers of dyslexic students (i.e. students whose learning needs havent been met) etc)?
    On plagiarism:
    – some interesting issues to be explored on the relationship between plagiarism and co-construction.
    [young people] have invented a new language… So they will have difficulty communicating with others and making themselves understood.
    – No, they don’t have any problem at all. It’s us old fuddy-duddies that have the problem. Texters will inherit the earth!

  6. Their report concluded that modern gadgets worsened pupils’ spelling and concentration, encouraged plagiarism and disrupted lessons. Yet nothing was reported about the positive impact of living in a highly connected, information rich world. It is easy for us to take this research and harp back to a time gone by, but is it really a bad thing that children today can readily access vast amounts of information? Shouldn’t education be about how to use this information and the technological tools available to enhance their learning? I agree with Liz – we do have to look at what motivates the learner, provide meaningful content in “their world” and allow them to use the technology available.

  7. Dear All,
    I wish I could share the whole report with you. Then you would see that there is little point in talking about it. It was bad science and it’s reporting was bad journalism. Unfortunately the BBC don’t seem to see it that way. I’m disappointed.
    Anne Marie

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