Devices and learning

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

Digital devices are already an integral part of New Zealanders’ lives, and their use outside the
classroom is likely only set to increase. However, the emerging research detailing their impacts on
learning and wellbeing leads to clear recommendations for a cautious, purposeful, and well-researched approach to their use.

PISA 2018: Digital devices and student outcomes in New Zealand schools (page 18)

As someone who has spent the best part of a 40 plus career in education researching, innovating and supporting the use of digital technologies in education the recent publicity about the findings from the 2018 PISA study on digital devices and student outcomes in New Zealand schools comes as no surprise.

Firstly, because headlines like this are always given preference over any of the multitude of good news stories that are available to demonstrate the powerful impact that digital technologies can have. (Note – beyond the headline, John Gerritson does a good job of capturing a response and thoughts on what needs to be done, including interviews with students.)

Second, after decades of promoting the use of digital technologies in education, we are still wrestling with the issue of agreeing on exactly what the contribution of digital technologies can or should be to teaching and learning.

Third, after all of this effort we have little agreement either on the measures we need to have in place to provide assurance this what we set out to achieve is actually occurring – particularly with regards to any causal link between technology use and achievement.

In a response in a recent article on Stuff, Chief science adviser to the Ministry of Education, Professor Stuart McNaughton is quoted as saying there was not enough evidence to show increased screen time was to blame for falling achievement in the PISA tests and other measures. He says:

“It’s a bit of a long bow at the moment. We can’t link causally, easily, the increase in device use and use of the internet and the dropping reading achievement scores, but it is certainly possible that there is a relationship,” 

I agree. And like Stuart, I don’t discount that a relationship is possible – but perhaps not to be found in the assumptions we so easily make. The whole area is far too complicated to apportion the blame for apparent declines in achievement to just a single cause. And I’d add that there are many more reasons for us to be addressing the concerns around screen time than simply finding a correlation between that and a drop in achievement rates.

While these concerns exist, it’s not to say that there isn’t already evidence that does demonstrate a link between the use of digital devices and learning outcomes. The Manaiakalani project stands out as a good example in New Zealand. Research over several years from the same unit at Auckland University that Stuart McNaughton works in has produced a number of reports over the years providing evidence of significant improvements in literacy learning through the use of one-to-one devices.

I have, in the past, written a number of posts (listed at the end of this post) in which I’ve pondered these issues, and offered in them some thoughts on what we might be doing – as teachers, as leaders and as a system – to address some of these concerns, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead, I want to pose three questions that, in my view, require an informed response before we can seriously expect to see a positive link between technology use and improved learning outcomes:

What is the purpose?

It seems obvious, but necessary to understand the ‘why’ behind our use of digital technologies in education. Without a well informed and collaboratively agreed position on this among staff, students and the school community, it seems to me that the more frequently heard expression is ‘why not’… why we’re not using them, why kids are not allowed to have their devices switched on in classrooms etc.

In my work both in schools and at a policy level I hear several different reasons used as explanations for why we should be using digital technologies in schools. Broadly these fall into one of three categories:

  1. “It’s the way of the world” – signifying the fact that so much of our world now relies on the ability to navigate our way using digital technologies, whether that is in the form of online banking, searching for clips on YouTube or ordering our takeaways online during lockdown to give just a few examples. Few would argue that it is difficult to conceive of functioning well in the modern world without at least a certain level of digital fluency.
  2. “That’s where the jobs are” – recognising the tremendous changes that have occurred and continue to occur in the world of work. Whether it’s the push for more young people to enter careers as programmers or online designers, the challenge of working alongside robots or simply keeping track of inventory and office tasks using increasingly sophisticated online interfaces. Most modern economies around the world now recognise the need for a digitally-enabled workforce to remain viable, productive and competitive.
  3. “It’s how they learn nowadays” – the contestable claim that is open to interpretation. For some this means introducing a range of ‘tutorial’ style programmes that serve to ‘teach’ learners through engagement with learning tasks that increase in difficulty and use machine-learning algorithms to provide next steps based on performance. For others this means equipping students (and staff) with. a range of commonly used ‘productivity’ tools that allow tasks previously completed using pen, paper, texts and other analogue tools, to now be done using a variety of digital (and often online) tools. Others see the use of online tools and environments as an opportunity to access learning in ways not available to them in the current environment – think online learning, video conferencing etc. All would argue strongly that the underlying purpose is to raise achievement – although when you dig a little there can often be a confusion between the indicators used – frequently achievement becomes a euphemism for engagement it seems. (i.e. learners appear more interested and motivated when learning using technology, so therefore must. be learning.)

Whatever is driving the using of digital technologies any educational organisation, it is important that the whole staff and its community is involved in formulating an informed view on the purpose for using them, and that they formulate, use and regularly review a set of measures to help assess that these goals are in fact being met.

What is the context?

The context of every school and its community is different and needs to be considered as digital technologies are introduced. Too often I’ve seen attempts to transfer great teaching and learning ideas from one context to another, only to fail, leaving people disillusioned about the value of digital technologies in learning. It’s an easy assumption trap to fall into, but a trap all the same. A small rural school is a very different context to a large, urban secondary. A school with a high percentage of students from a particular cultural group will have different needs to another. And so on. Within each context there needs to be consideration of the needs of the learners (academically, socially, emotionally etc.) to ensure the right approaches are taken and the right protocols are in place to keep them safe in the digital environment for example.

The COVID lockdown has also taught us how significantly important it is that the context of the learner’s home is in all of this. Do they have internet access at home? Is it realistic to expect them to continue their learning out of school using digital devices? etc. If the expectation is that learners will be able to access and participate in their learning regardless of location (i.e. not always at school) then considerations need to be given to a wider range of access, provisioning and support needs than when learning simply takes place within a school environment. Solutions here will vary considerably depending on the capacity of the local community to respond.

A smaller, rural school may place a high priority on using digital technologies to bridge the gap with opportunities their counterparts in larger, urban areas might have, and so their investment may focus on digital solutions that provide distance learning opportunities, virtual field trips, and a lot of online communications integrated into their daily teaching and learning.

A school with a high percentage of students with special learning needs, perhaps as a result of a record of poor literacy or numeracy performance, or because of particularly learning difficulties, may focus investment in a range of tools and applications that support more intensive, personalised learning approaches that leverage the power of digital platforms and applications.

Another point worth noting here is the need to consider the life-time learning needs and opportunities of the learners. If the use of digital technologies is regarded as important for our young learners it shouldn’t be simply the school that plans its response. Consider the primary school student who transitions into secondary school. It’s not unreasonably to expect that there will be a strategic coherence between the two institutions, such that the experience developed in the first is recognised and built on in an intentional and developmental manner at the second. Sadly, this isn’t always the case.

What’s changing in the teaching?

A consistent message in the literature over the past 20+ years has been the need to consider changes in pedagogical approach alongside the introduction of technologies in education. We understand well enough now that the benefits we seek to realise don’t occur when technologies are used as a ‘substitute’ for traditional ways of working, or even when they are used to ‘augment’ some of these practices.

But even when there is a change in pedagogical approach, it cannot be assumed that the use of digital technologies is somehow making it better. Assuming student access to information on the internet to support a inquiry in a project-based scenario is futile without an intentional and supported process to introduce learners to the range of skills they will need to carry out the search successfully in the first place, and then to discern and distinguish between the information they are exposed to. And this is just the start. Students then need a range of different skills to engage with, manipulate and share the new thinking that emerges from their inquiry.

As noted in the key findings of the the PISA report:

Few principals felt that their teachers had the time, incentives, or technical or pedagogical skill to effectively integrate devices in instruction; however, even schools that were considered prepared had similar or worse student achievement than less prepared schools.

Here, perhaps, is where our greatest challenge lies. We need to continue working hard to ensure all educators are developing the level of digital fluency required to enable them to design learning and teach in ways that fully realise the potential of digital technologies. And we must realise this is an ever changing beast! It won’t be solved simply by changing what happens in initial teacher education, for example. Sure, that is a part of the picture.

If we are convinced that there is value in embracing the power and potential of digital technologies in education we must pursue whole-of-system change here, and quickly. Otherwise we’ll continue to see the growing disconnect between what schools provide and what the workplace requires. Between the experience of students at school and their experience in life. Between the rhetoric of education leaders and the reality of the classroom.

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