Ending the digital myth about electronic devices in classrooms

Should children be left to their own electronic devices in the classroom? No, says Tom Butler, who argues against the myth that the wholesale application of computers is beneficial to students

Across the country, children appear to be left literally to their own devices

THE use of smartphones, tablets and computers by children is highlighting like never before the generation gap that exits in the Digital Age.

Parents are struggling to keep pace with and manage the use of information and communications technology (ICT) by teenagers. This was noted by teachers and school principals at Féilte, the Festival of Education in Learning and Teaching Excellence, which took place earlier this month in Dublin.

Teachers’ concerns focused on parents’ lack of understanding and control of screen use by their children. This is particularly important at a time when educators are augmenting or completely replacing traditional approaches to teaching and learning using iPads, tablets, and notebooks — all without a shred of scientific evidence for improvement in learning outcomes using ICT.

In most homes across the country, children appear to be left literally to their own devices — be it smartphone, iPad or computer — with potentially disastrous consequences for their education, physical and mental wellbeing, and future life chances.

Utopian myths on ICT in education are sustained by the general lack of understanding of ICT and its capabilities, something which smartphone, tablet and computer manufacturers, and educational technology developers are taking wholesale advantage of in promoting their products.

The victims here are, ultimately, children, with naive politicians, policy makers, teachers, and parents the enthusiastic and unquestioning cheerleaders for untried, untested, unproven, and predominantly unscientific, solutions to problems that ICT is helping to create in the first instance.

It took the dotcom collapse over 15 years ago for business to begin to wise up to the unrealistic claims being made for ICT by the industry, and many more years before they began to see a return on the billions of dollars spent on often ineffective ICT-based information systems, many of which were abandoned.

Knowledge and learning management systems exhibited the greatest rates of information systems failure here, which should give educators pause for thought. Research in business information systems has contributed to the solution of the problems of ICT failures in business — hopefully it can do likewise in education.

While things are much improved today, it must be acknowledged that ICT problems and failures are the norm, rather than the exception. The use of ICT in education will go the same way as ICT in business, with success elusive, failure the norm, and with children and parents bearing the cost and the consequences of failed educational experiments.

It is over 14 years since Oversold and Underused was published by Prof Larry Cuban of Stanford University. Yet scientific research continues to find that ICT use in education does not improve learning outcomes for students at any level. Worse still, the recent OECD report found that increased levels of ICT use in the classroom and the home had a negative effect on student learning outcomes. Mature adult learners (such as teachers taking Hibernia Diploma courses and executives doing MBAs), and those suffering certain disabilities, appear to be the only ones to benefit from ICT in the classroom.

Still, the myth that the wholesale application of ICT in education is actually beneficial for students persists — a myth that is currently reinforced by the Government’s recent digital strategy for schools. The thrust of this well-intentioned political tinkering is to foster the development of 21st-century skills in students — which is itself a myth.

I know from my engagements with industry, that employers would prefer students to have basic 20th-century skills of reading, writing, numeracy, problem solving, coupled with the rare skill of being able to stay on-task — such skills it is claimed are sorely lacking in today’s university graduates.

Many of my peers at universities nationally and internationally also bemoan the absence of such capabilities in otherwise intelligent students entering third level. They argue that the source of such problems is under-resourcing at first and second level schools. As with the expensive unsuccessful application of ICT to solve business problems, the unthinking application of ICT in education will simply exacerbate rather than solve enduring deficiencies in primary and secondary education. The scientific explanations for why this state of affairs exist are found in research studies from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, among others.

I will briefly summarize research from scientific studies across several disciplines that highlight the direct and indirect negative effects of ICT use on human cognition, learning, and behaviour which impairs learning among children and teenagers.

Scientific research studies have proven unequivocally that:

  • ICT screens lead to sleep disruption and deprivation, which impacts on learning, and is associated with obesity, and other physical disorders, such as computer vision syndrome;
  • Computer use in class disrupts the learning process and impairs learning outcomes for users and non-users alike;
  • Learning with books and paper is superior to learning with e-books. Practical proof for this finding is that Waterstones is abandoning the Kindle Reader as sales of e-books have fallen dramatically. Furthermore, Nielsen Book Research found that 75% of readers prefer printed books, while 35% refuse to read e-books;
  • Taking notes with pen and paper, as opposed to touch typing notes in class, leads to better learning outcomes;
  • Smartphone, iPad, and laptop use in class results in student distraction and multitasking, which, impair learning and lead to neural addiction problems, such as internet addiction disorder and other psychological maladies;
  • There are islands of success in an ocean of failure when it comes to ICT and educational technologies, with researchers arguing that there is little evidence to support the proposition that ICT and/or EdTech improve pedagogy or learning outcomes.

None of these issues are recognised by policy makers, educators or parents when considering the application of ICT in children’s education.

I have come to the conclusion that many of the current approaches to the application of ICT in the classroom and the home are, in fact, counterproductive to the development of 21st-century skills in children and teenagers.

There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the overuse of ICT across society is not making young people smarter, it merely creating that illusion and perpetuating existing myths.

Rather, the unthinking use of ICT in social and educational contexts is denying the majority of children and teenagers the basic skills and competencies required for deep analytic thought, drawing basic inference, and systematic problem solving, all of which foster innovation and success in life.

The world of our children as digital natives is the not world of boundless knowledge and deep understanding, rather it is as Nicholas Carr argues, “the shallows”: A world where shallow reading, shallow thinking, shallow understanding, and shallow skills are widespread. Many digital natives will therefore end up as worker bees rather than architects of their future.

As a professor in business information systems and chief researcher in one of Ireland’s technology centres, which is conducting R&D on innovative next generation semantic technologies, I am more than familiar with what is required to be successful in business and science in the 21st century.

So are the CEOs and senior executives of ICT companies in Silicon Valley. Many send their children to internet and ICT-free Waldorf primary and secondary schools. Why? Because they understand the paradox that at primary school, and to a lesser extent at secondary school, an ICT infused education is counterproductive to the development of the building blocks of 21st century business and ICT skills.

They correctly argue that the development of basic social, literacy, numeracy, interpersonal, group, and creativity skills are vital for human development and can only be nurtured in particular ICT-free learning environments. They also see ICT having a negative influence on the development of the personal capabilities required for innovation.

Much like the executives in tobacco companies who knew of the cancer causing properties of cigarette smoking, the CEOs of technology companies are aware that ICT such as smartphones and iPads have been scientifically proven to cause distraction, lead to dysfunctional multitasking, enable shallow information processing, and, ultimately, impair deep understanding.

That is one of the reasons why ICT does not have a place the curricula of Waldorf primary schools. It is, however, employed as a supplemental tool for information access and gathering in secondary level Waldorf schools.

However, before they enter high school, Waldorf teachers will have ensured that students are suitably prepared and enabled to develop the type of critical skills required to use ICT mindfully, remain focused and on-task, and approach problem solving and their education in a mature, committed, and focused manner. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so to speak. 94% of Waldorf school graduates go on to study at the top universities in the US, way above the national average.

Yet while ICT has not been scientifically proven to produce better learning outcomes, as an information scientist I believe that it does have a role to play in the classroom. ICT can enable teachers to explain complex subjects to students as part of a scaffolding approach to making students self-reliant and more successful in their education at primary and secondary level.

However, employing more primary teachers and reducing class sizes will undoubtedly produce superior results in applying such approaches, with or without ICT. It is also evident that in certain contexts, scientifically designed and tested Educational Technologies could help students explore and understand the complex digital and analogue world they live in.

However, based on the strong findings of extant research, I think it unwise at this time to provide iPads or computers to second-level students on an individual level, and absolutely not at all to primary school students.

Furthermore, given the findings of research across the sciences, children or teenagers should not be studying textbooks from screens either during the day, or especially at night. In the Age of the Smart Machine, they still need to write, and not type, in order to pre-process concepts and then lay them down efficiently and effectively in memory. Children and teenagers also need adequate sleep to consolidate memories — and ICT is known to interfere in this process.

The Digital Age holds out much promise for our children to be architects of their destinies; however, the ICT-strewn rabbit-hole that parents and the educational system have fallen into will ensure that the majority will end up as worker bees.

Dr Tom Butler is professor of business information systems at University College Cork

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