Let’s do a little pedagogical thought experiment. Imagine a political shake up in your state, territory or country.
Government decides to impose a moratorium on the use of classroom technology for one full year as part of a study to measure the impact of digital technologies on learning outcomes.
No ipads, iphones, android devices, laptops, chromebooks, interactive whiteboards, projectors etc in the classroom.
How would we cope as teachers? Could we continue to teach? Would our effectiveness change for better or worse? Would student achievement rise, fall or remain static?
It’s an interesting area for discussion and research for teachers. Most schools embrace technology, so much so that it is almost unthinkable to teach without it.
Despite this, there are some schools where technology, if not shunned, is at least looked upon with extreme caution. Schools who adopt a Classical Education approach, teaching through the liberal arts, are more likely to fall into this camp.
And with good reason. Pope Pius XII said 60 years ago that a liberal arts education…
“…remains unequalled for the exercise and development of the most valuable qualities of the mind; penetration of judgement, broad-mindedness, finesse of analysis and gifts of expression”
Furthermore, as teachers we know that institutionalised education has been going on for a long time in classrooms: thousands of years in fact. How then did they get by? Are students a lot smarter now than they were a few decades ago; a few centuries ago?
What is clear is that technologies, especially digital technologies, can be misused by both teachers and students and can be more of a learning distraction than a learning support.
This is nothing new. Many hundreds of years ago, the invention of the printing presses meant that the production of texts became widely available and transformed how information was transmitted.
Nowadays, photocopiers and printers in schools churn out incredible amounts of material to be used in classrooms. Handouts for students, in some cases are necessary but should be used sparingly and in a most carefully selected manner.
I know of teachers; we all do, who seem to use handouts and their embodied thousands upon thousands of words as the main stay of their pedagogical practice. Often if not most of the time, I suspect, the handouts have not even been read by the teacher.
Textbooks likewise, can be incredibly expensive and an entirely unproductive waste of classroom time when shoved in front of the student, as if that combination will suddenly produce a learning reaction.
Just ahead of the handout in reams of useless information, it still doesn’t do much for getting students to know how to learn best.
Educational technologies are mostly now of the internet enabled digital interface that cost enormous amounts of money to parents and governments.
There is no doubt, someone is making some serious profit on the back of this educational fad, whether or not there is any improvement in student learning outcomes.
And there is growing pressure on parents to ensure their children have the best and most up to date technologies in school. A worrying development has been the introduction in some territories of BYOD Bring your Own Device. It might as well be Bring your Own Distraction.
Show me the Evidence
Anecdotally, some within the field of education will tell you that digital technologies bring great benefits to the classroom.
Spurious reasoning includes such bunkum as: digital technology allows teachers to personalise learning experiences; it allows instant access to knowledge; technology provides instant student engagement.
Nonsense upon stilts! If teachers cannot differentiate and modify learning experiences without devices, then they aren’t teachers.
Furthermore, students are not looking for a repository of all knowledge, they need rather a well educated teacher who facilitates their learning through showing them how to learn best with knowledge and skills that are dedicated to meeting their immediate learning needs.
Moreover, some teachers out there (willingly?) misapprehend engagement (with learning) with engrossment (with technology). I have gloomily witnessed a well stocked school library being barbarised into an Orwellian sounding ‘learning hub’ where students lounged around on bean bags (what’s so wrong with chairs?) with the latest digital devices to play games and listen to music. The library was never before so popular. They threw the books out.
Before we move on, we might as well debunk the idea that students who do not have technologies in their classroom will in some way be left behind.
Nothing can be further from the truth. The digital distractions that students are subjected to daily in their classrooms are widely embedded in society; through the home and workplaces.
Learning to use digital equipment happens informally outside the school walls. When phones and televisions were first invented, people did not go to school to learn how to use them. They learn to use them in their everyday non-schooling experiences. This is as true for using iphones as it is for making webpages.
Enough of the anecdotal defence of technology then, what about hard data?
John Hattie’s now massive data bank of teaching and learning outcomes, has been crunched into what works and what doesn’t in affecting student outcomes. He has collected about 80,000 studies; more than a quarter of a billion students, so it’s an impressive sample size. Hattie wants to find out what things have the greatest influence on student learning.
In what Hattie refers to effect sizes, he articulates that the average effect size is around 0.4. Anything above this figure has a greater than average effect on student learning, whilst anything below this figure has below average efficacy on learning outcomes.
Interesting so far. At the most effective end of the table are the things that make clear differences to student learning that can be demonstrated through improved grades at school: feedback on learning, instructional quality, classroom environment, to list some above average effects.
And what about technology?
The evidence is pretty damning. Methods that generate below average effects sizes include classrooms using audio-visual aides, instruction through computer technologies and instructional media.
In fact Hattie is clear about technology and it’s educational impact. In interview he was asked…
What steps do you think we need to take to ensure that technology is used as an effective learning tool and doesn’t become just another distraction?
Hattie was unequivocally clear in his response…
We certainly have to do something because the students are way ahead of us. Over the past 50 years there have been 134 meta-analyses on the effect of technology, and it hasn’t changed – it’s a very low effect, even though we’ve had massive changes in other areas over those 50 years. The real question is why it hasn’t had an impact.
The first thing literature tells me is that teachers are really big users of technology outside the classroom, so it’s not because they’re against it or see it is as an enemy.
The second point, and this is the most profound one, is that most technology doesn’t enhance the way they currently teach.
Thirdly, too much of the technology, given how we currently teach, is about knowledge consumption. For example we use Google now instead of an encyclopaedia. We use powerpoint and videos instead of paper mache. There’s no surprise that it hasn’t had an impact there.
What I would have liked the interviewer to ask is whether or not we need technology at all to enhance learning.
I for one don’t think so. The evidence supports this view. However we have become so immersed in digital technologies especially, that it seems unthinkable to keep them out of schools. Or that is what the manufacturers tell us.
Begging the question
The dangers mostly lies in the erroneous thinking that technology must, in some way, be able to help us. This line of thought is akin to begging the question.
There appears to be a widespread and blind acceptance that technology must work to improve educational outcomes, so we had better just find a way to make it work or find better technologies that do work.
The problem; the logical fallacy, is that this conclusion assumes as evidence the very thing it is trying to prove. In doing so any debate on whether or not education without digital technologies is suppressed.
Rather than continuing on an expensive wild-goose chase, teachers should reassess what they do in their classrooms.
The thought experiment at the beginning of this article should stimulate some healthy reflection on what we do with our students, how much we craft our pedagogy and how much time we waste on stuff that doesn’t matter or help our students.
Unless otherwise convinced, I’m fairly sure that technologies hamper and distract our efforts to enhance student learning outcomes. And the evidence supports this position.