Digital distractions: What’s wrong with the debate about technology in education

Over the past couple of weeks, the ongoing debate about technology in education has returned to the headlines. Last week, the UK government announced that it was asking its ‘behaviour tsar’ Tom Bennett to review the impact of smartphones and tablet computers on children’s behaviour in lessons. Its press release mentioned an earlier study by the London School of Economics, which apparently showed that banning mobile phone use in classrooms leads to significant increases in test scores, especially among the lowest-achieving pupils.

teenagers playing with mobile phones during class. Image shot 2005. Exact date unknown....AJEKXM teenagers playing with mobile phones during class. Image shot 2005. Exact date unknown.

More fuel to the debate was provided by an OECD study that (according to newspaper headlines) showed that ‘frequent use of school computers impairs learning’; and by a large-scale Scottish study presented at the British Educational Research Association that apparently ‘strikes another blow to computer use in lessons’. Meanwhile, a further BERA paper, reported this week, showed that children’s sleep patterns were being disrupted by their use of social media at night, and that heavy users were more likely to turn up at school feeling tired.

These kinds of stories are not new. Indeed, it’s quite depressing to find that we are still having such a tiresome discussion about whether we should ‘ban’ technology from classrooms. As the former Schools Minister Jim Knight pointed out, there’s a strange echo here of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who would have banned books from the classroom. The printed word is also a form of technology – or, as I would prefer, a form of media. Teaching and learning are almost bound to use technologies or media of different kinds. The question is not whether we should (or could) ‘ban’ them. Rather, we should be asking how and why we are using them, and how we can use them most productively.

The government’s latest enquiry frames the issue in terms of ‘behaviour’. It reflects a more general tendency to think about education in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour, and in terms of ‘discipline’ or the lack of it. In the process, complex educational issues – not least, the reasons why so many children might be disengaged and inclined to ‘misbehave’ in the first place – get displaced onto a concern with discipline. And they lead to spurious solutions such as the banning of technology, or gimmicks such as the recruitment of former soldiers to teach in schools.

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I’m not saying that distraction is not an issue. However, what the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, calls ‘low-level disruption’ is by no means a new phenomenon. Well before the advent of the digital age, I can certainly recall passing notes and chucking random items of stationery around the classroom when teachers’ backs were turned. Embarrassingly, I can also recall being hauled out for reading The Catcher in the Rye hidden behind my Maths textbook (it was a long time ago…).

Of course, new digital devices such as smartphones and tablets are different in some respects. These are powerful technologies that are capable, not only of accessing vast amounts of information, but also of enabling students to communicate with others outside the classroom, and in a multi-media form. Most of us know from our own everyday experience – or from observing people hunched over smartphones on the bus or walking on city streets – that there is something compulsive about this. Industry monitoring finds that people check their smartphones an average of 50 times a day.

The Canadian author Margaret Atwood put this quite well recently: ‘Going online is addictive for the same reason that going to the post box is addictive. You keep thinking that there’s going to be an Easter egg in there just for you.’

Now, I don’t buy into metaphors of addiction (or even compulsion); but I do think that many people experience quite mundane problems in managing or controlling their own use of this technology. Psychologists would suggest that this is likely to be an even bigger problem for adolescents, who are typically seen to have difficulties with ‘impulse control’ – although again we should be careful about such sweeping claims.

story.phones  Even so, bringing such powerful devices into the classroom is bound to result in at least the potential for distraction. Simply banning them seems like the obvious solution, although it would give teachers yet another disciplinary task to perform – collecting all the phones at the start of lessons and returning them at the end, alongside checking the knots on the ties, the jewellery and the length of the skirts. If anything represents a distraction from learning, then these sorts of disciplinary rituals certainly do.

Banning smartphones and tablets would also mean denying or foregoing the potential of such devices for learning. Now I would emphatically reject grandiose and utopian claims about the impact of technology in education, or (in this case) about the liberating power of ‘mobile learning’. The OECD report and the LSE research certainly seem to give the lie to such claims. The OECD rejects the idea that increased access to technology in itself will automatically result in increased test scores – and in this respect, it is in line with many other influential reviews of the evidence, such as this report for the Education Endowment Foundation. These reports are limited by their emphasis on test scores as a measure of educational achievement. Yet when you read more closely into the OECD report, its conclusions do appear more nuanced. Most significantly, it argues that teachers need time and support if they are to learn to use technology effectively.

Indeed, the foreword to the report includes the following statement:

Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. Why should students be limited to a textbook that was printed two years ago, and maybe designed 10 years ago, when they could have access to the world’s best and most up-to-date textbook? Equally important, technology allows teachers and students to access specialised materials well beyond textbooks, in multiple formats, with little time and space constraints. Technology provides great platforms for collaboration in knowledge creation where teachers can share and enrich teaching materials. Perhaps most importantly, technology can support new pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants with tools for inquiry-based pedagogies and collaborative workspaces.

Yet this more complex message wasn’t the one that got through in the media. Once again, the debate was presented in either/or terms. Either we use technology or we don’t. Either we allow such devices, or we ban them. And, in the context of large-scale cuts to education funding, either we invest in teachers or we invest in useless technology.

The accumulated evidence from research on technology in education takes us well beyond this kind of simplistic thinking. In light of the debates of the past couple of weeks, it bears saying once more: Technology in itself is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ for education. It can be both, but its value depends upon how and why it is used. And yes, it can have a significant positive impact if it is combined with broader changes in pedagogy. Yet the central issues here are not technological ones – or indeed to do with ‘discipline’ – but to do with learning.

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When it comes to mobile devices, the potential for digital distraction is hard to deny. In the wider world, these devices are ubiquitous; and for young people, they are an absolutely fundamental resource in their leisure and in their peer group relationships. Using them educationally, in the context of classrooms, is therefore bound to be challenging. But it also represents a unique opportunity to connect these two hitherto quite distant spheres of the classroom and the wider world

The question is surely not about whether we should ban these devices, but how we manage them, and how we use them to bring about more productive – more creative and more critical – forms of learning. And in order to have that debate, we’ll need to look beyond the headlines.

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