Technology in education – friend or foe?

I’m currently reading ‘10 things that schools get wrong’ by Dr Jared Cooney Horvath and David Bott and, as it promised, it’s making me think. A book with such a title isn’t one I’d normally consider but I was fortunate to hear both of them speak during my year in the Teaching Excellence Program and I valued their knowledge, ideas and perspectives enough to give it a try.

It is their chapter on computers in education that has given me the most food for thought, as illustrated through this quote:

In the end, it’s been roundly demonstrated that computers, by and large, hinder learning. Once arguments for ptential, ubiquity, and intention are abandoned, and computers are considered for what they are (rather than what we desire them to be), it becomes questionable whether or not digital technologies should continue to play such a large role in education.

This is a debate I am well invested in, albeit on the technology side. I have a Master of Education (Information Technologies). I spent several years teaching ICT and then coaching others in its use in the classroom. I am in charge of my current school’s digital technologies program and purchases. So how does this idea, that technology is not only not helpful but actually a hinderance, sit with me?

It’s a challenging one. I can absolutely appreciate the validity of the arguments the authors raised particularly the big one – for young people (and actually, many adults as well) the primary function of technology is entertainment so attempting to change this to a learning focus (and expecting it to easily translate) is far from ideal. Technology provides an endless menu of distractions. Even as I’m writing this blog post, there are other tabs in my browser tempting me and my attention does flit from time to time. And that’s on a task that was self-initiated.

While I found myself agreeing generally with points they raised and questioning what this different stance might look like in my teaching context, my mind drifted to my own classroom. I currently have 1:1 ipads in my Prep/1 classroom. We use them most days but in short bursts – the 1:1 really allows ease of management rather than implying that they’re a dominant learning tool. How do we use them?

  • Practise with feedback
    Probably the most frequent use is in tools that allow the students to practise some skill we’ve been working on with feedback when I can’t work with them. Apps like Reading Eggs/Mathseeds can be set with specific tasks/learning areas to focus on and tell them when they’re right or wrong. Yes we can (and often do) practise these skills offline in other ways – small group games, individual practise however the technology adds a dose of feedback that the others often lack.
  • Differentiate tasks
    Every student in my class needs slightly different things when it comes to learning. For example, they might be working on different common spelling patterns, different strategies in addition, different levels in reading. With the tools I have available, I have the ability to set tasks for students to practise that allow for these differences and give them time to practise what they are working on. I can and do this in a non-digital way, of course, however there are benefits to being able to sometimes offer this through the iPad.
  • Document and share our learning
    We used to have physical portfolios of learning which were a lot of work (mostly for me). We now have a digital portfolio in the form of Seesaw on which students and teachers post their learning regularly. This benefits students in being able to see and share their progression and lets parents have a small window into classroom life and their child’s day to day learning. We could absolutely do this in a non-digital form but it’s easier to do it digitally.
  • Assessment
    This isn’t a daily technology use but we do use them periodically to support assessment with students completing online, adaptive tests that provide us with both individual and whole school data to inform our teaching. Again, we could (and do) assess offline however conducting these particular assessments digitally gives me information more quickly, using much less of my time in marking and delivering them.

One of their points in the book is that some argue that teachers don’t know how to use technology effectively – their counter argument was that teachers are using it the way it is natural to use it, rather than how those involved in educational technology intended them to. They go on to point out that the OECD state that technology is linked to improved performance where the tool is used to increase study time and practise. From my perspective, that’s exactly what I’m aiming for the tool to do in my classroom. I have watched other teachers use the tools really well and not well at all and often wonder why the difference. Surely that’s the question to ask and dig into – where teachers are using technology effectively, does it make a difference to student learning outcomes? And, if so, what factors help a teacher to use it effectively?

I’m not sure where I go from here. I feel like the ways I use technology work for me and my students and reading this chapter hasn’t changed that but has encouraged me to pause and really check how and why I use it. Does technology help my students’ learning outcomes? Without conducting formal experiments (which I’m obviously not going to do), it’s impossible to tell what part the tasks completed using technology is contributing. There are also going to be differences between students for a whole number of reasons and it is bound to be more helpful for some than others. I don’t at all see it as a panacea and never have – it’s a tool and is only ever going to be as good as how you use it. I completely agree with the authors in that just the existence of or number of devices in a classroom won’t magically improve learning. Having 1-1 devices really is just a management thing – so much easier to tell the students to ‘grab your iPad’ rather than have to negotiate the hassles of a shared bank but is that worth the ongoing budget that fuels it? That’s a bigger question I’ll have to grapple with.

It’s a bit of a big picture vs little picture conundrum that is the heart of the issue for me – one of the key reasons I use technology in my classroom is because it makes life easier. There are many things we can do without it but, if I’ve chosen to use it, it’s because it’s easier with it. I don’t necessarily believe the fact that it plugs in makes it any more beneficial for learning than pencil and paper. I also haven’t seen that it’s less beneficial and will certainly be delving deeper into the studies mentioned to think about the conditions under which this can happen. The reality is that in teaching in the current climate – catering for differing learning needs and targets, managing diverse behaviours and increasing parental and societal expectations – technological tools can sometimes help the day run smoother and with less stress. My focus is always on maximum student learning across all domains and technological tools may not be more powerful than pencil and paper but are, sometimes, much easier. As long as we’re not lessening potential student outcomes, teacher wellbeing outcomes are important to consider in the equation as well.

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Published by Gill

Primary teacher and student of everything techy, self confessed mac-geek, infrequent blogger, slow but happy runner, citizen of the planet. Opinions are my own, please don't hold them against me :)

3 thoughts on “Technology in education – friend or foe?

  1. I find this such an intriguing topic Gill, especially in a post-COVID world. Your discussion of technology and distractions has me thinking about the challenge to justify the impact many years ago. I feel that the biggest challenge is actually being mindful about the choices, too often if feels like choices are made out of convenience, rather than some deliberate consideration.

    1. Absolutely – being mindful is key. When it’s the right tool, use it. Unfortunately, to be able to do that, we need to invest a lot of $$ into it which then adds pressure to use it more often. A difficult balance to strike!

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