Digital technology is heavily integrated into our education systems; schools operate on network connectivity and are heavily reliant on the internet, Journalist Jessica Willis writes.
Staff and students not only have digital devices for learning but bring personal devices like smartphones to school.
Beyond this, edutech companies continue to develop education resources with cutting edge technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
The 21st century classroom is without a doubt immersed in technology; however, it remains subject to contentious debate over how effective it is for learning.
It begs the question: is technology revolutionising the classroom or disrupting it?
Nicola Johnson is an Associate Professor of Digital Technologies and Education at Edith Cowan University.
She studies how digital technologies are used within schools by students and teachers.
Johnson talks about the practicalities and messy realities of digital devices in the classroom, a lot of which are beyond the teacher’s control.
Johnson and her colleagues recently studied how and when secondary students used digital devices they brought into classrooms.
“Most Australian students are expected to have access to a digital device for learning, whether the school provides one inclusive of school fees, or there is a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) scheme in place,” said Johnson.
“We found that more often than not, devices were being used to disengage rather than engage in learning or not being used altogether.
“Reasons for this included inconsistent software, different expectations and teaching approaches, and technical obstacles.
“This is reflected across many Australian secondary schools.
“There is a general misbelief in the community that technology automatically creates better learning outcomes,” said Johnson.
“This is not necessarily the case.”
Johnson said there is often high pressure on teachers from parents to use devices to achieve higher learning results for students.
“Parents can get really frustrated because they’ve spent a lot of money on a device and so think it’s a waste of time and money if the device isn’t being used,” Johnson said.
“So there’s pressure then placed on teachers.”
Even if students have devices there can be ongoing problems such as broken, uncharged or forgotten devices.
“If those are the realities, how is the teacher supposed to depend on using them?” Johnson asked.
“Where there’s dysfunction with devices they need to have a fall back plan (doubling workload by creating alternative lesson plans) or they won’t bother using them because there’s too much risk.
“They need to get through the curriculum and they don’t have time to fix devices, so they do something they know will work.”
Despite these experiences, Johnson says digital technology can be used successfully in classrooms.
“Technology can allow transformational learning beyond what a ‘paper and pen’ could achieve; however, there are a number of factors that contribute to how effective they can be in a learning environment.”
Impact of implementation
“If [schools] are going to incorporate digital devices, there needs to be a lot of consideration to the practicalities of it and how it’s going to be done,” said Johnson.
“Implementing consistent and realistic internal policies takes people that are not just tech enthusiasts, but people who ask ‘how is this going to work in practice?’
“There needs to be leadership within the school that promotes and supports digital devices, with ongoing professional development for teachers.
“This includes providing a network that works well – one that staff and students don’t have trouble using – internet connectivity that works well and devices that work well.
“Students need devices with the same capacity and the same software.
“Teachers need to be able say ‘I want you to open this app’ or ‘open this program’ and know that everybody can do it.
“And there also needs to be technological support.
“When something goes wrong, you need somebody there to be able to fix it.”
This shouldn’t be solely left to the teacher, Johnson says.
“Teachers are trained and paid to teach but yet they find themselves having to be able to fix [digital] issues.”
This should not come at the expense of teaching and engaging with students.
Exercising professional judgement
“What is important to remember is that great lessons should not depend on using devices and that teachers use their professional judgement of when to incorporate devices, without outside pressure,” said Johnson.
“For example, a drama, visual art or physical education lesson doesn’t need to be in front of a screen. You want those students interacting with each other and learning from each other because that’s how we learn.
“It’s that socialisation process and interactions that are important in the school setting.”
Teachers should also be wary of the commercialisation of education, especially in regard to digital technology.
Education is not a commodity that companies should be able to exploit for shareholders profit.
When it comes to ‘edutech’ companies advertising high tech solutions and advancements for student learning, it is teachers who must decide whether they belong in the classroom.