Tablets: Weapons of mass distraction in the classroom

By January 31, 2017Education
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They cost a fortune and cause havoc at home and yet more and more Australian schools are insisting that younger and younger children be equipped with personal computing devices at school. And even though children (and many educators) love them, there is growing evidence that, far from helping our kids, these devices are likely to be the source of serious harm.

As many of us get our kids ready for school this year, we’ll discover a new and very expensive addition to the booklist. Many Australian schools are requiring that children come equipped with their own personal gaming device, sorry, their own personal computer, for use at school.

It’s a story being repeated in the countries whose education systems are failing even faster than ours (the US and the UK in particular). Like Australia, those countries, guarantee the right to a free education.

Schools can’t technically require a parent to purchase the expensive devices. But, like Australia, the peer pressure on students and parents alike means that almost everybody has one.

Now, however, some parents are pushing back because they say the devices are a distraction in the classroom and almost impossible to police at school and at home.

The push to require younger and younger children to use computers is driven by the simplistic argument that they will be ‘left behind’ if they don’t. Since computer use will inevitably be required in whatever career they choose, the earlier they start the better, or so the story goes.

The same argument could be made for driving a car, but oddly very few schools are integrating driving lessons into their preschool programs.

The reason is obvious, people will get hurt and the potential benefits are massively outweighed by the risks. There is nothing to suggest the equation is any different for personal computing devices in the classroom. And even putting aside the patent absurdity of teaching students to use tech that will be obsolete by next Tuesday (let alone when they graduate), schools have so far been blinded by the flash of the new.

Increasingly parents are demanding to see evidence that schoolroom devices deliver educational results. And while there is evidence of benefit for repetitive learning when a computer is shared by a small group there is a surprising dearth of evidence for personal devices in class. Worse, evidence of direct harm is accumulating rapidly.

Because of the enormous cost of doing it properly, controlled trials are pretty rare in education. But scientists from the MIT Department of Economics have recently published exactly that. They randomly divided the entire first year of a US college introductory economics course into 3 groups. One group had unrestricted access to tablets in class. The second group could use them but they had to be flat on the desk. And the third group had no access at all.

The results were significant. The students who had no in-class access to devices consistently outperformed all other students by almost two per cent.

And while that doesn’t sound mind blowing, falling behind two per cent in just one semester can accumulate to quite an academic disaster if it’s multiplied by the 24 semesters of education most Australian kids get through.

Interestingly the results for each of the groups who had access were the same. It didn’t matter whether the students had open slather access or strictly controlled access, their performance was impaired.

Add that evidence of academic harm to the accumulating pile of health (especially psychological) impacts (such as increased aggression, e-bullying, ADHD and psychosis) and there are very real concerns about letting these devices into classrooms. It is one of the reasons that one of the world’s best education systems, Finland, bans personal devices in the classroom and it could be part of why many Asian school systems with relatively low computer use are pulling away from us academically.

As Dr Nicholas Kardaras (author of Glow Kids) put it, ‘If screens are indeed digital drugs, then schools have become drug dealers.’ Schools shouldn’t be encouraging in-school (and at-home) use of devices designed purposefully to encourage procrastination. And they certainly shouldn’t be doing it on the say-so of the local iPad dealer.

We do not need our schools to become part of the problem. We do not need our schools to be dealers in digital distraction. And most of all we do not need to throw up more barriers to equitable access to education.

But we do need our schools to demand proof of significant benefit before they become the unpaid salesforce of multinational computer companies. And most of all, we need them to hit the pause button while they figure it out.

First published by The Courier Mail

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