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10 March 2018

9:00 AM

10 March 2018

9:00 AM

Distractions

I sat nervously in the waiting area, tensely anticipating a diagnosis. After five minutes that seemed like five years, a staff member approached with a solemn face. ‘I’m very sorry, sir, but all attempts to revive failed.’  She quickly added, sympathetically: ‘Please let us know if there’s anything else at all we can do for you.’

I thanked her and quietly walked out of the Apple Store technical support centre.

But my subdued exit was a contrast in this chaotic place where desperate people come to have their dying devices resuscitated by technical CPR. The staff rush around like ER nurses. Distraught adults try to come to terms with momentary separation from the ‘patients’. There is shouting, sighing, stress —and tissues often needed at the delivery of terminal diagnoses.

I almost felt bad for not shedding a tear. Others in the store seemed to be judging me for my callous attitude towards my iPhone 5 (yes, I know I’m really not keeping up). Alas, the phone has almost become another family member for some people. Many of us are dependent on — if not addicted to — our mobiles.

Perhaps this explains the recent backlash against the common sense suggestion by the Australian Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, that schools should ban mobile phones.

We were told by academics this would ‘take us back in time’, ‘there are so many new ways that mobile devices can add to the classroom’ and ‘we can’t let fear control everything we do’!

Yes, pity those poor students who lived before the 2000s and didn’t have access to the vital educational resource of smartphones. How did students ever learn before education apps were invented?


A Melbourne school recently banned student mobile phones, and the principal said the effects during recess and lunch were startling: ‘I hadn’t anticipated the level of noise. There was laughter, people were actually interacting and socialising.’ What a crazy idea. More radical than the Communist Manifesto of 1848. But that school is not alone in scepticism about the benefits of technology in classrooms. The prestigious Sydney Grammar School in 2016 banned laptops in class, and required students to handwrite assignments and essays until Year 10.

Cases like these provide some perspective on the fashionable trend of schools using education technology, or ‘Ed Tech’ as hip people call it.

According to the latest international education datasets, Australian schools use classroom technology far more than most other countries.

But there is very little evidence to indicate more computers in classrooms actually improve student results. Recent studies have come to conflicting conclusions, but there is no clear link between school technology usage and student performance. While the novelty of the latest technology may get people excited, that doesn’t mean it helps students learn.

Furthermore, ‘21st century learning’ isn’t cheap. Investments in technology — like laptops and tablets for every student — can become obsolete quickly, require a great deal of maintenance, and are expensive.

Just look at the Rudd-Gillard governments’ ‘Digital Education Revolution’ program, with an original cost of $1.2 billion which blew out to over $2 billion. Remember the incredible transformation of schools and all the amazing improvements in student results? Neither do I.

Interestingly, some studies suggest education technology in fact has a negative impact on student achievement.

And recent research has found students using laptops in class has a damaging effect on other students who aren’t using laptops because they increase distractions (this concept has been called ‘the new second-hand smoke’).

It’s not hard to understand why. Try sitting at the back of any lecture theatre in a university these days. Most students have their laptops open — so they can ‘better follow the lecture slides’ and ‘take digital notes’ — but all you will observe is a sea of scrolling Instagram feeds, not to mention multiple people with earphones plugged in and surreptitiously catching up on the latest Walking Dead episode. Generally the poor lecturer at the front is completely oblivious and carries on about his fascinating area of expertise, satisfied because at least all the students are quiet.

A similar phenomenon occurs in many school classrooms. Some teachers are happy their students have laptops because it helps keep them serene during lessons; and of course students aren’t wasting time since the school’s IT system blocks social media sites (and obviously, the kids will never figure out how to get around it, right?).

Most fellow young people I talk to agree laptops are a source of distraction that hinders rather than helps learning. It’s mainly only cool older education academics with a piercing in their ear (or other places) who still go on about the supposed monumental benefits of 21st century learning.

Of course, education technology is not useless. In the right circumstances, and in moderation, it can be beneficial to student learning. But the focus should be on using it better rather than using it more. Technology addiction is already a problem, and ‘Ed Tech’ (with its limited benefits) could create even more young people who are hopelessly attached to technology, at the expense of deep subject knowledge.

The best way to help students be prepared for the 21st century is to ensure they leave school good readers, fluent writers, competent in maths, and with a sound and well-rounded knowledge of the core disciplines. These are the fundamental skills people will always need to be successful. In contrast, learning with, and about, new technologies can quickly become outdated, due to the rapid pace of technological change. A wise senior teacher once revealed to me the greatest irony of education: ‘If you teach kids the latest thing, then that will be the first thing you’ve taught them which becomes out of date.’

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