Digital Devices in the classroom – are they having an impact?

In the past week I met a group of primary principals and during our conversation the discussion turned to the use of tablet devices in the classroom. Many of the principals reported they were disappointed with the impact these devices have had in their schools and they were surprised that only a small number of teachers actively use these devices regularly. This anecdote comes against the backdrop of a study from New Zealand that Digital devices make little difference for primary kids, says study.

The study compared two classes of 8-year-old children – one with digital devices and the other tech-free. It found tests of literacy comprehension at the beginning and end of term showed similar improvements. Interestingly, as children got older there was evidence of significant impact on the performance of those that had access to digital technology over those that didn’t.

The article pointed out that this study comes at a time when people are asking major questions about the role of technology in education. Despite billions of dollars being spent annually on technology it appears to be having a limited impact. For example, it is pointed out that NZ has just spent $1.25 billion on super-fast broadband and some are questioning the wisdom of such expenditure. Some here at home suggest that if we install super-fast broadband then education will improve and of course it is more complex than that and we need to be mindful of this when investing in digital technology infrastructure. We will also need to invest in teacher professional learning and support them to design meaningful learning activities.

The report’s author, Dr Jenny Poskitt, found that the role of teachers was key to any successful deployment of technology in schools. She wrote:

“But it does not substitute for effective teaching … Essentially it’s about teachers who understand how technology might be used, who link it into what they’re learning. The ones that were really effective were very targeted in what they used and why they used it.”

This is the key – digital technology is not a substitute for effective teaching and in fact poor teaching can be amplified by the use of technology. We need to be clear why we are using digital technology and how it can enhance young people’s learning? All too often the discussion focuses on the what question?

  • What device should I buy?
  • What Apps should I use and not on why should I integrate tablet devices into my teaching?
  • What Cloud platform should I select?

Dr Poskitt found that the teachers that were very really effective had considered why they were using the technology and were very targeted in its use. Digital technology can allow us to reimagine learning experiences for our young people but we, the teachers, need to carefully design learning experiences to exploit them. Technology alone is not enough and here is further evidence of that.

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