Are computers assets or liabilities to Learning?

13 Apr

I recall clerking several governing boards at the turn of the nougties (around 2010) when Interactive White Boards (IWBs) became the rage in many schools and academies.   The IWB craze was followed by one for laptops and Ipads.  Headteachers professed to their governors and swore by their holy books that this was the future of learning and persuaded them to release chunks of their institutions’ budgets to purchase all things technologically new on the market.  Many governors complied.  How could they do anything else, given that they were the lay people and their headteachers the professionals?

As we enter the third decade of this century, we are discovering that computers are not what so many thought them to be.  Rather, like fire, water, money and (yes) even food, computers can be used for good – and bad.  Under control, they can be a force for extensive learning.  Out of control – they can destroy young people’s lives.

More recently, researchers have discovered that computers do not necessarily enhance learning.   Readers who know me could well be justified in recognising a Luddite. They would be partly right in doing so.   I need my son and daughter to help navigate the intricacies of the digital age – the PC, laptop and mobile phone especially – and have the patience of Job so do so.

However, bear me out.  A 2015 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) review of the impact of computers in education reported “no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in countries that had invested heavily in computers for education … Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”

J-Pal, a US based, global education research centre, reviewed 126 research articles which explored technology-based education interventions.  It concluded: “Initiatives that expand access to computers and internet alone generally do not improve kindergarten to 12th year grades and test scores … Online courses lower student academic achievement compared to in-person courses.”

Writing in The Times Educational Supplement (24 January 2020), Jared Cooney Horvath, a neuroscientist, educator and author, wrote that he had provided a document outlining “50 ‘negative’ studies demonstrating that computers significantly impair learning when compared with traditional teaching methods”.

He added: “Lest you think I’m cherry picking, this document also includes 50 of the most-cited positive studies.”

However, at best, 22 of the “positive” studies carried out by Horvath merely showed that computers did no harm.  Thirteen of the remainder did not compare computers with “alternative forms of methodologies”.

A computer is a tool – just like a knife – controlled by a human being.  It is neutral and takes on character only when used.  A knife is meant to be deployed to cut bread, meat, chicken and vegetables, for instance.  However, when misused, it can kill a person.

Horvath cites the results of a survey carried out across the United States of America about how pupils/students used computers on a weekly basis and discovered the following.  They spent the following chunks of time on activities cited below.

  • 10h 2m watching television or film clips (YouTube, Netflix and so on).
  • 8h 14m scrolling through social media.
  • 7h 32m listening to music.
  • 3h 25m doing homework (at home).
  • 2h 5m doing schoolwork (at school).
  • 1h 14m reading for pleasure (on a Central Processing Unit or e-book).
  • 5m creating digital content (art, music, posts and so on).
  • 14m writing for pleasure.

Nearly 30% of computer time is spent multitasking.

But for over 32.5 hours per week, pupils/students used technology to flit between various forms of entertainment.  This is six times more than the 5.5 hours they spend for learning purposes.  When they used computers for homework, within six minutes they flip to social media.  If computers are used in class, pupils/students are generally off-task for 38 minutes in an hour.

The temptation is great.  I, myself, can resist most things, but not temptation, especially when it comes to the use of the computer where there are many distractions to take me off-task.

Horvath remarks that if one offers a jug of coffee “to exhausted, caffeine-addicted teachers” and ask them to learn about buoyancy, they are more likely to drink it than try and work out the answer to the question.  Computers have several functions, learning being just one of them.  It should be the primary reason why pupils/students should deploy them, in school and at home.  Unfortunately, many youngsters do not view technology thus.

And then, there are youngsters who closet themselves in their bedrooms, access dubious websites, occasionally get groomed by seedy characters and come to harm.  But this is another story…….

There are others who suffer from computer addiction. Professor Susan Moeller from the University of Maryland in the USA interviewed nearly 1,000 university students from the ages of 17 to 23 from 12 campuses in 10 countries, including the UK, the USA and China.  They were told to give up their mobile phones, the internet, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and they were not allowed to watch television. They were, however, permitted to use landline telephones and read books.

The study, published by the university’s International Centre for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) and the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change, concluded that “most students… failed to go the full 24 hours without media”.  The research, The world Unplugged, also found students used “virtually the same words to describe their reactions”.

These included emotions such as ‘fretful, confused, anxious, irritable, insecure, nervous, restless, crazy, addicted, panicked, jealous, angry, lonely, dependent, depressed, jittery’ and ‘paranoid’.

Professor Moeller discovered that technology had changed students’ relationships – and not for the better. “Students talked about how scary it was, how addicted they were,” she said.  “They expected the frustration. But they didn’t expect to have the psychological effects, to be lonely, to be panicked, the anxiety, literally heart palpitations.

“Technology provides the social network for young people today and they have spent their entire lives being ‘plugged in’.”

One in five reported feelings of withdrawal akin to addiction while more than one in 10 admitted being left confused and feeling like a failure.  Just 21% said they could feel the benefits of being unplugged.

One British participant reported: “I am an addict. I don’t need alcohol, cocaine or any other derailing form of social depravity… Media is my drug; without it I am lost.”

Another wrote: “I literally didn’t know what to do with myself. Going down to the kitchen to pointlessly look in the cupboards became regular routine, as did getting a drink.”

A third said: “I became bulimic with my media; I starved myself for a full 15 hours and then had a full-on binge.”

A fourth student added: “I felt like a helpless man on a lonely deserted island in the big ocean.”

Prof Moeller remarked: “Some said they wanted to go without technology for a while, but they could not as they could be ostracised by their friends. When the students did not have their mobile phones and other gadgets, they reported that they did get into more in-depth conversations.  Quite a number reported quite a difference in conversation in terms of quality and depth as a result.”

The researchers found that four in five students had significant mental and physical distress, panic, confusion and extreme isolation when forced to unplug from technology for an entire day.  One unnamed American college student told of the overwhelming cravings, which he confessed was like “itching like a crackhead (crack cocaine addict)”.

And so, like fire which we use for cooking, water to quench our thirst,  the air we breathe, the tools (like hammers) with which we make tables and chairs, the knives with which we generally cut bread and drugs to help cure ill people, computers are neutral until they are used.  Under controlled conditions, they are brilliant accessories to learning and life.  However, when misused, computers are lethal.  Frequently, when they give the appearance of connecting, they isolate making us live together alone.

During these difficult times, teachers and headteachers have been left with little option but to deploy distant learning where the computer and internet reign supreme.   That is the way in which they can connect with their pupils and students and promote the learning that the latter are being denied in face-to-face encounters.

Misused, computers (and the internet) can ruin our youngsters’ lives.  They will forever be splendid servants but destructive masters (and mistresses).

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