Technology in the classroom – friend or foe?

by Marise McConaghy, Principal

On Easter Saturday the headmaster of Sydney Grammar was quoted in The Australian decrying schools’ investment in digital technology as a “scandalous waste of money”. John Vallance told the newspaper [paywall] that his school has banned laptops from classrooms because they are “a distraction”.

His comments ignited a debate that has continued through the holidays and into the new term, fuelled further by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s education chief, Andreas Schleicher, who has told a global education forum that “technology is doing more harm than good in our schools today”.

What is our position? We acknowledge that simply acquiring technology without an accompanying plan for enhancing learning (as one commentator bluntly put it, “dumping laptops in classrooms”) is of little value. That has not been the case at Strathcona, where we have a proud and active record of integrating new technology and tools into the way we learn at every level. Our girls’ confidence and competence in the digital world, coupled with the way in which these tools help them build on their strengths, speaks for itself.

Even so, the debate prompts us to think afresh about why and how we use information and communications technology, and to ask if we can do it better.

Professors Erica McWilliam and John Taylor, who have led teaching programs at Strathcona as our Visiting Scholars, are among those who have observed growing confusion and ambivalence about the value of digital tools in the classroom. This is, they write in a recent paper, in part because of a “perceived failure of technology to deliver the enhanced learning benefits promised at the turn of this century.”

In their view, and mine, this perception has a lot to do with the reality that technology alone can’t work miracles in the classroom. When digital tools are simply an add-on to traditional classroom culture and practice – the kind where a teacher talks at the front of the room and students sit and take notes – there’s some validity to the complaint that an iPad is not much more than a “thousand-dollar pencil”.

The trouble is, as Brett Salakas has stated, that we are between paradigms. Amazing innovations have occurred in the sector but we have not brought everyone along in their understanding of what the new paradigm should look like. We cling to the model of education invented during the Industrial Revolution the century before last as we layer in technology. Salakas goes on to say ‘If we want students to become smarter than a smart phone then we have to think harder about the pedagogies we are using to teach them and about the people we want to become teachers and how we want them to work. Technology can amplify great teaching but technology isn’t replacing poor teaching’.

It is also true that wifi-connected laptops and iPads offer unparalleled opportunities for a range and quality of distractions – instant messaging, for example, or surreptitiously browsing Instagram – that the classroom note-passers and daydreamers of bygone days would have found unimaginable.

For more than a decade, some educational institutions have tried to control this by limiting access to social media sites or by simply blocking wifi connections but the march of technological progress and students’ ingenuity are such that these approaches are seldom fully effective, or work for long.

Even the most conscientious student, intent on listening and learning while in class, can find herself diverted by an email notification about a forthcoming school activity, or a video pop-up on a web page she visited to research an essay – and not even realise she is being distracted.

Multitasking is the new normal, with web-enabled devices making it seem natural to do several things at once, but it comes at a cost to learning. In recent years a series of studies has found that performing two or more tasks simultaneously, switching back and forth, or jumping from one to another, all take a toll on productivity. Yet (as any adult who has furtively responded to emails during a conference presentation can attest) the temptation to “get things done” is hard to resist. For students who are digital natives, it’s harder.

Does this mean we are going to join Sydney Grammar in banning digital devices from the classroom? We are not. The fact that digital tools can be potent distractions does not mean our students should forgo the benefits they offer. The connected world we live in is here to stay, and we need to ensure students learn to work in it – and make the most of it – at school as well as at home. To do otherwise would be to fail to prepare them for the future.

Technology itself is neither a problem nor a panacea; it’s how we use it that counts. The OECD, although making the point that “great technology cannot replace poor teaching”, acknowledges that “technology can amplify great teaching.” Professors McWilliam and Taylor argue that the teaching approach that gets most value from digital tools is not the traditional “sage on the stage” model but one in which ICT supports and enhances collaboration between students.

It’s important, too, to make use of “off” buttons. Philip Cahill, who reviewed the Digital Technologies curriculum for the federal government, has written in response to Dr Vallance that: “Good teaching is not about banning mobile devices but identifying when is the optimum time to use them and when is the right time to have students close a lid or turn off their device. Good teaching is about teachers making the right choice at the right time to promote effective learning.”

While using these digital tools to their fullest potential – and knowing when to turn them off – we should be conscious of the saying, often attributed (if not entirely accurately) to 20th-century Canadian academic and media analyst Marshall McLuhan: “We shape our tools and afterwards they shape us.”

All of us – teachers, parents and students – have a responsibility to be mindful of when our use of technology is helping us, and when it might be hindering us. McLuhan was not the first, and will not be the last, to observe that technology is a good servant but a bad master. Using digital tools to enhance and enrich engagement and understanding helps us put technology at our service. Having laptops and iPads in classrooms – and shutting them down as appropriate – also helps us master the art of knowing when it’s time to “close the lid”.