The sacking of Urban Myths around Digital Technologies

These days, I am brave enough to say that we know something about Digital Technologies and their impact upon Education. Our first computer lab was designed by my brother Hugh in 1983, and the machine of choice was the ZX Spectrum.  In 1989, we opened our next generation facility, using network technologies and we showcased the best of Research Machines provision.  We went the web, pioneered all sorts of stuff, use of databases, pupil-centred research and so forth, all back in the day.  We certainly went a little too Office focussed in the Noughties, but we are very much back on track now.  It’s also true that we are great fans of Durham University and its work, and use their researchers lots.

So when Durham publish a report on the existing evidence on the impact of digital technology on learning, it is certainly time to sit up and listen. Now there is too much in the report for my Blog, but very kindly, the lead author of the report, Durham University’s Professor Steven Higgins, has also compiled a less formal list of six contemporary myths about digital technology in education.
You’ll find that list below, and it makes for a great read. For me the most important statement in the main report is this: “Technology is best used as a supplement to normal teaching rather than as a replacement for it.”  
It was this time last year, after just going Google, I saw an amazing collaborative whole Year 6 exercise out on the yard, with three armies from Greek city states rehearsing the various battle moves of yore – capturing the pictures onto our digital ‘Hub’ sent the infantry home that night faster than ever, to open up the pictures and write about their experiences. None of this was about ‘using a computer’ but all about History, and writing and reflection and research. By collaborating together, most children worked as well as we could have ever expected.  But you would not do that every day; the skills the children need to develop are diverse, including a serious ability to write and add-up, but coupled with an imagination and a real talent to work with others.
Anyway, onto the sacking of the 6 Urban myths… Prof Higgins continues:

Myth 1: New technologies are being developed all the time, the past history of the impact of technology is irrelevant to what we have now or will be available tomorrow.
After more than fifty years of digital technology use in education this argument is now wearing a bit thin. We need a clear rationale for why we think the introduction of (yet another) new technology will be more effective than the last one. The introduction of technology has consistently been shown to improve learning, the trouble is most things improve learning in schools when they are introduced, and technology is consistently just a little bit less effective than the average intervention.

Myth 2: Today’s children are digital natives and the ‘net’ generation – they learn differently from older people.
There are two issues with this myth. First, there is no evidence the human brain has evolved in the last 50 years, so our learning capacity remains as it was before digital technologies became so prevalent. It may be that young people have learned to focus their attention differently, but their cognitive capabilities are fundamentally the same as 30 years ago. Second, just because young people have grown up with technology it does not mean they are experts in its use for their own learning. Being an expert at playing Halo 5 requires different skills and knowledge from having an active Facebook account. Most young people are fluent in their use of some technologies, but none are expert at all of them.

Myth 3: Learning has changed now we have access to knowledge through the internet, today’s children don’t need to know stuff, they just need to know where to find it.
The web has certainly changed access to information, but it this only becomes knowledge when it is used for a purpose. When this requires understanding and judgement, information alone is insufficient. Googling is great for answers to a pub quiz, but would you trust your doctor if she was only using Wikipedia? To be an expert in a field you also need experience of using the information and knowledge, so that you understand where to focus your attention and where new information will help you in making decisions and judgements. It is important to recognise the relevance or importance of different pieces of information. Easy access to information can help, but it is no substitute for experience, understanding and expertise.

Myth 4: Students are motivated by technology so they must learn better when they use it.
It is certainly true that most young people do enjoy using technology in schools to support their learning. However, the assumption that any increased motivation and engagement will automatically lead to better learning is false. It is possible that increased engagement or motivation may help increase the time learners spend on learning activities, or the intensity with which they concentrate or their commitment and determination to complete a task. However, it is only when this engagement can be harnessed for learning that there will be any academic benefit. There is another caveat here as the motivation in school may be partly because using technology is either novel in school, or simply a change from what they usually experience. It may not be the case that this motivation will be sustained over time.

Myth 5: The Everest Fallacy: we must use technology because it is there!
We should use some of the wide range of digital technologies that are available to us to support learning and teaching in schools, but this should be where they improve aspects of teaching and learning and help to prepare children and young people for their lives after school. The curriculum and the way in which pupils work and are assessed should reflect the society and culture they are preparing pupils to be a part of when they leave formal education. However the challenge is knowing which technology is the best to choose for use in schools and for what purposes and learning outcomes they should be employed.

Myth 6: The “More is Better” Fallacy
Enthusiasts assume that if a little technology is a good thing then a lot will be much better. The evidence does not support this assumption, for two reasons. First, large-scale international studies indicated very high use of technology – e.g. pupils using the internet more than four hours per day – is not linked with better learning. Second, the effect of technology and length of interventions indicate that more is clearly not always better. This suggests that there is an optimum level of technology which can support learning, too little and you don’t see the benefit, too much and the gains decline. A better notion might be the Goldilocks effect: it is about getting the amount of technology, and learners’ access to it “just right”.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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