For kids, adults, and elderly alike, screens are an inescapable reminder of the digital age that we live in. They’re now standard fare in the office, in the classroom, and at home—even for children. A 2013 study by Common Sense Media found that among toddlers and children (0-8 years old), 63% had smartphones (a 20% increase from 2011), while 40% had access to tablets.
Given the increasing digital fluency among children, it’s logical to add more and more technology to the classroom—or is it? Actually, while technology can be a valuable tool, the fact remains: it’s only possible to reap the benefits of edtech by understanding how digital tools will affect children, for both better and worse.
Technology and Children: A Cautionary Note
First, let’s take a look at the research on the impact of technology on child development. In their 2016 report on technology addiction, Common Sense Media reviewed a range of research on adverse effects on children, and came to the important conclusion that multitasking, a common digital practice, can harm focus and concentration.
That multitasking is detrimental to concentration has been backed up by a number of studies. One study by a California university found that students were distracted by text messages and Facebook feeds, spending only about 6 minutes working on their assigned tasks before being sidetracked. Also, those students who were more likely to access Facebook had lower GPAs than those who didn’t—perhaps an indication of their lessened ability to concentrate.
Certainly, these results are in line with scientific consensus: researchers agree that, because even seemingly simple cognitive tasks (like texting or checking Facebook) use up so much brainpower, it’s technically impossible for a brain to multitask. There simply isn’t enough space in the prefrontal cortex, which handles such demanding tasks, to juggle multiple demands.
Further, children who use screens in excess (more than 2 hours a day) can suffer a host of issues, from developmental ones like shortened attention spans and heightened aggression to more mundane, if harmful problems like sleep deprivation from chatting on their smartphones.
The Upside of Tech in Education
Still, it’s not all doom-and-gloom, as tech, properly used in the classroom, can offer some interesting benefits. These include generating excitement among students, increasing collaboration with peers, and allowing students to supplement their learning with opportunities outside the classroom.
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of using tech in the classroom is increased engagement and motivation. According to an edtech study by the Department of Education, students loved the immediate feedback that they received from working in tech. Unlike analog learning, where progress and results are harder to discern, tech offers a quick, easy assessment of student progress. Get a question wrong? You’ll see (or hear) it immediately, and find out why, with the program highlighting your mistakes and missteps for you to correct.
Further, children today are digital natives, having been raised around (and in some cases, with) screens. Supplementing (not replacing) their education with technology will only boost their interest, help them build pride in their tech skills, and make learning more fun and accessible.
Increased Collaboration with Peers
It’s a truism that the best games, both educational and recreational, are multiplayer ones because they are a social, group endeavor. After all, who doesn’t like playing a racing game like Super MarioKart with friends?
The same applies to edtech. In a study by Pearson, Digital Promise, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and the University of San Diego, several schools built an online community to connect students across the country (and the world). To their surprise, teachers found that increased collaboration led to a rise in excitement: students were eager to share their work with each other, give feedback, and generally looked forward to new developments.
And the ability to work with others is clearly a useful, foundational skill for students. According to a study done for the AACU, 74% of employers prioritized the ability to conduct research collaboratively, and were very supportive of cooperative projects in the classroom.
Supplement their Classroom Time with Outside Learning
The case of Stacey Roshan, an AP calculus teacher in Maryland, is the best example of how teachers can use outside learning to reinforce concepts taught in the classroom. Rather than lecturing in class and leaving students to go home with unanswered questions, Roshan flipped the script: she made video lectures, uploaded them to Youtube for students to watch at home, and answered questions and worked on problems in class.
This approach is increasingly common as more and more digital resources, from Khan Academy to TEDtalks, are created every day. In fact, some of the most popular Youtube videos are informational or educational ones: historian CGP Grey, whose videos cover fascinating, complex topics from automation destroying jobs to the rules for rulers, routinely earns millions of views and has nearly 3 million subscribers.
All this is to say that well-made, informative content is incredibly easy to find online, and a useful addition to a teacher’s existing lesson plan. Take this video on the Pythagorean theorem, from Khan Academy: this video can be used as a refresher for students, helping children recall their existing knowledge from class, or it can be used to help a highly visual learner understand and see the equations and numbers at work.
With all of the benefits of edtech, this may well be the most valuable one. After all, while technology will never replace a good teacher, it can really help a student build on what they already know—and make the difference between success and failure.
Check back next time…
Before teachers add more tech into their classrooms, it’s absolutely essential to understand the how technology can, for better or worse, affect childhood development. In our next installment, we’ll cover how to balance the digital and the analog, as well as some strategies for teachers to reap the benefits while avoiding the downsides of technology in their classrooms.