Every technological step-change sets alarm bells ringing. In 1950, an American teacher bemoaned the passing of the pencil, proclaiming: “Ball-point pens will be the ruin of education in our country”. Of course it was Plato who started it all with his critique of writing – a poor substitute for the lively give and take of oral dialogue. Writing things down, he thought, would encourage forgetfulness and fail to activate deep learning.
Equally melodramatic are those who proclaim the death of the school on the grounds that the Internet, Web 2.0, and mobile devices have rendered the “factory” model of schooling irrelevant. After all, why do we need teachers (and schools) when we’ve got Google and wireless-enabled cafes? In an age when young people live with a plethora of devices and unhindered access to information from multiple sources, schools run the risk of remaining embarrassingly analogue institutions in a digital age.
Digital technology not only helps pupils learn in new and different ways, it can really engage them by offering new ways of captivating attention, building on prior learning, and adaptive testing. Technology can break down artificial divisions between ‘formal’ learning in classrooms and ‘informal’ learning in other spaces in and out of school, realising the potential of the ‘flipped classroom’.
Technology in the hands of learners can, and should, disrupt traditional, transmissive, teacher-dominated models of education. But isn’t there a danger that it might distract as well as disrupt? By the age of eighteen, students will have spent the equivalent of four years in front of a screen. Research confirms that multi-tasking slows learning and there is a general consensus that attention spans are shortening.
Learning is all about handling information – not just finding or receiving it. Activities that require bite-sized knowledge and staccato responses undermine the link between extended writing – through its promotion of conjunctions and dependent clauses – and deeper thinking through the connection of ideas. In embracing a digital future, schools need to avoid striving to become a pale facsimile version of the ‘real’ world. They certainly need to prepare young people to take their place in that world, but as educators we have a wider, other-worldly responsibility.
In a modular, multi-tasking, rapidly mutating world, where young people are bombarded with data, schools stand out as privileged places which put value on sustained reflection and considered debate. Schools can be “gardens of peace”, giving time and space for young people to explore ideas, develop understanding, make links between concepts and engage in a deeper, more considered and more nuanced way than is perhaps the case elsewhere.
As teachers we must employ technology critically, in aid of educational aims, and not for its own sake. A recent study concluded that, “the gap between ICT use in and out of school remains persistent.” Surely the fundamental challenge is to ensure that technology in schools is encouraging of deep learning, rather than being distracting or worse still, irrelevant.