The overuse of technology in education

Mark Scillio

One of the most vexing issues facing parents today is their children’s use of technology. In the space of a decade, we have seen a massive explosion in the number of screen-based gadgets kids interact with – smartphones, iPads, laptops, consoles – and, more alarmingly, in the amount of time they spend on these various devices. 

This is also true in the classroom. Laptops and iPads are now seen as indispensable to learning. Schools in Australia are almost universally aiming for a single computer (or device) per student, with the dominant view being that this is a necessary and good thing to prepare young people for the future. 

But what are the consequences of all this ‘screen-time’ for students? Is it beneficial or harmful? 

As a teacher and parent of teenagers, I know that screen-based technologies can be used constructively. I also know how much my kids use them for entertainment, gaming, watching silly video posts, or pretty inane messaging. 

We tend to assume the benefits outweigh the harms, but we do not yet know the extent to which they are changing the way our children think, feel and interact with others. Meanwhile, these developments seem like a juggernaut; they are happening so fast, and feel largely out of our control.

Joe Clement and Matt Miles, two high school teachers based in the United States, have come to the conclusion that these developments are unequivocally negative. In their provocative new book, Screen Schooled, they make a case for why our ‘overuse’ of technology is having dire consequences for students – for their ability to think critically and interact socially with their peers. 

Clement and Miles, it should be said, are no luddites. In fact, both have backgrounds in IT and believe computers can be valuable tools. What they are witnessing in US schools, however, is frightening. 

Some of the issues they address include the increasing amount of time young people spend in front of screens (US teens make use of entertainment media an average nine hours a day), the effects on their cognitive abilities, and the ways in which this is changing kids’ social lives at school and at home. They also present recent research on the mental health consequences of so much technology use, which can be likened to those of other addictions.

Among those addictions, Clement and Miles investigate the effects of social media. In 2016, the Australian eSafety Commissioner reported that nearly 20 per cent of teenagers had experienced cyberbullying. These more ‘acute’ cases, though, are just visible instances of the more chronic forms of anxiety brought on by participating in the digital world. The research suggests that, increasingly, young people are feeling intense pressure to portray themselves as successful, beautiful and smart, lest they be publically judged and shamed in cruel ways. Social media can make people feel inadequate and, paradoxically, isolated.

One of the central points made in Screen Schooled is what the authors call the “myth of the digital superkid”. We have been sold the message that the current generation of young people – ‘digital natives’, as education technology guru Marc Prensky dubbed them 20 years ago – think differently to previous generations. They are supposedly at home with new technology. Their immersion in it has given them superior information processing skills: they can think faster and they can multi-task. And so the message given to educationalists is that these kids need to be engaged differently. Traditional modes of teaching won’t work. Teachers need to meet students where they are. In essence, teachers need to get out of their way and become ‘facilitators’.

The authors argue that none of these superior attributes are evident. In fact, kids are showing signs of the opposite: decreasing problem-solving and critical thinking, and shallower, more disconnected knowledge.  Some of their own students increasingly show signs of disjointed “Google thinking”. They can answer questions which ask for facts, or discrete definitions, but struggle to join ideas together and build a deeper understanding. This is a result of relying on apps like Google to acquire knowledge in a sporadic and piecemeal way. In contrast, 

the older methods of obtaining information, such as lectures and paper books, follow a linear, sequential pattern. This is a more ideal way to learn. Learning sequentially not only can give students the knowledge of the individual concepts, but it also allows them to connect that knowledge to a broader picture. (Clement & Miles 2018 p.67-68)

Another sign is students’ inability to focus. An underlying cause, argue Clement and Miles, is the pervasiveness of gadgets within constant reach. These fuel the habit for constant stimulation. Kids are becoming unable to tolerate boredom, needing to fill any downtime with music, videos or social media – think of how many students have earphones in all the time, even before bed or just after waking up. The thing is that silence, and boredom, are vital for critical and creative thinking.  The authors refer to research that shows how people do their deepest and most creative thinking when the mind is allowed to be inactive and can wander.  Ironically, all this digital ‘play’, is actually leading to a lack of imagination.

The idea of multi-tasking is also deeply entrenched. The other day in my daughter’s class meeting, one parent proudly reported on their child’s ability to do several things at once: “while doing homework, he listens to music, has some video going on his laptop, and he’s checking his phone for messages. He’s learning to multi-task!” 

The example was apposite, because it’s identical to one Clement and Miles use in their book. Except their assessment – and current neuroscientific evidence appears to back them up – is that what is happening is not a neoteric capacity to do several things at once and do them all well, but to be doing several things simultaneously poorly.

Research suggests that we cannot actually attend to several things at once – especially several things requiring a similar cognitive focus. It is one thing to be putting the clothes on the line while listening to a podcast, or cooking dinner with the radio on (we’re all for that!), quite another to be watching a YouTube video while writing an essay. The attention needed for these tasks is finite and not divisible. In reality, this child’s so-called multi-tasking is actually shifting his attention from one thing to another, and adjusting his focus constantly, which turns out to be a very inefficient way to carry out tasks. 

The superkid myth is strong. One consequence is a move towards ‘edutainment’. Miles and Clement are concerned that the idea that today’s kids are different and need technology to be engaged puts pressure on teachers to make their lessons more entertaining – read: more wiz-bang PowerPoints, videos or computer games. 

Edutainment also gradually and profoundly morphs what we think of as learning. Interviewing other teachers about trying to incorporate Facebook, Twitter or Minecraft in their lessons, teachers said that students were certainly engaged, but the educational purpose of the exercises were being lost. The result is that:

teachers aren’t stepping up into digital natives’ alleged advanced digital world. They’re having to dumb down everything in order to step down into kids’ simplified digital existence. Rather than deal with the issues created by technology addiction, schools are trying to trick digital natives into learning by sneaking small, palatable doses of education into their games and social media. (Clement & Miles 2018 p.35-36)

The idea that digital natives are different and need this specific kind of digital engagement also serves the interests of edu-business. In essence, the authors warn, this is a powerful marketing device. Education technology companies can offer their wares as ‘essential’. And who would not want to make learning ‘easier’ and ‘fun’? On a wider scale, these companies are exploiting the pressure now felt by US schools across the system to be more competitive and accountable, and to ensure that they and their students are not left behind. The edu-tech industry is offering solutions to make schools ‘successful’, and the profits are astronomical. 

One of the striking issues discussed in the book is about the relationship between technology use and the achievement gap. At one level, the notion that kids from poorer backgrounds should have the same access to computers and other technology is laudable and sound – especially when we think of technology in terms of its educative uses. And as the cost of IT and mobile phones has gone down, this access is equalising. But in the US, the achievement gap is getting wider, and although income disparity is the root cause, technology use may be a contributor. Clement and Miles cite research showing that teens from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are spending more time on screens, especially phones. Parental involvement seems to be a critical factor. More affluent families tend to have more parental supervision of their children’s technology use. In poorer families, where parents are often working long hours and multiple jobs, technology can function as a nanny, with kids spending many more unsupervised hours on online games and social media.  

Large chunks of unsupervised time lead to students who have grown accustomed to being on a screen for most, if not all, of the day. By the time they get to school, the habit is often so ingrained that it becomes virtually impossible for them to put their phones down. (Clement & Miles 2018 p.176-177)

Screen Schooled seeks to empower teachers and parents to respond to these changes. At the end of each chapter, there are suggestions for parents on how to better manage their kids’ use of technology and to bring back more of the things that technology has been displacing, such as dinner-table conversation and physical activity. 

In the final chapter, Clement and Miles offer a detailed account of what teachers can do to resist these forces, outlining how to keep lessons simple, effective and socially grounded. They highlight what they see as essential for learning, including good relationships and face-to-face discussions.

This is a polemical book that covers a lot of ground. You might not agree with all of the authors’ arguments. You might say that Australia is not like the US; that we are less vulnerable to the forces of edu-business, and have more control over our students’ use of technology. But the US situation is just around the corner. We will need to get more involved in the critical dialogue on these issues if we want to remain in control – and, in this, Screen Schooled will be an important reference. 

References

Joe Clement and Matt Miles (2017), Screen Schooled: Two veteran teachers expose how technology overuse is making our kids dumber, Black Inc. 

The Office of the eSafety Commissioner (2016), Kids, teens and digital dangershttps://www.esafety.gov.au/about-the-office/research-library


 

Mark Scillio currently teaches sociology to international students at the Australian Catholic University. He has taught sociology and social policy at various Victorian universities, and has extensive experience teaching, designing curriculum and managing education programs within the emergency management sector. His main research interest is the changing nature of work and careers in Australia, and young people’s preparation for work. Some of this is the focus of his recent book, Making Career Stories (2017, Palgrave Macmillan). He has also been involved in research on organisational wellbeing, work insecurity, youth homelessness, and community safety.

This article appears in Professional Voice 12.2 The improvement factor.