Does Technology Affect Learning?

There has been a number of recent news items that have, individually, caused some concern for users of technology, but when taken together could have a combined effect that’s bad news for education and the long-term development of our young people.

Looking at the headlines in reverse chronological order (click on the headline to read the original article)…

Digital Dependence is Eroding Human Memory

It seems that our reliance on technology is stopping us from remembering things. We’re more likely to remember the phone number that we had when we were ten than the current phone numbers of family members or employers. Britons are also more reliant on internet searches for “knowledge” than people in other developed nations.

It was also suggested earlier in the year that the use of Google should be allowed in exams. The problem with this, of course, is that it would discourage students from developing the knowledge that they need to become better learners.

If you haven’t read Daniel Willingham’s fascinating book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, then it's well worth a look. Amongst other things, it tells us that the cognitive scientist’s view is that knowledge is fundamental to memory and learning. A student that knows more understands more and is better able to make new memories. A student who knows less will never be able to catch up. Willingham’s YouTube channel includes a video explaining how knowledge is more important to comprehension than reading ability.

Tablet computers 'widely used by under-fives'

In homes that have tablets, nearly a third of under-fives apparently have their own device, and the most common use is for watching YouTube videos. I suspect that most of those videos aren’t going to be educational, so aside from the e-safety considerations, not only will these young people develop a dependency on the technology that prevents them from developing the knowledge they need to learn (and, presumably, divert their attention away from their reading books), but they’ll also be learning to associate technology with entertainment rather than academic study or research.

If you combine these two ideas, then it’s perhaps no surprise that…

Computers 'do not improve' pupil results, says OECD

Not only do computers not improve results, they might actually make them worse. This was also the conclusion about the use of presentations by teachers in the Radio 4 programme Microsoft PowerPoint and the Decline of Civilisation (you can find podcasts of the programme on-line if you haven’t heard it). The message there was that the use of presentations and bullet points over-simplifies the content and that students in classes where the teacher uses PowerPoint report greater satisfaction with the lessons, but actually do less well in their exams, than parallel classes where the teachers don't use presentations.

In fact, this idea that computers in schools don't help learning seems to be the only consistent technology-related finding that I can think of – computer monitors might cause miscarriage or they might not, mobile phones might damage your brain or they might not, but every report that I’ve read on the use of computers in schools since I started teaching in 1997 has said that they don’t have a very positive impact on learning.

Since I started writing this article, yet another article has appeared that suggests a link between the use of technology and academic underachievement:

Video game use linked to worse GCSEs, study suggests

The interesting thing about this study is that, while “prolific gamers” do less well in their GCSEs, users of social media don’t, which suggests that it’s not just about the screen time or the distraction from studies. There could also be, of course, another factor that links the gamers and causes them to underachieve.

My primary-aged daughter has had quite a lot of e-safety lessons at school, and knows all about the dangers of social media, and how to choose a good password, etc., but no-one has ever suggested to her that excessive use of technology is a bad thing. Is that a message that we should be delivering?

When you’re planning your next lesson on e-safety or the use of technology, maybe you should bear these studies in mind, and suggest that – just as we do with salt, fats and sugar – students learn to moderate their consumption.

This blog originally appeared in the TES Subject Genius series in October 2015. If you're interested in this topic you might like the newer blog Is Technology Changing Our Brains?