Is technology enhancing the learning relationship?

Teachers were noticing children sitting together in the mornings looking at their screens, “not talking together; really being alone together”, Alberta Teachers’ Association Executive Staff Officer and Associate Coordinator Philip McRae recalled at Federation’s recent Principals’ Conference.

“As they were being connected [to technology] they were also being disconnected,” Dr McRae, also a University of Alberta, Faculty of Education Professor, said.

That observation in 2011 was the seed for the Growing Up Digital research project. Alberta Teachers’ Association partnered with Harvard Medical School and the University of Canada on a study of the effects of technology on learning and health for K–12 students.

How to best navigate the promises and perils of technology is a dilemma for all teachers.

“Be balanced, be mindful, be present,” Dr McRae suggested. Be balanced: “In classrooms, use technology but don’t use it all the time. Use it where it’s pedagogically powerful and appropriate to extend relationships. But at home, around the dinner table and at night, don’t let kids sleep with their phones and don’t have phones around the dinner table.”

Be mindful: “What age, developmentally, is it appropriate to introduce technology? iPads for kindergarten? The question has to be asked, ‘Why?’”

Be present: “When you’re in a classroom, that’s about relationships. When you’re at home, when you’re around the dinner table, it’s about relationships. If the technology is enhancing the relationship … than wonderful, embrace it. If the technology is getting in the way of the relationship of learning, then ask the question, ‘Why are we doing it? What benefit is it giving us?’”

The Gonski Institute for Education at the University of NSW is conducting a related research project, Growing Up Digital Australia, focusing on equity.

Gonski Institute for Education Professor of Education Policy Dr Pasi Sahlberg told members at the conference that the first phase of the Australian research looked at educators’ perspectives on young people growing up in a digital world, and found:

  • 43 per cent of the 1876 respondents believe digital technologies enhance their teaching and learning activities rather than detract
  • 68 per cent believe the opportunities to facilitate inquiry-based learning are enhanced by technology
  • 84 per cent believe digital technology is a growing distraction in the learning environment.

During phase 2 of the research, similar questions have been asked of parents and grandparents. The results will be announced in April.