Technology is not a substitute for quality teaching

Blaise Joseph

05 May 2019 | Financial Review
Teachers aren’t going to be replaced by robots. If there are only a few professions where the human aspect is absolutely essential, then teaching is definitely one.

Teacher-student relationships, understanding of complex learning processes and socio-emotional needs, and the ability to respond to student behaviour, are all essential parts of a teacher’s role. Technology is a tool that assists teachers, but it’s no replacement for quality teaching.

The productivity gains from new technology in other industries don’t necessarily translate into better results in the school context.

Further, technology has raised practical problems in schools — which we haven’t yet solved.

For instance, cyber bullying is a serious issue. The more access students have to phones and computers during lesson time, the more potential there is for bullying online throughout the day, which is much harder for a school to monitor than the playground.

It’s all very well to have school internet filters to ensure students use technology for academic purposes only, but in reality IT-savvy kids find a way around filters, sometimes with almost no effort.

Massive distraction

Computers and smartphones can also be massive distractions. It’s practically impossible for a teacher to simultaneously monitor the screen activity of all students in the class while concentrating on teaching.

It’s no surprise many primary schools, and even some secondary schools, have banned mobile phones entirely.

Perhaps tertiary teachers need to look at doing something similar. If you sit at the back of any university lecture theatre, you notice almost no students with laptops, tablets or smartphones are on task (if they’re not checking social media, they’re probably catching up on Game of Thrones).

There are good reasons for education technology scepticism. A recent meta-analysis found comprehension is better with reading on paper than reading on a screen. So reading on a physical page allows us take in and retain more of the content on average, even though there is no difference in reading speed between paper and screen. This is especially the case for beginning readers.

There is also some research indicating that handwritten notes are more effective than keyboard notes, in terms of retaining information in the mind.

These studies should make us realise there are potential downsides to transitioning away from pen-and-paper tasks — 21st-century learning isn’t always better.

There are continual demands for schools to buy more technology, but no strong evidence Australia’s school system is lagging behind the world in technological transformation.

Australian schools already have relatively high usage of computers compared to the rest of the world, according to the international education data. In fact, Australian students use computers at school significantly more than all other countries in the OECD with the exception of the Netherlands.

Technology caution

But there is no clear link between education technology use and student achievement. An international OECD report found computers in school were beneficial for student learning — but only up to a point. Beyond a certain ratio of computers to students, there is a negative relationship.

We saw an example of this with the Rudd-Gillard government’s ‘Digital Education Revolution’ program between 2008 and 2013, which involved funding laptops for all students from years 9 to 12.

This was meant to cost taxpayers $1.2 billion but blew out to over $2 billion. And — this may be an earth-shattering shock for some — school results didn’t improve.

The focus around education technology must shift from using it more to using it better. Students can effectively use technology (in moderation) for particular tasks. But in many cases, schools should be cautious about investments in technology until they’re confident of their ability to manage it well.

Most schools will receive significant increases in taxpayer funding in the next 10 years, regardless of who wins the federal election. And while many may wish to spend that money on technology, the evidence doesn’t support this.

Investments in education technology are often expensive, can become obsolete very quickly, and don’t necessarily help students to learn.

If we want to improve Australia’s school results, we have to focus on doing the hard yards with evidence-based instruction in the core academic disciplines.

Blaise Joseph is a research fellow in education at The Centre for Independent Studies.

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