Time to get serious about digital distraction

Last week, a NSW principal claimed that laptops in many classrooms were proving to be more of a distraction to students than a helping hand.

Sydney Grammar School headmaster, John Vallance, said that the billions of dollars being spent on providing students with laptops was a “scandalous waste of money” as grades gradually dropped across the country despite the investment.

However, some schools are seeing dramatic improvements in student learning as a direct result of implementing technology – in a considered and practical way, that is.

One such school is Saint Stephens College, located on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Its head of e-learning, Peter West, says he has embarked on a long but ultimately rewarding journey of blended learning.

However, West told The Educator that the issue of schools adopting technology without having a cohesive plan to improve student learning was both under-discussed and carried with it huge consequences.

“You can’t just throw laptops into a classroom and expect change,” he said.

“We need to stop looking for the quick fix and start creating environments for long-term change. This requires a lot of time, effort and expertise. However, to not do it – to lock students into the past – would be a crime against their future.”

West said that organisational change and having the right ICT infrastructure in place were paramount if students were to benefit from the use of digital devices like laptops and iPads in classrooms.

“It’s a gradual process, but it’s the biggest disruption in education for over 100 years, so we have to ask what we are preparing kids for,” he said.

“Are we just preparing them for a good ATAR? In that case, let’s get rid of all the distractions and board classroom windows up so kids can’t look outside and daydream.”

Saint Stephen’s College has now expanded its laptop program to Year 6 students, a move West said was working well. He attributed this to the school’s patient and considered approach to what worked and what didn’t before implementing its Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program.

“It’s true that many schools have rushed into this [the adoption of devices], but I don’t think there are enough people out there who know how to use the devices they’ve got to improve learning.”

West said there was a mixed sense of foreboding and opportunity prior to his school implementing its laptop program.

“When our school first introduced laptops into the classroom we thought ‘this is either going to be the biggest distraction and everything will come crashing down – or it will be the biggest advantage we’ve ever had,” he said.

“The teacher in the classroom is the one who determines which one of those is the case – and that’s why this issue is so important.”

West said most teachers already know which of their students are likely to be distracted, adding that most children do the right thing and use their devices for classwork and not leisure during lessons.

“For every one of those distracted students there are 20 other kids who do the right thing, so why should we disadvantage them by restricting this technology in class?” he said.

West said the conversation needs to be changed from teaching to learning so that students can be educated with technology in a way that enhances learning.

He suggested that teachers adopt collaborative learning tools that students can personally engage with.

“Powerpoint is designed for teachers – not students. Teachers use this to stand at the front of the classroom and talk to students, but it’s not really a learning resource,” he said.

“However, if you use Office Mix and narrate from it and draw on it while you’re talking, then your students can watch it and get full understanding of what’s being explained. That’s a learning resource.

“What we need to do is flip the switch in people’s heads and move away from making it all about teaching resources to learning resources and enhancing learning.”