What impact is technology really having in the classroom?

At the NSW Education Symposium in October, world-renowned Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, suggested the adoption of digital devices in schools may be impacting negatively on learning.
“We are not paying attention to the very rapidly increased use of screen technology. The first three PISAs were in 2000, 2003 and 2006, this thing didn't exist. There were no iPads or smartphones,” he said.
Sahlberg went on to predict a tobacco and big sugar-style marketing war between edutech-company-backed research and independent research over the next five years – the focus being the academic impact of digital devices in classrooms.
He added that reading performance has been drastically declining in Finland during the digital age and encouraged educators to consider patterns in learning outcomes since its onset.
“Our pedagogy and teaching has not changed, the curriculum has not changed. So how else can you explain this dramatic change?” he asked.
Studies prompt concerns
There are also concerns that the amount of screen time associated with using digital devices could be adversely affecting student health.
A report back in May found that one-in-four young people surveyed admitted they would find it “impossible” to go without digital devices for even one week – a trait that can be associated with Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD).

Some studies suggest that excessive screen time can have a range of negative cognitive effects, including structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.
Could this be linked to the decline in student achievement that Sahlberg was talking about?
While the jury might still be out on this question, there is evidence that the presence of digital devices in classrooms are doing more to further student learning than to obstruct it.
How technology is enhancing learning
Pointing to a recent case study, Catherine Attard, associate professor at Western Sydney University’s Centre for Education Research, says that there are countless possibilities when it comes to education and technology.
“The need to incorporate digital technologies into the teaching and learning of mathematics is now an integral aspect of Australian classrooms, with current curriculum documents expressing explicit expectations that digital technologies are incorporated into the teaching and learning of mathematics,” she told The Educator.
“There are arguments that the traditional classroom practices that have largely consisted of print-based resources are no longer able to meet the needs of contemporary learners of mathematics because of the limited forms of representation.”
Attard pointed out that the current literature around digital technologies and mathematics suggest the implementation of new technologies has potentially changed teaching and learning radically.
“I understand the apprehension from educators, but the results of the recent study which involved the Matific e-learning resource and this style of learning speak for themselves,” she said.
“I encourage educators to look at the positive outcome that this trial has had on improving students’ engagement with mathematics and integrate it into the classroom.”
‘Create environments for long-term change’
One school that knows the positive impact technology can have on student outcomes is Saint Stephens College, located on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
The school’s 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.”
‘Set clear objectives from the onset’
So how can schools get past the quagmire of debate and begin really realising the potential benefits that technology can offer?
Troy Martin, director of APAC at Canvas by Instructure – a cloud-based Learning Management System (LMS) – said the key is to set clear objectives from the outset.
“Teachers and administrators alike must ask not ‘which devices and online learning management platform could we be using at school?’ but rather ‘what can technology help to achieve?’” he said.
“We need to work backwards, by first identifying a problem to solve or the outcomes we would like to achieve and then as a second step identify which technologies we should implement.”