It is arguably education's biggest debate at the moment: does technology in the classroom help or hinder student achievement? With such amazing advances in technology over the past decade, the temptation would be to use as much of it as possible. But just because some technology is available, does it mean we should use it?
We know from various pieces of evidence that excessive mobile phone use can have a negative impact on students. For example:
- Students who use their phone too much in the evening go to bed later and get less, lower-quality sleep;
- Research suggests a negative association between screen time and school performance;
- And there’s evidence to suggest that banning mobile phones at school improves student performance.
But what about actually using modern technology within education? Does this support and enhance learning?
We needed technology in lockdown for remote learning. Now schools have returned face-to-face, what can we take from this? Is technology as useful back in the classroom? Can it play a key role in enhancing learning?
Let’s dive into the research and look at the full story…
The Pros of tech in the classroom1. Student attitudes and engagement
Although there is limited evidence so far to suggest that using modern technology in the classroom, particularly tablets, can actually improve grades, there is a whole host of evidence to suggest other benefits (which in turn may translate to improved grades).
For example, one particular study found that use of iPads in the classroom increased students’ perceptions of their engagement (e.g. “the iPad motivated me to learn more course material” or “I participated more in class during iPad activities than during activities that did not use the iPad”). Furthermore, a large literature review of the use of tablets in education found evidence that they enable students to be more independent in class and improve their motivation to learn.2. Working with others
We often hear about how phones and technology alienate and de-connect us from real-life social relationships. However, when it comes to tablets in the classroom, it seems to be a different story.
Research has pointed to the benefits of class technology on the more social aspect of learning. For example, evidence from the literature review mentioned above found that, as tablets increased student engagement, they also had a positive effect on students’ abilities to work with others to solve problems and master difficult material. Tablets not only increased communication and collaboration between students, but also between students and teachers, and among teachers.3. Good for a range of skills
Does technology actually have any direct impact on learning? This large survey study in Quebec found some key impacts of using tablet technology: it enabled teachers and students to get more creative, improved IT skills (of both students and teachers) and provided a greater variety of resources and learning materials. In line with this, students report that having a tablet makes it easier for them to organise their learning, access to their class materials and resources, and be more ‘connected’.
Another literature review by Dhir, Gahwaji et al. (2013) suggested that tablets used in the classroom may have a positive impact on language and literacy skills. In particular, they found that using e-reading on tablets was a great way to support students who struggled with literacy, including those for whom English was not their first language. However, they did also add that more thorough research is needed to establish any true effect of tablets on literacy skills.4. Technology for SEN
Another key advantage of using technology such as tablets in the classroom is the power it has to help children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). Tablets can aid the learning of children with SEN in different ways, such as helping children with visual impairments and learning difficulties to read and write, and improving social and organisation skills for those who struggle with this, including autistic children.
In fact, the Education Endowment Foundation outlines technology as a key recommendation for ensuring that all students, including those with SEN, have access to high-quality teaching. Using tablets can empower these children. Technology puts them more in control of their learning, developing confidence that enables them to improve further.5. Reducing teacher workload
While the impact of technology on student learning is key, we should consider the impact on teachers too. In the literature on technology in education, teachers report that using tablets for lessons requires little preparation, and that it makes marking classwork and assignments easier. So, used well, technology has the capacity to leave more time for teaching and learning, as well as reduce teacher workload and their hours of planning time.6. Bridging the gap
Finally, technology has the capacity to bridge the worrying attainment gap. It has the potential to do this in 2 ways…
Technology has the advantage of being able to extend learning to the home environment. One interesting study compared tablet use between students who had personal ownership of tablets they could take home and students who could only access tablets for certain lessons. The researchers suggested that personal ownership was the “single most important factor for successful use of tablet technology”. Personal ownership gives the same access to learning outside of school as more advantaged students to more disadvantaged students who might otherwise have to share devices a home, if they have any.
However, the attainment gap is not only about a rich/poor divide. There’s also the gap between the bright outgoing children who thrive in the classroom, and the more quiet, non-assuming but equally bright students who might do better if they had more time to get their head around things. These students thrived in remote learning, able to work at their own pace and developing their confidence.
One of the biggest causes of the attainment gap is actually that different students need different amounts of learning time. Returning to school after months of remote learning, technology (such as in the form of personal tablets) can continue to allow a more personalised learning experience both in class and at home. This can enable students to work at their own pace, and help to bridge the attainment gap. Furthermore, evidence suggests that extending students’ abilities to learn outside classroom further supports their independent learning and helps them to develop metacognitive skills.
The cons of tech in the classroom1. Costs
Of course, the main drawback of technology in the classroom is the costs involved. For example, using tablets with personal ownership could mean large benefits, but also big costs. What’s more, if only the wealthier schools and areas can afford this luxury, this may only exacerbate the disadvantage gap. And even if everyone could afford it, it is worth considering the opportunity cost, which is to say could this money be better spent elsewhere.
Even as tablet technology becomes more widely available and the amount of education technology content is increasing, they remain expensive and simply aren’t accessible to all students.2. Tech = distraction = teacher workload
Let’s be honest: any device with an internet connection has a potential for distraction. Need to message a friend? You can do it right there. Fancy a quick game? Right there. Want to check the weather for this weekend? Right there.
The large survey study in Quebec, despite finding that tablets in the classroom had a positive impact on learning, also found that many students found it hard to resist the temptations of chatting with friends or playing games. And teachers felt that this was impacting students’ academic achievement.
However, many people still feel that distraction should not be a barrier to the benefits of technology in the classroom, and that avoiding technology distraction is simply a matter of classroom management. Efforts to limit distraction can include shutting off internet access during lessons and restricting access to certain websites and apps.
Even if this is the case, as educators, are we just making life more difficult for ourselves? Are we simply adding to the workload of classroom management? And is it really worth it?
3. Everyone needs paper
Distraction isn’t the only potential way for technology to disrupt classroom learning. An influential piece of research conducted at Princeton University found that students who hand-wrote notes in class had greater understanding of the content and performed better in a test than students who took notes on a laptop. However, there have also been several studies which found no difference in student learning between writing notes on paper and typing notes on a tablet or laptop.
So, whether writing on paper "gets it into your brain more" isn’t clear. But, what we can say is that there should be a warning against going all tech. Writing on paper remains an invaluable skill for students. Even if you decide technology is a great tool in your classroom, it’s important to leave time to practice writing by hand, on paper.4. The Google Effect
Even if typing notes doesn’t hinder learning, there is a potential technology issue that occurs with finding information online. This is nicely illustrated by a particular thinking bias, called The Google Effect. Also referred to as digital amnesia, this is when people are more likely to forget information they can easily find online through search engines like Google or Bing. When people believe the information will be stored online or saved electronically, they make less of an effort to remember this information.
This "Cognitive Offloading" can help to free up our cognitive load, allowing us to focus on other information. However, if students over-rely on technology to remember information for them, they won’t transfer this information into their long-term memory. And when Google isn’t here to help them in exam situations, they won’t be able to recall it.5. A matter of preference
In the end, it all comes down to the fact that every student is different. While some students may love using technology such as tablets in the classroom and find it helpful, others may prefer more traditional styles of learning, finding technology distracting and difficult to use.6. Logistics
One thing you never see on the fancy Edtech promo videos is the stress of charging 30 tablets, the wifi going down or students forgetting their login details. The nitty-gritty reality of using technology in the classroom often isn’t as smooth or effortless as it may first appear. Therefore, there is potential for it to eat into valuable teaching time, meaning the opportunity cost isn’t just a financial one.
Modern technology, such as tablets, could play a very important role in enhancing education, as well as helping to bridge the achievement gap. However, to avoid problems of distraction, it needs to be skilfully implemented. This means good organisation, classroom management, and of course, there may be large costs.
That is the big picture. Ultimately, it’s up to schools to weigh up the information and consider whether benefits outweigh costs and effort, to decide if and how they can use modern technology in their classrooms.