Technology in the classroom: The advantages and disadvantages

The digital age is well and truly upon us. The last decade has seen a spike in the introduction of technology in schools. Whilst students may have previously hidden their electronics from their teachers, many are now being encouraged to bring and use them in class as learning tools. 

It is one of 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:

So, is technology as useful back in the classroom? And can it play a key role in enhancing learning? Let’s dive into the research and look at the pros and cons…

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What is Edtech?

Education technology (Edtech) refers to technological processes and tools to improve education. It includes all forms of technology, from interactive whiteboards to visualisers or apps. Its aim is to deliver a new form of learning.

What does the research say about Edtech?

As with most things in education, there are conflicting views as to the effectiveness of Edtech. Research suggests that staff believe that technology can enhance their communication with students and reduce teaching pressure. However, they also have concerns regarding student achievement and expenditure.

Everyone from parents/guardians, teachers, education professionals to students themselves want to find the best ways to learn. But given that using technology in schools is a fairly recent introduction, what are the pros and cons?

The pros of tech in the classroom

  1. 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.

Research also suggests that interactive activities have the potential to boost student learning. For example, online platforms allow students to collaborate and incorporate technology into the classroom, making the act of learning more interesting for today’s students. Evidence suggests that technology in the classroom can make students more motivated to learn and take more ownership of their learning.  The same study found that over one-third of teachers found classroom technology was likely to encourage students to be more self-directed and created more interactive lessons.

  1. Working with others

We often hear about how phones and technology alienate and disconnect 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 a literature review 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.

  1. Improving 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 their class materials and resources and feel more “connected”.

Another literature review suggested that using tablets 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 students with English as a second language. However, they did also add that more thorough research is needed to establish any true effect of tablets on literacy skills.

  1. 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, or improving social and organisation skills for those who struggle with these, 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Improves digital literacy

The House of Lords report stated that “Digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child’s education alongside reading, writing and Mathematics…” Although we wouldn’t put it on a par with those other areas, in today’s world, being tech-savvy is an important skill for students’ learning and future career. Integrating technology as part of their education could build a foundation for students to benefit from in the long term.

  1. Bridging the gap

Finally, technology has the capacity to bridge the worrying attainment gap. It has the potential to do this in two ways…

The first one is that technology allows to extend learning to the home environment. One interesting study compared tablet use between students who personal owned a tablet 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 at home – if they have any.

However, the attainment gap is not only about a rich/poor divide. There’s also the gap between the more outgoing children who thrive in the classroom and the more quiet, non-assuming but equally bright students who might do better with more time to get their head around things. These students may have 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. The second way rests on the idea that 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.

Workshops to help your students manage their mobile phones better

The cons of tech in the classroom

  1. Associated costs

Of course, the main drawback of technology in the classroom is the cost involved. For example, using tablets with personal ownership could mean big 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 every school could afford it, it is worth considering the opportunity cost – 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.

  1. 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.

Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of Communication Education showed that students without mobile phones performed better academically as they were able to recall more detailed information. These students also scored a full grade-and-a-half higher on a multiple-choice test than those who actively used their mobile phones.

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?

  1. 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.

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.

  1. 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. 

  1. Room for cheating

Access to technology means access to messaging services or internet searches. This could allow students to google or ask their peers for answers to test questions or how to complete a task.

  1. Fake information

The internet is open to almost everyone. Whilst this is beneficial to many, it also allows people to provide inaccurate information to others. It is important for students to be aware of how to identify reliable sources.

  1. Logistics

One thing you never see on the fancy Edtech promo videos is the stress of charging 30 tablets, the Wi-Fi going down at the worst time, 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 financial.

Final thoughts

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 skillfully 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.

Workshops to help your students manage their mobile phones better

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