Digital technologies are transforming almost every area of society, and schools are no exception. But how can they be used positively in the classroom?
At their best, digital technologies offer an opportunity for deep learning and for students to work together on issues that concern them, like climate change. And they can connect us like never before.
But at their worst, they exacerbate inequality, distract students from learning, support bullying and damage mental health.
The impact of digital technology on classroom learning
Navigating the role of digital technologies in the classroom is a constant challenge for schools, who need to keep up with the fast pace of change, juggle ethical dilemmas and make practical decisions about how and when students can access devices.
“It’s an interesting and difficult space to keep up with,” says Catherine Smith, an expert in education equity and digital technologies in the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education.
By way of example she points to the issue of mobile phones in classrooms; some schools have an outright ban, others have agreements in place with students about appropriate use. And others still use them as learning tools.
“Some schools in Nordic countries integrate digital technologies like phones within lessons every day,” she says.
“You can use smartphones for anything – as spirit levels, rulers or for dimensional drawing. Or you can run an instant poll, collaborate on a document, collect audio or visual data. To an extent you’re only limited by your imagination.”
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The importance of deep learning
But to be useful, digital technologies need to support deep learning, not just replicate a traditional classroom task online.
John Hattie’s meta-analysis found technology didn’t have a particularly significant impact on student learning, most likely because in many cases it is simply replacing analogue activities, like doing a quiz online instead of with pen and paper.
Even the rise of coding in schools is not as revolutionary as it may first seem when you take a peek under the hood.
“Many kids are learning block languages, which is more like putting together a puzzle rather than writing a language or code,” says Ms Smith, adding that new technologies like 3D printing are also not always being used critically in classrooms.
“People are often very excited about the innovation but when it comes to asking questions about how kids are navigating the ethical challenges or thinking critically, it’s much harder to get them to engage.
“For example if a child blows up a building another student has created in a virtual space like Minecraft, the solution tends to be to re-boot the program to before that happened, rather than taking the opportunity to discuss collaboration and ethical behaviour.”
But, when used as a contextual opportunity, digital technologies can be used to explore some of the soft skills considered important today, like communication, intercultural awareness and collaborative problem solving (known as ‘general capabilities’ in the Australian Curriculum).
“Digital technologies are an opportunity to explore some of the real life contextual ethical experience kids have and think critically about the solutions they’re coming up with,” Ms Smith says.
Making digital technology meaningful
Facing a future likely riddled with conundrums thrown up by climate change, artificial intelligence and rising inequality, Ms Smith says it’s never been more important to help young people critically navigate the future challenges presented by technology by involving them in decisions about what they need from digital technologies and how to use them effectively.
Just like with any other kind of learning, digital technologies become meaningful for students when they can see them making a difference in their own or someone else’s world.
“I’ve seen a school with a maker centre full of wires and robotics sets, where the students had decided to build devices to help children with disabilities," says Ms Smith.
“Some primary schools are mining bitcoin and others partner with other schools in 3D digital spaces. And there are some amazing set ups where kids are building Minecraft worlds with virtual reality access, so they can check if the roof is too low or whether the sky is falling in.
“In a school in Western Australia recently the students built a robot that spoke in Martu, a local Indigenous language. That kind of inquiry-based learning approach to digital technologies can lead to exciting solutions.”
Ultimately, when the foundations are right, technology can be a wonderful tool for teachers.
“Technology can be a real force for good.”