We should be cautious about classroom tech

Michael Lambert examines the extent to which computers and mobile devices are necessary in education

Teachers are the best app a classroom can have. Delores Johnson / The National
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There is an old joke that asks “where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?” To which the answer is “anywhere it wants”. Today, that large ape is synonymous with any entity that can’t be defeated. One such area of seemingly inevitable growth is the education technology market.

According to a 2016 estimate by EdTechXEurope, a summit that brings together investors, innovators and influencers, the so-called edtech market will grow by 17 per cent per annum and will be worth $252 billion by 2020. There is no denying that classroom technology such as tablets, VR goggles and drones has the potential to engage young people like never before. Apple, Google and Microsoft are currently working hard to gain a substantial place in the education market, so you can be sure that an online classroom will soon be making its way to a school near you.

However, before we blithely fall off the digital cliff face like pixelated lemmings, we do need to assess the effect of our coming bout with the big gorilla. Education has always been about freeing ourselves from the coercive effect of ideology so that we can live informed lives free from superstition or marketing. However, today we are on the cusp of hitching ourselves to big business with very little empirical research on the effect of technology in schools.

For many years anthropologists referred to “McDonaldisation” to describe the resentment of autonomous cultures to the colonisation of the world by global brands such as Coca-Cola and Starbucks, whose products were highly addictive and bad for our health. Today, schools risk losing their identities by adopting the highly addictive world view that the tech giants would have us believe is the future of education. This month saw the release of the book Irresistible by Adam Alter in which the author reveals why it is no accident that you can’t stop looking at your screen. The mission of tech designers is to make their products as addictive as possible.

Alter reveals that for a time Google had a “design ethicist”, remarking that you do not make such an appointment unless you are concerned about the ethics of the products you are creating. Interestingly enough, he also mentions the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Silicon Valley, where students do not have access to any technology. This example has been cited often over the past few years because 75 per cent of the students there have parents who are big names in technology.

If some of Silicon Valley’s key players are choosing schools that shun technology, then we all need to tread carefully.

The only major global evaluation of digital technology in the classroom was conducted in 2015 by the OECD. “If you look at the best-performing education systems, such as those in East Asia, they've been very cautious about using technology in their classrooms,” said the OECD's Andreas Schleicher. “Those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately.”

I write this opinion piece neither as a Luddite nor as a contrarian. I blog, tweet and Facebook in the name of education. I own a Microsoft SurfacePro, coordinate my life on OneNote and advocate preparation for the digital age to my parents, students and teachers. But I do so infused with a healthy dose of circumspection and pragmatism rather than evangelism. Yes, an awareness of the economic needs of society must remain a practical focus of education: if the information age is upon us then schools must ensure that students can transition into the working world. However, it is too tempting to see schools exclusively as servants of the economy.

If we need to surrender our educational establishments to global corporations whose acquisition of market share is dependent on the sale and school-wide implementation of “irresistible” technology then we should all be wary. My views, I realise, will be seen by some as quaint and they will be met with derision by others.

And yet a recent article in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning that ran with the headline “The best app is the teacher”, tells us what we already know: the empirical research on the effect of tablet devices is limited as is research focusing on how teachers should be supported while using tablet devices.

The results of their study show that besides the way tablets are implemented, it remains the teacher who determines the success of learner-centred learning with tablets. In spite of tablet devices’ potential to promote learner-centred learning, students reported the need of plenary teacher-led class interventions.

All schools about to embark on the digital journey as well as parents, students and boards of governors would be well advised to measure the effect of edtech through systematic research. What will be the cost of screen time in class? In pure financial terms what will be the effect on the bottom line of the school in terms, of training, technology and running costs? What will be the cost to the social skills if all work is produced and consumed online? Without two-way conversations which rely on the subtle acquisition of social cues, how will our students learn to negotiate differences? How will we know? What will be the effect on actual examined outcomes? The OECD research would suggest that the effect could be negative.

We must avoid jumping into the digital abyss and move gingerly around its edges.

Michael Lambert is headmaster of Dubai College