There is not a week that goes by without hearing about a new technology tool or AI resource that is going to impact education. But what it is that makes so many experienced teachers and people in education sceptical about the legion of technology promises? It is normally a matter of experience. 

Robert Conquest, a British historian claimed that ‘everyone is conservative about the thing he knows best’. I would describe myself as a ‘small c’ conservative about technology in the classroom. I’ve experienced the benefits of visualisers, but also the inflated prices and failures of many a tech development too. 

There are currently international debates about the pros and cons of technology for learning (as well as well-being, mental health and more). In Sweden, for example, they have shifted to investing in more printed books and how rowed back from tech investment

The battle between paper and screens has been raging for several years. Catchily titled research, such as ‘Is the pen mightier than the keyboard?’ has drawn conclusions that the rush to keyboarding skills may accrue marginal losses for learners. A 2018 meta-analysis (a study of a large range of studies) claimed the following:

  • Paper-based reading yields better comprehension outcomes than digital-based reading.
  • Reading time frame and text genre moderate the medium effect on comprehension (i.e. there is less difference with narrative texts), and
  • The advantage of paper-based comprehension has increased over the years since 2000. 

There are emerging calls for more tech-based exams (with some evidence indicating that there isn’t much difference between reading exams on screen or on paper), but the jury is out whether we should leap to that conclusion. Perhaps reading on screen inhibits exam performance pupils? It should be a question we ask before making a leap.

Some research studies have indicated that the mere presence of a phone can inhibit attention. And yet, there are also studies that indicate that screen time does not impair brain development in any way. Teachers, and parents, may understandably be confused about the steps to take with new technology. Given the importance of children’s learning, and their reading development, it probably pays to be cautious and conservative. 

Should we launch laptops out of the classroom? 

We cannot hold back the waves of technological innovation – nor should we – but we should take care to not inhibit vital aspects of learning and key skills just as valuable as their digital equivalent. 

We should not forsake the power of handwriting (especially for early development), the effectiveness of note taking, nor reading comprehension from paper textbooks and similar. 

Additionally, I reflect upon my attitude as a parent of two children in and near their teens. We are small c conservative about their technology use. They both access smartphones, use their laptops for some of their homework, and the usual, but we place a big emphasis on paper reading and we limit tech time. My judgement as a school leader was always ‘if I were to employ this teacher, would I be happy for them to teach my child’. Technology use is no different. 

Given the costs of ever-changing technology we need to be vigilant about careful use in education. The cost is both in terms of budgets, but also in time. New applications invariably require training time for teachers (and pupils) too. If harnessed well, there is the possibility AI could save teacher time and allow them to target their impact more effectively. There is also the value of research and adaptive assessments offered by technology too.  

But we should follow Robert Conquest’s guidance and be cautious about technology for education because we care so much about it and we know a lot already about how it works best. 

[Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license]