October 10th 2015

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COVER STORY Will drought and falling dollar spike food prices?

CANBERRA OBSERVED Nationals extract good deal in Turnbull takeover

EDITORIAL Obama's climate gambit: do as I say, not as I do!

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Senate committee says no to marriage plebiscite

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Turnbull divides party in Cabinet reshuffle

RURAL AFFAIRS FTAs eat away at our food and agriculture surpluses

RELIGION IN RUSSIA Byzantine Catholics driven underground

FINANCE Hidden by a metaphor: the secret life of money

EDUCATION Proliferation of screens making kids no smarter

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cabinet door must be open to public service

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Child-support program under the microscope

PUBLIC POLICY Prohibition of drugs has the evidence on its side

CINEMA Kids will love pixelated Aussie classic: Blinky Bill: The Movie

BOOK REVIEW Hope for the Land of the Southern Cross

BOOK REVIEW Evaluating arguments against free will


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Proliferation of screens making kids no smarter

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, October 10, 2015

Kevin Rudd, during the 2007 election campaign, called it the “toolbox of the 21st century” and more than $2.1 billion was spent implementing the Labor government’s Digital Education Revolution.

Schools across Australia boast of being at the cutting edge when it comes to the new technologies, and it’s not unusual for laptops to be mandatory and for students to be described as “digital natives” and “knowledge navigators”.

But, how effective are computers and new technologies in raising standards and ensuring students achieve strong results? According to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the answer is four out of 10.

Based on an analysis of the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, the OECD report, entitled Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, concludes: “Countries that have invested heavily in information and communication technologies (ICT) for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performance in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science.”

It is significant that two of the highest performers in the PISA international maths and science test, Korea and Shanghai-China, have a much lower incidence of computer use than countries such as Australia, which underperform by comparison and where computer use at school is almost universal.

The report goes on to note: “Countries where it is more common for students to use the internet at school for schoolwork, students’ performances in reading declined between 2000 and 2012, on average.”

Worse still, the report says an overemphasis on computers in the classroom disadvantages at-risk students who would benefit more from ensuring that “every child reaches a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics” before “expanding or subsidising access to hi-tech devices and services”.

This reported failure of the new technologies to raise standards should not surprise. A 2004 paper by European researchers, Ludger Woessmann and Thomas Fuchs, concluded that the availability of computers did little to improve test results.

And it is not just academic results that suffer. The OECD report notes that too much screen time can have negative consequences for children’s development, including: information overload, inability to concentrate, online bullying and lower emotional wellbeing.

Lower-order skills must come first

Research associated with how young minds develop also suggests that it is vital that students exercise and strengthen the ability to do mental arithmetic, rote-learn times tables and memorise ballads and poems.

Children need to hardwire their brains, as it were, and learn to master lower-order skills and processes so they can be recalled automatically. Relying on computers and calculators too early interferes with learning and makes it difficult for students to complete higher-order and more complex tasks.

However, the OECD report acknowledges that the limitations of ICT and computer use does not mean that 21st-century learning should be abandoned and details strategies to ensure that computers and the internet are more effectively used. Included is acknowledging that education requires “intensive teacher-student interactions and that technology sometimes distracts from this valuable human engagement”.

Education is a human affair and students learn best when they are motivated by committed, enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers. Teachers also need to be well resourced and properly trained in how best to use ICT in the classroom and to ensure effective learning.

As OECD director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher has said: “Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.”

Adopting teaching styles more suited to the past while using computers and the internet is also an issue. The report says teachers need to adopt “new pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants with tools for inquiry-based pedagogies and collaborative workshops”.

Proven by the example of the then-Rudd government’s Digital Education Revolution, it is also vital to ensure that attempts to introduce and use new technologies in the classroom are properly funded. Many of the computers introduced into schools five to six years ago are now out of date, as is the associated software, and the internet service provided to schools is often too slow and subject to technical failure.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and director of the Education Standards Institute. This article first appeared in The Courier Mail on September 18, 2015.

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