Many parents are faced with the new digital practices used in their children’s schooling. ‘Bring Your Own Device’ policies and increased use of technology in classroom are becoming daily realities in most schools. The New Zealand Ministry of Education supports this digitisation process and provides significant resources for related initiatives, such as rolling out ultrafast internet services, software purchase and digital materials. Overall, Government has promised to invest more than $700 million in digital learning infrastructure and services (Beehive website, December 2015). Also, some schools expect families to bear part of the cost by purchasing suitable devices. Why is this process taking place? And how exactly are digital devices useful for our children’s learning?
Put simply, schools are going digital because our societies are going digital.
Whether the purpose of the school system is to prepare children for the world of work or to provide necessary skills to participate in our 21st century societies, the competent use of ICT has become one of the key requirements. Digital learning is part of a larger shift moving the focus of schooling away from information transfer. Traditional ways of schooling were well suited for societies where information had to be memorised, because it was not as easily available as it is in our 21st century lives. Even though this type of learning has still its place in the school system, acquiring information is becoming less valuable and many Western governments and educators argue that the emphasis should therefore be placed on more generic skills and competencies. Reformers are advocating for digital and other transferable skills by stating that we need to prepare students for an unpredictable future. Ten years ago the former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley proposed that “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” (Quoted in The Jobs Revolution: Changing How America Works, 2004).
Hence, increasing focus on ICT skills is part of a larger systemic change where schools are asked to be more future-focused and move away from traditional ways of learning and teaching. Apart from acquiring digital skills, the use of ICT in learning has been argued to lead to improved educational outcomes, for instance, by providing more efficient ways to engage students, by enhancing collaboration, and by allowing students to be more autonomous learners.
ICT learning in schools is also an equalising factor, ensuring that the digital gap between socioeconomic groups does not become a future divider, further impeding the chances of children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2015 the OECD reported that “Students unable to navigate through a complex digital landscape will no longer be able to participate fully in the economic, social and cultural life around them” (p.3). In this regard, the New Zealand school system seems to fare well. The 2015 OECD report indicates that schools provide a wide access to ICT resources, and that the digital disparities between low and high decile schools are low. Besides government, other actors, such as the Manaiakalani Education Trust, have helped low decile schools to facilitate digital learning programmes. The role of the school system is pivotal as the existing data underscore significant digital gaps between New Zealand families (e.g. read AUT’s 2015 report here and OECD 2015 report here).
However, the shift towards more ICT in schooling is not supported by all stakeholders. Some parents, teachers and academics have expressed their concerns that technology and increased screen-time are not beneficial for children’s learning and development. Negative impacts such as ‘shallow thinking’, long-term dependency and attention problems have been listed in various studies (e.g. discussed in this review by Mark Wilson in 2015). For instance, Todd Oppenheimer’s 2003 book The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology, offers various examples of unsuccessful technology investments and integrations in US schools and classrooms. Many of his case study schools had purchased technology that was not being used (e.g. computers/software sitting idle) or, according to Oppenheimer, were inferior to more traditional teaching methods. Nevertheless, most ICT related criticism concludes that it is not the technology as such that causes problems, but rather the exact ways it is implemented and used.
We have to acknowledge that ICT is neither a shortcut to good education, nor a peril that we should fight against. The paramount salience of digital technologies makes a compelling case for the use of ICT in learning and teaching. However, parents are right to be critical and should pay attention to the ‘whys’, ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ of digital technologies. Schools and teachers should be able to elaborate on the processes through which the chosen digital tools are expected to improve student outcomes and how the effectiveness will be evaluated. Technology implementation should not be ad hoc, but needs thoughtful care by the school leadership. Digital learning needs its own strategy clearly outlining the embedded pedagogical theories and opportunity costs (i.e. compared to the costs and benefits of choosing non-ICT related interventions).
The current status quo leaves room for improvement. In New Zealand, around 25 percent of 500 schools surveyed reported not having an ICT strategic plan (2020 Communications Trust report, 2014). But even more importantly, we need skilled and enthusiastic teachers. Many school are already providing professional development for teachers, but also tertiary education providers need to integrate digital competencies as a key dimension in their teacher training curricula. Clearly there is still progress to be made. In 2014, the 2020 Communication Trust report concludes that in only 14 percent of the surveyed schools all teachers had necessary ICT skills to introduce digital devices for learning. Without sufficient initial teacher training and continuing professional development opportunities, the integration of ICT in classrooms is at risk of taking place without much – if any – enhancement of learning and teaching.