This month report cards will be going home to parents, assessing how well their children have caught up from more than a year of disrupted learning. Now that we’re back in the classrooms, I’m wondering – along with other teachers – about the long-term effects of our virtual education experiment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that during the pandemic, most students suffered some sort of learning deficiency. A study by the CDC suggested that elementary children and their parents going through online learning experienced a decrease in their physical and emotional wellbeing. The World Bank estimated that the economic cost to the future of today’s students might be as high as 10 trillion dollars. Undoubtedly, some of this was due to teachers who struggled to adjust to the potential of technology. But there’s a legitimate concern that technology, by its very nature, is unsuitable as a medium for learning at the elementary level. How much technology should teachers embrace in our classrooms, once COVID is behind us?
Enhancing the classroom or replacing it?
Major technology companies – Apple, Google, Microsoft and a host of startups – were eager to bring their technology to the education sector before the pandemic. Lucrative contracts to supply, maintain and support software and hardware for millions of students and educators around the globe was already a tempting target for tech companies. The COVID pandemic accelerated that trend, prompting a sharp increase in the demand for education technology at the elementary school level. All of a sudden, schools were purchasing billions of dollars of technology. The pandemic made it almost imperative for schools to go “all in” on a technologically-empowered curriculum delivery.
And there’s no denying that technology provides many useful services to the classroom: smart white boards that can save and recall lessons and display interactive media; classroom devices to enable students to perform research using high quality sources; document cameras to enlarge examples. The options are nearly endless. For most teachers and students in an elementary or high school context before COVID, however, technology was a way to enhance traditional classroom activities. And it hasn’t typically been used on a large scale with young ages. During the pandemic, however, technology became the medium by which education was delivered for nearly every age group.
A new message
Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan is remembered for his famous statement that “the medium is the message.” In theory, then, this seismic change in content delivery was not just a change of mediums but of messages. So much of learning is about students developing their ability to focus on a particular problem or concept and work to understand it. Careful thought goes into planning and managing a learning space so that learners have the opportunity to work, free of distractions, with individually tailored supports, to achieve their learning goals. Schools try to encourage balanced, physical development of children by providing opportunities for sports and physical education. Essentially, the school system relies on all of the things that technological devices tend to de-emphasize.
Our technological devices are multipurpose, connecting us to many services with a vast menu of opportunities. Sales of single purpose devices like Kindles, iPods or traditional watches have been outstripped by devices that do everything from measure your heartbeat, take fingerprints and track sleep cycles to serve up your emails and social media reactions. Complex and functional devices have been replaced by devices that are entertaining and easy to learn. Bouncing icons and obscured internal workings have reduced kids’ (and most adults’) understanding of the devices to a sort of magic – something that just works by incomprehensible processes when the right gesture is performed. This medium is always on, always connected, and always looking to introduce you to something new and superficially engaging – not one that wants you to focus, free of distractions, on a single topic or activity to understand it at a deeper level.
The multi-functional nature of technology means that it actively works to pull students’ focus in different directions. One parent confessed that her son spent many classes playing games last year (“And they all were doing it, you know!”). The very computers that facilitate programs like Zoom also access a plethora of other options, and most young learners haven’t developed the self-control to limit themselves.
Creating a new distance
Teaching over Zoom also created an unavoidable barrier of physical distance. That barrier removed a very human touch from education. Any experienced teacher knows the value of simply moving closer to a student who is struggling to pay attention, a tactic that helps the student to refocus without disrupting the lesson. All too frequently online, the only way to deal with a disruptive student was to stop the whole lesson to verbally query a student. Until that moment, the educator is simply talking to a screen with potentially very little feedback.
Technology also exacerbates inequality. During the pandemic, some students struggled to access quizzes and assignments designed for computers on tablets or small phone screens. Some students had computers with strong internet connections and fast processors, while others laboured to download the required assignments. Technology isn’t especially adept at helping students with special needs. Technological tools sometimes have assistive technology baked in, but often that is only added as a product matures, if ever, as a way of expanding a developed product’s market reach. So much of our technology relies on colour and audio cues and the ability to tune out distractions – skills that many young students may not have.
In the hands of young children
I also noticed last year that technology limits the physicality of children. Delicate devices with breakable pieces and smashable screens don’t really lend themselves well to activities that involve physical movement, the outdoors, water, snack time and so much more.
Internet technology in particular is designed to enable the free sharing of information. While this makes it a great research tool, it places a tremendous temptation in front of students writing tests or completing assignments. In some cases, students who would not have cheated in the classroom found themselves copying and pasting easily accessible (and easily copied) information and attempting to pass it off as their own.
Back to the classroom
Despite these challenges, technology has its place in the classroom. Many educators have returned to their physical rooms with new digital tools that have already proved useful past lockdown. Six percent of Canadian K-12 students were taking online courses prior to the pandemic, and some students who were new to e-learning flourished online. Like their parents, students escaped the daily tedium of commuting and those who could adapt often found a more flexible schedule. However, the overall effects of this temporary transition have become clear. The unsuitability of online learning as a full replacement for education at the K-12 levels and the desire of parents and students to return to the classroom was recognized in word (if not in deed) by most provincial governments, which consistently claimed that schools should be the last to close and first to reopen.
Maybe, in time, technology will be ready to become the medium and the message of learning in a K-12 environment. Now that it has had a chance to do so, however, that day looks like it belongs in a science fiction future rather than tomorrow’s newspaper.
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