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Do primary school kids really need their own classroom iPads?

This story was originally published in The Spinoff.

A push for greater digital access in schools can have its positives and also its negatives, as Julie Cullen explains.

Recent articles in new media have examined digital inequality, and highlighted an initiative to increase digital access in a Māngere primary school.

These articles raise valid points. Technology is used for so many activities now, from banking and job hunting to learning and entertainment. Devices can allow students access to learning content during lockdown. Technology also means connection, and the loss of this can be even further exacerbated by our current restrictions.

Digital skills are important. They will be essential for our young people on leaving school, not only for the workplace or for those moving to higher study, but simply to participate in an increasingly digital society.

The government is sending devices to students with a focus on those in high school, and is also considering wider issues that contribute to a digital divide. Some families may have skills, resources and time which enable them to teach their kids how to use technology more than others can, and we need to address these challenges.

High school students need to be the priority for receiving devices to learn. However, according to this article, one Māngere primary school is going much further: while acknowledging that online learning isn’t a necessity for year 1 to 4 students, on returning from lockdown all its students will be getting one-to-one access to iPads; all five-year-olds will get a personal iPad that stays with them in class.

Meanwhile, across the Tasman, there are growing concerns about the use of screens in education. In their Growing Up Digital Australia study, Australian professors of education Pasi Sahlburg and Adrian Picolli surveyed 1,876 Australian educators, and found that 43% of teachers believe that technology enhances learning. However, 84% said digital technologies were a growing distraction in the learning environment, and 78% said they had seen a decrease in the ability of students to focus on educational tasks. The New South Wales (NSW) Teachers Federation President Angelo Gavrielatos has said the report was timely. “Digital technologies are not the panacea that some people make them out to be,” he noted.

The evidence for computer use in learning is mixed at best. In 2015, the OECD published a large international study that compared academic outcomes with time spent on computers in school. It found that students with moderate device use in class had some improvement in educational outcomes – including digital skills. However, students who frequently used computers in the classroom – defined as for more than half an hour a day – had significantly lower educational outcomes, particularly in certain areas such as reading and science and, interestingly, in gaining digital skills.

The same study was replicated in the US by the Reboot Foundation. The same results were found. For younger students in the fourth grade (10 years old), tablet use in class was clearly associated with lower performance. Students who used tablets in some classes, compared to those who never did, scored slightly lower on their reading exams; those who used tablets frequently were on average a full year reading level behind, and up to three years behind for some.

The report stated that “scores for tablet-related activities, like games and apps, are similarly dismal. For reading-related apps, educational games, and electronic textbooks, more usage is associated with worse scores. This raises questions about the value of these approaches as a basis for instruction”. These trends held across all states, and across schools with different socioeconomic profiles.

This correlation between screen use and reading literacy is particularly interesting given a recent report on New Zealand 15 year olds showing that reading literacy has declined again. The official position appears to be that there is no causal link between the two, however. When the report’s author – the chief science advisor to the Ministry of Education – was asked on RNZ about screens and reading, he said he didn’t think children necessarily needed to be “putting down screens”, and noted the connection between increasing screen use and declining reading literacy hasn’t been proven.

Certainly, there are other issues to address in encouraging young readers: are our children seeing people like themselves in their stories? Are they hearing their language? Are the books interesting and relevant?

But the Australian experts disagree that the link isn’t clear. According to them, while causation between screen use and the decline in reading is very hard to prove, it’s the most likely reason. Many educators are making the same connections. And it shouldn’t be a cause for panic. If we know the most likely reason, then we can problem solve. Nobody is advocating for banning all screens.

We need to be talking about the best ways to use educational technology and to teach digital literacy. The Australian research draws attention to device use and risks to children’s health that need to be taken into account. What age and developmental stage is best for one-to-one devices? What curriculum content is best suited to a digital format, and for how long should young children be using their device? When is the right age for a BYOD policy? If seven year olds bring devices home, are they using them just for education? How easy is it for families to supervise? Digital firewalls and safety software are important, but we also know that none are foolproof yet. Are our five year olds best served with their own iPad to work on in class? Is it in fact, a disadvantage? Would they be better with limited use in the junior primary years, as many European countries do? Would they be better off with fewer devices, shared between classes or used collaboratively? Could this money be better spent on other resources for them?

There are different views on these topics; the answers are not black and white. The educational technology industry, a multi-billion-dollar industry, certainly is heavily marketing technology as the solution to our educational challenges.

We need to be asking questions, and we need to be able to discuss these issues without fear of being labelled “that parent”, or a Luddite. We need to look past trite arguments that people were once afraid of ballpoint pens to consider current research.

The NSW government has restricted the unapproved use of digital devices during class, recess and lunch “to balance the benefits and possible harms to students”. Meanwhile, that 2015 OECD report noted that New Zealand was among the countries with the highest use of computers in classrooms in the world.

In 2019, another OECD report found that numerous countries had reduced their use of computers in schools while New Zealand, relatively, had shown significant increase. Surely it’s time for New Zealand to ask itself if its approach is the right one?

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