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Screen-based learning and our brains

Online learning – let’s get the best from it.

Recently, a Danish lecturer felt so frustrated with the distractions of digital technologies, he teamed up with the University of Copenhagen to experiment by banning screens during his discussion classes, and then analysing 100 university student evaluations to assess the impact.

“The lecturer felt as if their students' use of social media on their laptops and smartphones distracted and prevented them from achieving deeper learning. Eventually, the frustration became so great that he decided to ban all screens in discussion lessons."

The findings included that "Students felt compelled to be present - and liked it. When it suddenly became impossible to Google their way to an answer or more knowledge about a particular theorist, they needed to interact and, through shared reflection, develop as a group. It heightened their engagement and presence."

The results looked at the both the advantages and disadvantages of using screens in higher education, and highlighted some useful points on how to get the best out of educational technology.

Without distraction, we engage in deeper learning

The article went on to explore why we have deeper engagement and presence when our devices are “stashed away’, with researcher Katrine Lindvig suggesting the answer rests within the structure of our brains.

"A great deal of research suggests that humans can't really multitask. While we are capable of hopping from task to task, doing so usually results in accomplishing tasks more slowly. However, if we create a space where there's only one thing -- in this case, discussing cases and theories with fellow students -- then we do what the brain is best at, and are rewarded by our brains for doing so."

“Furthermore, a more analogue approach can lead to deeper learning, where one doesn't just memorize things only to see them vanish immediately after an exam. Learning, and especially deep learning, is about reflecting on what one has read and then comparing it to previously acquired knowledge. In this way, one can develop and think differently, as opposed to simply learning for the sake of passing an exam. When discussing texts with fellow students, one is exposed to a variety of perspectives that contribute to the achievement of deep learning."

But we can’t’ go back and pretend that screens aren’t here

Some students also reported frustration with taking hand written notes, and of not being able to search and share their notes easily with other students who weren’t there.

Lidvig noted that this was not an issue of whether to use screens or not for university students, stating, "we're not going back to the Stone Age, it's about how to integrate screens with instruction in a useful way.”

“It's about identifying what form best supports the content and type of instruction. In our case, screens were restricted during lessons where discussion was the goal. This makes sense, because there is no denying that conversation improves when people look into each other's eyes rather than down at a screen."

“When it comes to lectures which are primarily one-way in nature, it can be perfectly fine for students to take notes on laptops, to help them feel better prepared for exams. We can also take advantage of students' screens to increase interaction during larger lectures. It's about matching tools with tasks. Just as a hammer works better than a hacksaw to pound in nails."

Using the right tool for the task

This point of using the right tool for the task is also the focus for Maryanne Wolf, Education Professor and Director of the UCLA Centre for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice. She notes that:

"The great challenge now is to learn how to use both print and digital mediums to their best advantage for all."

Professor Wolf describes the neurology behind differences in screen-based reading and print reading, and the advantages and disadvantages of both mediums in her latest article, ‘Screen-based online learning will change children’s brains: Are we ready for that.”

She addresses current issues with online learning due to the COVID pandemic, and talks about threats to critical thinking and democracy if we lose our deep reading ability, with a focus on how to preserve these skills and at the same time, to get the best out of reading online.

For a brilliant 20 minute podcast on this topic to listen to on the drive home, follow the link to her talk on “The science of reading in the digital age."

“Literacy literally changes the human brain. The process of learning to read changes our brain, but so does what we read, how we read and on what we read (print, e-reader, phone, laptop).”

“To skim to inform” is the new norm for reading. What goes missing are deep reading processes which require a quality of attention increasingly at risk in a culture and on a medium in which constant distraction bifurcates our attention.

“…my research focused on a biliterate brain in which children learned to read almost solely with print, while key cognitive skills like coding were learned on digital screens. After foundational and deep reading skills were established, teachers would explicitly teach deep reading skills on screens.”

Again in her latest article, Dr Wolf highlights the importance of children being taught to read in print during their first five years at school, and how after this point, teaching them explicitly which tool to choose for the task, will allow the us to get the best out of educational technology.

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