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“What’s happening with our kids now is the biggest educational experiment in history"

Updated: May 2, 2020

Interesting articles and reports are beginning to surface on the realities of online schooling and increased recreational screen use, for millions of children across the globe.


Initial advice to relax about screen use and that short-term heavy use is unlikely to cause harm, have been followed by suggestions to develop media plans as lockdowns extend. While these recommendations can be helpful, it is important to be mindful that while we are no longer in an immediate period of change, parents are still under significant pressures, and higher screen use over this period is expected – not just with online schooling, but as a social and recreational tool. All screen use is not equal, consider quality, not just quantity.

Developing a family plan may be useful however, to keep screen use balanced and to reduce conflict. As different whanau have different needs, media plans can be individualised, and tools for developing family media plans can be found here:

Other suggestions for this period include being clear with children that their higher screen use is temporary, as well as spending time with children online to learn about and share what they enjoy.

Looking further at child protection, UNICEF has developed a report on screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that millions of children are at increased risk of harm due to an unprecedented rise in screen time. Their report contains recommendations to governments, ICT industries, educators and parents on measures to take to mitigate potential risks, and to ensure children’s experiences online are safe and positive – click here to review the report including safety tools, local reporting mechanisms and hotlines.


An article has just been released by Pasi Sahlburg and Adrian Piccoli, looking at the results of a study into children’s online experiences - ‘Growing up Digital in Australia’. In the first results released from this three-part study, educators were interviewed about how children from primary school to Year 12 have changed in the last 5 years.

From the study, 80% of teachers reported that they found a decrease in students ability to focus on learning tasks, 80% saw a decline in students empathy and 60% observed students spending less time on physical activity. While noting that these trends could be caused by a number of factors, they state that undeniably the biggest change in children’s lives in the last decade is screen technology. Of teachers interviewed, 84% said digital technologies were a growing distraction in a learning environment, and the article noted that these reports match other international studies.

Sahlburg and Piccoli, both professors from the UNSW School of Education, consider how to apply this new information over the next term where students may be home from school, and beyond. They consider not only the results of the survey, but look at data that explores the views and experiences of teachers, parents and young people.

An excerpt from Pasi Sahlburg’s website articulately describes phase 1 of the study’s findings:

“The first findings paints a worrying picture of changed learning conditions in Australian schools. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia, children’s significant access to digital technology and its impacts on learning and wellbeing had become a major concern for educators. Key findings show 9 of 10 teachers and principals in Australia have observed an increase in students with emotional, social and behavioural challenges in school today compared to just five years ago. Three out of five Australian educators have seen a decline in students’ readiness to learn and two-thirds have observed more children arriving at school tired.”

”At the moment, with more than 85% of children across Australia being taught remotely at home, with a heavy emphasis on learning using media and digital technology, this research takes on an extra dimension. Children have entered a period of even greater exposure to screen-based technologies where no-one can be sure what impact, both positive and negative, this will have.”

“What is happening with our kids now is the biggest educational experiment in history”

In their full article, Sahlburg and Piccoli discuss the benefits that new technologies have opened up, alongside the downsides of 24/7 internet connection.

Suggestions for teachers and parents are discussed, including noting the pros and cons of this online ‘experiment’, and for parents, spending time with children on and offline. Educators are asked to include learning activities that don’t require technology, and teachers and parents are encouraged to work together to teach children safe and responsible use of media and digital technologies.

Click here to read the full article.


This information highlights a great opportunity for us to reflect on our own experience of online learning as teachers, parents and students.

Overnight, many educators in New Zealand and globally have had to flip learning and come up with an alternative way to continue teaching for our children. Among schools and classrooms, different approaches have been taken to provide remote learning, and these are interesting to compare. Google Classrooms and live-streamed sessions are being used for teaching, with links to educational content and tasks to complete. In some OECD countries, children up to Year 4 have been given hard copies of learning packs only, as digital learning is considered inappropriate - not only for their developmental stage but also for ensuring safety online. In other classrooms Year 1 students are being given online work, and task completion is via learning apps. Some teachers have arranged Zoom sessions with experts to connect classroom topics with real-world experience.

With the 2020 digital curriculum in place, New Zealand was already working towards strengthening digital knowledge. As we start to consider moving back to school-based learning, it may be interesting to remind ourselves of the curriculum goals. These include:

“To ensure that all learners have the opportunity to become digitally capable individuals. The change provides a greater focus on students building their skills so they can be innovative creators of digital solutions, moving beyond solely being users and consumers of digital technologies,” (

For educators, parents and students, what has gone well and what hasn’t?

When children are back in school, what components would be useful to keep and what wouldn’t?

For what age groups?

What is the evidence telling us?

To get the ball rolling, here are some comments from articles, students and parents interviewed within New Zealand, on their experiences of online learning.

“It’s been good that we can keep going (with learning).”

“I feel like I’d got to know some of my students a little better.”

“I miss my friends, being together. I want to go back to school.”

“It’s easy to turn off the video and walk out of a class if it’s boring.”

“Those children doing well at school are doing OK, but those who were struggling are just falling further behind.”

“I can see my son is engaged with reading online, when it otherwise takes more effort to engage him.”

“If children aren’t interested in my class they can hide more easily.”

“I can see my mates double screening and playing games during the zoom meetings.”

“It’s frustrating because I can’t ask for help or to get clear on directions easily.”

“I feel pressure to get my child to complete the tasks to upload (to Seesaw) – I even did the craft activity for him and uploaded it. I see other children doing the activities better than my children, and I feel angry at them for not achieving well. I know I shouldn’t.”

“I now involve my (high school) students more, so they are the protagonists, so that I hear their voices.”

“Some students are embarrassed to share their backgrounds and personal spaces.”

“It’s annoying if the sound goes or its not working (technical issues).”

Ka kite ano, stay safe.

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