Julie Cullen, a paediatric physiotherapist and the founder of Sensible Screen Use, comments on the results of a recent MOE study of the use of digital devices in New Zealand children.
The New Zealand Ministry of Education (MOE) has recently published a study showing that computer or tablet-based learning in Year 5 students reduces children’s reading enjoyment, as measured by data from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls).
The study also showed that New Zealand students have the greatest access to computers, but the lowest reading scores among the eight OECD countries surveyed.
It seems that in primary schools, New Zealand has adopted screen use in education far more readily than other countries, but has so far failed to prove that devices are improving teaching and learning.
It is encouraging that the MOE is investigating this topic, when online learning is increasing and impacting on so many New Zealand children.
International research has also shown that tablet-based learning has had negative impacts on reading and several other areas of learning as well, particularly for children in this age group.
A large study, looking at National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data across the whole of the US, compared academic outcomes with time spent learning on computers in Grade 4 (Year 5 equivalent) students. They found that tablet use was associated with lower performance.
For reading, students who used tablets in some classes, compared to those who never did, scored slightly lower on reading exams; those who used tablets frequently were a full year’s reading level behind and up to three years for some. These trends were held across all states, and across all schools with different socioeconomic profiles.
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 clearly associated with worse scores. This raises questions about the value of these approaches as a basis for instruction”.
“Experts have recommended limiting the use of technology for younger children. Health agencies have warned against early exposure to computer technology, both inside and outside the classroom. Elementary (primary) schools should be particularly careful, and leaders making policies for schools that enrol younger children should be wary about flooding them with technology.”
Digital technologies do present opportunities to enrich learning; such as the ability to contact experts, present data and research to name just a few. The digital divide does need to be addressed, not only through the governments initiative to provide access to computers for high school students, but also by tackling wider inequities. Some students have families with more time, skills and resources to teach them how to use digital technologies.
But this latest study by the MOE has found that computers were available for 93 per cent of students here, significantly higher even than the United States (70 per cent) for example. Writing on tablets had the strongest link to reduced reading enjoyment, and the frequency of digital teaching also had a significant negative impact.
This gives us more reason to question BYOD policies, and the need for schools to ask parents to purchase personal devices for children as young as seven or eight years old. That is without considering issues of financial cost, inappropriate content access, documented health risks and parental supervision required when giving young children personal devices.
As noted by an Auckland solicitor*, schools, principals and Board of Trustees may also need to consider liability if complaints are made, when information and evidence of risk is increasingly being presented (*see Who is responsible if a child is harmed by screen use in school?).
In a recent article, Dr Arran Hamilton reflected on a review he conducted with John Hattie about the effectiveness of education technology entitled, ‘Not all that glitters is gold.’
He noted that “one thing that sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb when we review global education data is the disconnect between claims made about the effectiveness of educational technology and the actual evidence of impact for certain types of products and platforms…the challenging conclusion is that the impact of almost all types of technologies (on learner achievement in standardised tests) is only average half of what could be realized by good old-fashioned human-to-human interactions…”
In addition to this point, because of differences in the way we read in print and online; and because of the differences in the way we learn and remember when handwriting compared to typing, experts such as Professor Maryanne Wolf have recommended that at primary school age, until fluency is achieved, we need to be teaching core skills in analogue (traditional) methods, alongside the exciting areas of digital technologies such as coding, programming, and 3D printing.
What many New Zealanders may not have realised until now is that our use of computers in the classroom is overall, the highest in the world. In 2015, New Zealand was in the top few countries in the OECD with the highest use of screens in schools. However, since that time, other OECD countries have slightly reduced their use, while New Zealand, relatively, has had a ‘huge increase’ in computer use in classes. We now even have organisations, while well intended, converting our primary schools to digital immersion programmes.
In 2019 I had the chance to meet and talk with teachers internationally about this topic and while there can be differences between schools, many were surprised at New Zealand’s approach towards screen use in education.
In Germany, the teachers I spoke with said they considered app-based learning in primary school an ‘American fad’. They reported that in their classrooms, children’s screen use for learning was minimal up to around eight years old. After this point, they would introduce one or two afternoons of researching and project-based learning, and maybe a module of specific digital skills training such as coding/programming etc.
Computer use in class would increase gradually after this point. In The Netherlands, it is not uncommon for high school students to share laptops in class and have textbooks for each subject, a practice which is not considered unprogressive. Teachers described this as the most common approach even for more senior students, stating that their understanding was that ‘it has been proven that a mix is best.’
The use of digital devices in primary schools has been well intended; a response to fear that children will be ‘left behind’ in a world where they need digital skills; a reaction to exciting claims made by the Ed Tech industry of personalised learning and improved outcomes; and maybe even due to the ease in class management where children are engaged with tablets, freeing teachers to work with a small group.
But while this latter example may be common justification, at Sensible Screen Use, we would have to disagree that it’s a good enough reason. Frequent device use can come with potential risks not only to health, but to learning outcomes and enjoyment of reading.
To get the benefits that digital technologies can offer to our children’s learning, we need to have evidence-based, moderate and purposeful use of devices in schools.