The experience in classrooms has changed dramatically in the last two decades, as both teachers and students have had to adapt and learn to live with the presence of digital technologies. Computers connected to the internet have put global knowledge in the hands of students, who are no longer confined to whatever dusty encyclopaedia was on the school library shelves.
But this ever-growing fount of knowledge also comes with greater, and more persistent, demands on the attention of students and those tasked with teaching them.
There is no doubt that technology made a rapid shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic possible. The thought of reaching thousands of students without the internet and the technology students have been equipped with in that period is fanciful. This technology has limits, however. Many of the apps and social media networks students spend their leisure time using were not designed with learning in mind – they are designed to be deliberately distracting, to command attention when it should be paid elsewhere.
Some Australian schools are again making their students work with pen and paper, ensuring they are present in physical classrooms – an experience the pandemic has only shown is precious and important. Principals report strong support from parents and teachers are finding their students to be more engaged.
Expecting students to manage their own technology use is expecting them to know how to do something they have never been taught to do. Digital native students may have a natural advantage but schools now have a good handle on how it works and how it can be used – for good and for ill.
Schools have a responsibility to meet the needs of their students now and into the future. That includes learning to live and work in a hyper-connected world. It also means knowing when technology will be a hindrance, when to stash mobile phones in lockers, and when to swap the keyboard for a pencil to work out a problem – those are skills to be taught.
There are certainly times when a smartphone offers a learning opportunity unknown to the generations who came before and dealt with overhead projectors, blackboards and card index files. But careful regulation of technology in classrooms offers a chance for students to breathe: time to learn without the distractions they will encounter almost everywhere else.
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