The Digital Education Revolution (DER) was an initiative announced by the Labor government during their 2007 election campaign, whereby federal funding would be made available to schools, for the provision of computer devices, audio video systems, and supporting infrastructure. The aim of the program, was to invest in Australia’s future digital economy, by ensuring that secondary students in years nine through twelve, had access to the technology and resources that would be beneficial for their learning, further education, and crucial for their future careers in todays’ online, globalised, digital, knowledge economy (Arthur, 2013; Braue, 2011; Buchanan, 2011;).
While the DER programme is ultimately seen as a resounding success by schools, academics and in a number of studies, there are still those that question whether the underlying concept of providing classroom technology is worthwhile, and raise concerns regarding distractions, misuse, and a lack of evidence to support classroom technology as a way to improve student outcomes and overall results (Bita, 2016; Buchanan 2011; Lam & Tong, 2012). In Australia, this debate was recently re-energised by media outlets discussing the views Dr John Vallance, the former principal of Sydney Grammar in New South Wales; which is one of Australia’s leading schools, a school that relies on traditional teaching practises, and where the use of computers in the classroom has effectively been banned. Dr Vallance has suggested that the current efforts towards establishing one-to-one computer programmes and twenty-first (21st) century learning initiatives in classrooms, are not effective in improving teaching and learning outcomes, stifles creativity, and are essentially a “scandalous waste of money” (Bita, 2016).
Despite the reinvigorated debate as to the pedagogical efficacy, and ongoing costs associated with, the provision of devices in the classroom, many studies have concluded that the selection of the correct device, when used in the correct way, is able to provide significant improvements in motivation, engagement, participation, and understanding. Australian schools require further guidance on device selection and curriculum integration, as well as patience, in order to see the benefits from the Digital Education Revolution, and the use of technology in the classroom.
The DER funding of devices isn’t without criticism, and it took less than two years before reports of underpowered, slow, and poorly managed devices started to negatively impact the programme. In New South Wales, in particular, the state chose to offer low-cost netbooks and iPads to students in order to fall within the funded per-unit amount, and ultimately resulted in a large number of complaints from educators, students, and parents, with some going so far as to call the devices unusable and “expensive paper-weights” (Braue, 2011). The issue, in this case, was with the device selection process, and the lack of adequate planning and guidance, not specifically an issue with classroom technology, or a failing of the DER. As Dr Evan Arthur posits, you “cannot use information and communications technology to improve education if the necessary computing hardware is just not there” (Arthur, 2013).
Notwithstanding some of the device choices and issues raised by some schools under the DER programme, and in direct contrast to what is being presented as proof of the ineffectiveness of computers in Australian classrooms, the most recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), shows that Australia is typically well ahead of the OECD standard in most subject areas, and goes on to conclude that Australian students tend to produce much better results in subjects such as mathematics, when using computers (OECD, 2015). The interesting part of that, is the mention of mathematics, as research has suggested that the use of a computer keyboard is particularly constraining when it comes to writing numbers, symbols, and is typically not well-suited for mathematics, music theory, language, or science (Smith, 2014).
There exists a wide array of computing devices today, and multiple ways of interacting with them; including touch, stylus/pen, keyboard, mouse, and even voice via digital assistants. However, when discussing classroom technology, most of the studies that have investigated the didactic benefits of computers, or the impact computers have on student memory and outcomes, have relied on the comparison of keyboard-based input devices, and those of traditional pen and paper (Lam & Tong, 2012; Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014; Smith, 2014). With the rise of tablets and 2-in-1 computers in the education space, and as one of the only growing markets in the Personal Computer (PC) space, perhaps it is time to think outside the keyboard. (Maddocks, 2016; Swan, 2016).
Historically, a number of technologies and devices types have faced opposition when schools and classrooms are first exposed to them, and Thomas, O’Bannon and Bolton suggest that none are more strictly prohibited in schools, as mobile phones; which are typically banned due to the perception that devices are disruptive, a distraction, and are of little value to learning. This conclusion, however, fails to address the fact that modern mobile phones, with the power of apps, allow users to consume, create and share multimedia, perform calculations, conversions and analysis with scientific calculators, take photos, communicate, collaborate, and be productive, much of which would be ideal for education environments (Thomas, O’Bannon & Bolton, 2013).
One of the prevailing arguments against classroom technology, outside of the distraction argument, is related to the potential impact on handwriting, and the lack of evidence to support the idea that computers improve student outcomes. This is partly supported by research into memory and cognitive learning processes of students, which has strongly indicated that the pervasive use of technology, and particularly the use of notebook computers and the act of typing, negatively impacts the memorisation of factual and conceptual information, and represents one of major factors as to why student results have not shown an improvement when using technology (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014; Smith, 2014).
In studies performed by Princeton University, it was found that the use of laptops, due to the input speed advantage offered by the keyboard compared to handwriting, encouraged the creation of verbatim notes, and that this resulted in poorer academic performance due to the shallower processing and reduction in encoding and memorisation offered by the motor-cognitive processes. In the study, despite keyboard users having compiled a much more complete set of notes, with many more words and useful terms being included, the students that used a laptop performed worse when tested on the content of the lecture (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Entering information via keyboard, however, is not the only way of interacting with modern devices, and Microsoft Australia’s National Education Specialists, Travis Smith, expanding upon Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research, has suggested that new technology and devices, such as the Surface Pro line of devices, exist that provide the best-of-both-worlds; in that they can be used a computer for multi-modal learning, multi-tasking, research, creativity, and keyboard-based productivity, while also allowing the users to code-switch and leverage the proven benefits of pen-based note-taking and synthesis, and this takes for the form of the stylus or digital pen (Smith, 2014).
Some schools are now suggesting that the ubiquity, accessibility, and assistive technologies on offer by mobile devices, in conjunction with the large number of learner-supporting functionalities and apps that are available on modern devices, require a thorough re-examination of the current stance on devices in the classroom (Thomas, O’Bannon & Bolton, 2013). Based on existing research and cognitive sciences, the benefits of choosing a stylus-enabled device for learning a very real, but yet to be extensively studied and conclusively proven, however the appeal of these new types of devices is clear by their growing market share; especially in the education space (Smith, 2014; Taormino, 2014).
To truly understand why classroom technology has thus far failed to provide an improvement in student outcomes, we must also be free to explore the systemic issues brought about by unnecessary restrictions, the blocking of services, and discrimination of device types (Thomas, O’Bannon & Bolton, 2013). The craft of teaching and the biology of learning has not changed, however the tools that people use, and the way in which they are used, has evolved rapidly (Smith, 2014; Thomas, O’Bannon & Bolton, 2013). For the “digital natives”, and for the OECD countries with high technology ownership like Australia, it is the lack of technology in the classroom which is identified as a likely cause of lower levels of engagement and learning, and higher instances of distraction; as the use of technology is the primary way in which the younger generations engage, discover, create, and socialise (Buchanan, 2011; Henebery, 2016; OECD, 2015; Thomas, O’Bannon & Bolton, 2013).
The paradoxical nature of devices in the classroom, is that the potential identity building and social interactions that would benefit the student learning journey, are often the most scrutinised, and most-often blocked activities in schools; thereby limiting the enthusiasm and effectiveness of the technology and undermining the programme’s effectiveness (Buchanan, 2011; Thomas, O’Bannon & Bolton, 2013). Additionally, some have suggested that the lack of improvement in student result, when using classroom technology, may simply be a result of the poor integration of the technology into curriculum, the lack of professional development, and the over-estimation of the teacher and student skills, rather than an issue with the technology itself (Buchanan, 2011; Henebery, 2016; Lam & Tong, 2012). Instead of looking at classroom technology as unnecessary, a distraction, and a waste of money, the discussion should instead be “about the transformation of education, and what the right device, on the right platform, makes possible for learning”; while embracing the tools that students are already familiar with and using as part of their everyday lives (Smith, 2014).
In evaluating the effectiveness of the Digital Education Revolution, it is easy to find examples where there has been too much inconsistency in the devices selection, as well as too much variability in the levels of curriculum integration, to make conclusions about the effectiveness of the entire program, and the pedagogical efficacy of computers in the classroom. Classroom technology has proven to be effective in the right hands, at the right times, and studies do suggest that there are significant benefits to be had, with regards to student motivation, engagement and active exploration of topics. Devices, such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, offer a digital pen as one of the input methods, and provide the same motor-cognitive benefits as those associated the traditional pen and paper experience, by providing the ability take notes, annotate, and sketch, anywhere on a document. These new device types, and varied input types, have been largely overlooked by schools when selecting devices for the classroom, however.
By focusing on the economics of the computer programmes in schools, and looking for immediate returns that exceed their investment, many schools are missing opportunities to improve learner engagement, understanding, and opportunities to provide important 21st century skills, while setting up their DER investments to fail. This is an area that needs further study, and additional guidance, to ensure our school leaders are making effective education technology decisions.
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