As the first generation of parents to grapple with the influence of ever-present mobile digital devices on our children, we might be cautious about Jose Pereira Coutinho’s call to shift from traditional to electronic textbooks.
As the lawmaker states, many “advanced” countries currently use electronic textbooks and manage information technology within schools. This, however, is insufficient reason to move Macau’s public schools to similar systems.
Coutinho’s focus on the disadvantages in terms of waste management and musculoskeletal harm to students from heavy paper-based textbooks, although valid points in the discussion, are far from the critical issues. The discussion must start with student learning outcomes, and knowledge and skill acquisition.
If there are any educational benefits – which must be verified – then any potential harm from the distractive and addictive characteristics of mobile technologies on the adolescent mind also need to be understood. Quickly becoming apparent in those “advanced” countries are behaviours that disrupt families and may cause long-term mental health problems.
It is relatively easy to remove a device, switch off the wifi or have household rules to limit use for entertainment, but once schools demand textbooks be read, homework submitted and communication with teachers all be online, there is no argument left with a child who asserts it is required for school. Some parents characterise life as “a minute-by-minute fight … to keep the kids away from their school-mandated iPads”. There are enough points of contention in family life not to have added to them this battle ground.
Learning is not possible in a multitasking environment, and when a hard task requires concentrated effort it becomes easy to be distracted. Not every child has the capacity to stay on task when the monkey’s dancing, and not every parent can hover around to keep them in productive pursuits.
David Gillespie’s book “Teen brain: Why screens are making your teenager Depressed, Anxious and Prone to Lifelong Addictive Illnesses” offers one view for why symptoms of anxiety have roughly doubled between 2007 and today, while typical teenage addictions of smoking, drinking, drugs and sex have decreased by about 50% over the same period. He suggests that online games and social media are now giving teenage brains the same addictive happy jolt, but are unhampered by social and legal proscriptions. Technological addictions lead to lack of sleep, anxiety and depression which Gillespie says result in long-term mental health problems – a causation, which others say, is yet to be established.
Another problem researchers pinpoint is the crowding out of opportunities for social interaction which is critical to learning and development. Family management and mental health concerns aside, there is little clarity on educational benefits from using technology in schools.
In our socio-cultural world, learning is best achieved through human contact. A study comparing the interaction between parents and children while reading traditional vs e-books shows that both child and parent used fewer words and restricted communication when reading e-books together. Studies in the Department of Education in the Philippines blow out of the water any idea that collaboration (a 21st Century skill) can be replicated adequately using online methods. A move to e-learning risks losing the engagement that face-to-face collaborative learning offers.
We must be clear on which learning outcomes are enhanced by technology. Brookings Institute notes that High-tech can help students remember and understand (20th Century skills) while High-touch (human interaction) helps them transfer, analyse, evaluate and create (21st Century skills).
Technology is also useful for large-scale, cross-institutional collaborative learning, and can improve learning when it is used to customise instruction to the pace of the individual. It also, unsurprisingly, teaches students how to use technology.
Technology in education ultimately enhances great teaching when used mindfully, by good teachers, and for selected outcomes. We need to ensure our teachers and schools are appropriately readied to mitigate the harms and leverage on the benefits.