Going from primary school to high school to university in the past decade has meant experiencing a meteoric change in our educational reality. For me, lined school books and arrays of half-diminished pencils were gradually replaced with school-issued tablets and eventually my own laptop – to a point where stationery shopping became a past-era endeavour.

It has always felt paradoxical that we give kids devices at school despite decades of decrying the harms of ‘screen time.’ The potential productive upsides are well marketed to parents – access to virtually all recorded human knowledge at one’s fingertips makes research projects a breeze, and technology can increase the flexibility of learning to suit individual students.

It should, in theory, prepare students for a world changing faster than any of their older counterparts can really understand.

This certainly sounds like a miraculous cure-all for a country whose 15-year-olds have gotten worse at maths, reading and science despite increased spending. As a result, devices have rapidly reshaped our classrooms.

I entered primary school with crayons and textbooks; by the time I made it to high school I was required to have my own laptop, and expected to use it in every class.

These days, students spend a large part of the school day in their own digital world. New Zealand is now among those with the world’s highest classroom computer usage, and many primary schools strongly encourage young pupils to bring devices.

And although they promised to revolutionise our schools for the better, my experience was that putting devices in every inch of our classrooms made me feel far more disconnected from my education than ever before.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-technology – far from it. I’m studying data science and finance at the University of Otago, and plan to work as a data scientist or business analyst in the fields of data science or information security.

I have volunteered at a primary school code club and would like to see data science more accessible to young people. More generally, I reckon technology has the potential to make the world more efficient, equitable, and sustainable.

And yet I worry about the overnight revolution around devices in schools, in particular the fact that the way schools actually use these devices is not well understood. And it seems there’s plenty of research to back up my concerns.

Let’s start with my own experience. Proponents of the change to devices in schools assumed kids always listen to their teachers and use their devices as intended. In reality, my observation from volunteering in a primary school is ‘bring-your-own’ tablets and computers promotes alt-tab shifting away from schoolwork to dopamine-inducing games and applications the moment children can do so.

In large classrooms, teachers are often powerless to stop this.

Long-term, this could certainly affect students’ abilities to concentrate and learn in class. Last year, a Ministry of Education paper on the 2018 OECD PISA study showed that 15-year-old students who used laptops or tablets in the classroom had poorer mathematics and reading outcomes than others.

I couldn’t exactly blame those primary school kids I was forever trying to move from gaming to coding. Most of my high school friends and I were just as susceptible to the accessible, addictive satisfaction of the internet when we were in the classroom.

Some teachers realised it was easier to give up on certain students, and I eventually concluded it was easier to give in to my laptop at school and cram the work at home – far more productive than trying to study when every person in the room was distracted by the screen in front of them.

The disconnection wasn’t just about classwork – our devices distracted us from one another, isolating some students and reducing collaboration in and out of the classroom.

Also ignored was any potential negative health effects – we learnt at school that we should only get a few hours of screen time a day, yet class time alone pushed us over this limit.

A research paper from the University of North Dakota published in 2019 and called “Reading from paper compared to screens” looks at a range of studies on students from 2008 to 2018. It shows students have decreased reading comprehension and efficiency on screens compared with paper.

I agree. My classmates and I found trying to recall swathes of information from school-issued webpages and online PDFs was an ineffective struggle.

Working from devices could also directly magnify inequalities – students and teachers had computer problems on a daily basis, and there was a clear divide between those who could afford better devices – less likely to encounter issues and better for collaboration with other students – and the rest.

To be fair, computers have become a necessity in some subjects – particularly where research and essay-writing are involved. But this doesn’t mean that we should apply them to all areas – a lot of our current ‘educational’ device use is downright unnecessary.

For example, my former school and others have adopted online reading programs such as Reading Plus – despite having perfectly good libraries. Core areas such as reading and mathematics would also be far better done on paper than pixels in primary schools – particularly when considering the potential of screens to negatively impact children’s social and neurological development.

Ironically, there is one area where devices could be put to good use in schools – computer science education. The field is famous for producing lucrative jobs and world-leading firms.

But here there are other problems. My school lacked a teacher with the training to teach us how to code. The issue of a lack of expertise among high school teachers is widespread, says Anthony Robins, a computer science professor at the University of Otago, who argues there is little teacher training or resources provided to support the latest computer curriculum.

Capable students interested in the subject generally tend to select better established options such as English or physics, he says, while other students never even receive the chance to be exposed to programming or computational thinking.

As most high schoolers choose their post-school pathway based on the subjects they succeeded in, few ever have the confidence or passion to consider taking computer science at a tertiary level.

This has meant that despite industry growth, enrolment in Otago’s introductory Java programming paper has roughly halved from around 450 in 2000 to about 250 today.

Robins says promoting computing and coding classes “with the same energy as the sciences”, rather than lumping the subject in with food and textiles technology, could give it some much-needed academic respect.

Though this would be a radical change, he says, it could spark long-term interest for many students, encouraging them to explore the field on their own.

During high school, I applied for and attended Catalyst IT’s Open Source Academy – a two-week summer programme run at the company’s Wellington office. Catalyst uses the academy to give students a taste of development with the aim of reducing the nationwide shortage of IT talent. During the course I got the chance to learn programming skills and apply them to a real-world, open source project.

Without this experience, I never would have realised that I was capable of working in such a complex industry, and I wouldn’t be taking programming at university as I am now.

Providing similar experiences to more young people would likely get more students interested in these areas, potentially leading to increased innovation in the long run. I would argue such an investment is needed at a time when technology companies are so powerful in the world.

Another benefit is that open source projects feature public code that can be modified by anyone, thus allowing young people to use their skills to make a genuine difference in the world – if they are given the necessary training and inspiration.

The devices to do so are already in our schools. How we use them may well determine the academic outcomes of our students, and perhaps even the future of our country in the years to come.

Catalyst IT is a foundation partner of Newsroom

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