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How is technology impacting student learning

Education has seen many technological advances over the last few decades. Studies have shown that technology improves performance and motivates students, making learning more meaningful. Combining education and technology creates a more stimulating learning environment and ameliorates confidence.

But has constant use of digital technology by the students, started to interfere with learning? There is certain urgency in answering this question. Today’s overly digital generation calls for re-looking at the actual and potential relationship between technology and student learning.

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This interesting presentation on PREZI, created by JiEun Yoo, takes you through the effects of digital technology on learning.

There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hindering their attention span and ability to handle pressure when put forth with challenging tasks. Different surveys of teachers have revealed that today’s students are not skilled enough to think critically or synthesize information they find with the aid of technology. Teachers who did not participate in the surveys re-emphasized their findings in interviews, adding that they had to work harder to capture and retain students’ attention these days.

The research conducted by two well known research organizations Pew Research Center and Common Sense Media, studied that media use among children and teenagers ranging from 8 to 18 years age group has grown so much that on an average they spend twice as much time with screens as they spend in school. The researchers however note that their findings are subjective opinion of teachers and should not be taken as a conclusive proof that widespread use of digital gadgets affects students’ ability to concentrate. However, the researchers who performed the studies, as well as scholars who study technology’s impact on behaviour and the brain, emphasize that these studies are significant because of the vantage points of teachers, who spend hours a day observing their students.

Hope Molina-Porter, an English teacher in California, is worried that technology is deeply altering the way students learn. Having an experience of 14 years in teaching accelerated students, she has noted a marked decline in the depth and analysis of written work in her students. She wonders if teachers are adding to the problem by adjusting their lessons and teaching methods to accommodate shorter attention spans.

Many teachers have expressed the fact that today’s relatively easy online research process has resulted in fewer original thoughts, less critical thinking, and not as much actual synthesis of information by their students.  They point out that students find information online and just copy and paste them directly into documents, without adequately analyzing it.  This not only elevates concerns about their understanding of concepts and practice of unfair plagiarism, but also worries some teachers that students are not developing adequate ability to think critically about the information they supposedly research on. A brief list of the areas of concern as seen by the teachers is given below:

  • Students’ overexposure to gadgets accompanied by the use of latest technology has resulted in multi-tasking that often contributes to lack of focus and weakened ability to retain knowledge.
  • Students do not prioritize enough time for critical tasks, and often rely on the various digital tools available at their disposal, to waste time and procrastinate, giving rise to concerns over their time management skills.
  • Some students’ addiction to online gaming and video games exhausts their time and attention.
  • Overexposure to digital technology is not really contributing to make students more technologically literate or more efficient.
  • Students have grown so accustomed to getting quick answers with a few keystrokes that they are more likely to resign when an easy answer eludes them.

Although there have been no long-term studies that adequately prove how and if student attention span has altered because of the use of digital technology, scholars who study the role of media in society underline that there is mounting indirect evidence that constant use of technology can affect behaviour, particularly in developing brains, because of heavy stimulation and rapid shifts in attention. There is marginal difference in how younger and older teachers perceive the impact of technology.  Nearly 90 percent say that digital technologies create “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”  Similarly, of the 685 teachers surveyed in the Common Sense project, 71 percent think that technology is hurting attention span “somewhat” or “a lot.” About 60 percent say it has hindered students’ ability to write and communicate face to face, and nearly half of them feel it has affected critical thinking and students’ ability to do homework.  The Pew research has brought out the belief of 76 percent of teachers that, students have been conditioned by the Internet to search for quick answers.

While the Pew research explored how technology has affected attention span, it has also looked at how the Internet has changed student research habits. By contrast, the Common Sense survey focused largely on how teachers saw the impact of entertainment media on a range of classroom skills.

In this context, it would be interesting to know that the surveys also include some findings that appear contradictory. Many teachers said technology could be a useful educational tool. For instance, in the Common Sense report, some teachers said that even as they saw attention spans ebbing, students showed improvement in subjects like math, science and reading. In the Pew survey which was done in conjunction with the College Board and the National Writing Project, roughly 75 percent of 2,462 teachers surveyed said that the Internet and search engines had a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills. They added that such tools had made students more self-sufficient researchers.

Other teachers said technology was as much a solution as a problem. Dave Mendell, 44, a fourth-grade teacher in Wallingford, Pa., said that educational video games and digital presentations were excellent ways to engage students on their terms. Teachers also felt they were using more dynamic and flexible teaching styles.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, who studies the impact of technology on the brain and is the director of the Center for Child Health, Behaviour and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, stressed that teachers’ views were subjective but nonetheless could be accurate in sensing dwindling attention spans among students. His own research has shown what happens to attention and focus in mice when they undergo the equivalent of heavy digital stimulation. He feels that students saturated by entertainment media, were experiencing a “supernatural” stimulation that teachers might have to keep up with or simulate.

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