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On Nov. 4, cellphones will be banned from Ontario classrooms. Illustration: Rame Abdulkaer/Fulcrum

Technology and digital learning techniques are changing the way we see the classroom

It’s September, and that exciting back to school feeling hasn’t quite worn off yet. In time, when the leaves begin to turn, it’ll seem like a chore to get up and catch the bus for the millions of school-age children across North America. But for many of them, the novelty still remains.

They wake up in the morning, eat a quick breakfast, and pack the essentials in their colourful little backpacks — lunchbox, pencil crayons, binder, laptop, AirPods, and cellphone.

The image of back to school shopping has changed significantly over recent decades. Where once back to school ads showed smiling children with patterned notebooks and squeaky sneakers, they now feature kids on the newest iPhone or the thinnest tablet. 

Inside the modern classroom

Questions have been raised about how best to deal with the digital revolution in schools — should educators jump on the technology train, or distance themselves from it?

“I’m not a fan of the mindset of ‘let’s just lean in, technology is the thing to do,’ ” says David Dockterman, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “I do think technology can be very useful but I think its use has to be intentional, and we have to be thoughtful about how we do that.” 

Dockterman teaches courses on adaptive learning and innovation in education at Harvard, and right from the start of our conversation he wants to correct the common misunderstanding of the education meets technology dilemma.

“It’s probably the wrong question. It’s a question people ask, whether or not to lean into technology, but this often gets wrapped up into talking about what technology can do, and really the question should get more fundamental, like what’s the goal?” says Dockterman.

“Should we be teaching the same things, should we be teaching something different, and then what are the most effective ways to reach those learning goals? And at the end of that, in what ways might technology help, or not?”

Mary Enns is a University of Ottawa graduate and she works on the frontline of this issue as a social science teacher at Hillcrest High School here in Ottawa. 

“In the early nineties, we worried about kids passing notes, that was a distraction in class,” Enns says. “We were taught how you intercept notes and the protocol on note-passing. We’ve just way surpassed that.”

“(Cellphones) are the future, and students need to be equipped with the skills to do their learning and find their information with these tools that are in their hands. It is a full distraction, so it changes how we have to teach, and I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Chris Olson also works at Hillcrest High School where he teaches communications technology — a class that didn’t even exist when he started teaching. 

“I have a divided opinion of it, but I think if the students understand the power of their smartphones and are able to harness it, that’s great,” he says. “They’re learning how to deal with the technology they have in a practical sense, and they learn with it.”.

That said, he agrees it is very much a double-edged sword. 

“It happens less than you might think, but if things in class get challenging or boring, some of them do just drop the challenge and whip out their phones and check their social media feed,” Olson adds. “I think that’s such a waste, because your phone these days is everything, its anything you want it to be — you could dictate essays, or do research, or read a book.”

Consequences of connectivity

The technological zeitgeist has had repercussions on every level of society, but today’s children are perhaps being affected the most. Many of them have never had to live without computers, and this has repercussions on how they engage with their learning.

A notable Time magazine headline reads “You Now Have an Attention Span Shorter Than A Goldfish.” The research it cites, a Microsoft study conducted by Canadian researchers, finds that the average attention span has been reduced from 12 to eight seconds since the turn of the millennium.

This startling revelation is driving education professionals to pursue alternatives to the traditional lecture-based learning we are so familiar with. And those changes can’t be limited to simply moving the traditional model online.

Dockterman notes that a similar shift in multimedia education took place when radio came to prominence. There was an attempt to broadcast the best lectures over the airwaves to increase accessibility to educational content. 

He conjures an image he saw in a journal about educational broadcasting that showed a man asleep on a chair, captioned “a lecture is even more boring over the radio than in person.” 

“Our view of a classroom (is) teacher talking and students listening to the teacher talking. OK, but maybe that’s not what we want. Maybe that’s not what education should look like,” Dockterman says. “You want to create an environment that leverages those devices in a more productive way … to make students more active and engaged in their own learning.”

Enns agrees that there are many aspects of education that simply cannot be transferred online.

“We talk about using that physical face-to-face time, and maybe that’s the strength of the classroom still, the interaction part. Maybe we should teach kids to use their phones later and take advantage of being in front of their peers. Maybe just flipping it to see the strengths of being together.”

What Enns is suggesting already exists. Often referred to as the “flipped classroom,” it essentially entails having students do the tasks best done individually — for example, basic knowledge acquisition and skill mastery — at home and online, and save classroom time for problem-solving and discussion.

Dockterman much prefers this method over having students come to class with their own devices to carry out individual learning tasks.

“The idea of bringing kids to school and having them pretend all the other kids aren’t there is crazy,” he says. “To have them walking into a machine and each is going to have their own personalized thing, that seems like it’s not a good use of that experience.”

Although he sees a variation of the flipped classroom as a viable solution, he maintains that this would only be short term. An entire reboot of the structure of education remains necessary for effective education in the digital age.

“A lot of the conversation is around technology’s impact on work and on what work will look like and is looking like,” he says.“There’s an argument to be made that we need to shift the goals of education from training people for a job to training people to be adaptive learners in a rapidly changing environment.”

Digital democracy

“Adult literacy and essential skills are about more than just reading and writing,” reads the opening of an Ontario Literacy Coalition (OLC) paper published in 2010. “They are about the full participation in the economy and society about being able to give your children the best start possible in life; about creating a workforce that allows Canada to take full advantage of its numerous strengths; about civic engagement. And in the 21st century, the digital component is more important than ever.” 

The paper shows that 47.7 per cent of Canadians score at either one or two out of a possible five on the provided literacy scale, deeming them unable to properly engage with the economy and less likely to participate in the country’s democracy.

It suggests that the federal government should “focus on basic literacy and essential skills as a starting point, with the end goal of creating a workforce ready to compete in the digital economy.”

These issues have only become more pressing in the years since the paper’s publishing, and it appears the government did not follow the OLC’s recommendations. At the very least, any changes that were made are certainly not evident in Ontario’s curriculum.

Rather, Ontario students have recently been met with an announcement from the provincial government.

“The Minister of Education plans to move forward with restricting the use of cellphones and other personal mobile devices in classrooms beginning November 4, 2019,” reads a statement released by the government on Aug. 29. 

“I’d like to see Doug Ford come in and try to confiscate phones,” says Olson. “It’s not going to go well.” says Olson.

“I just don’t think the execution of this has really been thought out. Ban the phones – okay, that’s great, but how do you ban a phone? Seems like a lot of loopholes.”

The loopholes Olson is referring to can be found all over the vague outline of Ford’s new policy.

 “The restriction applies to instructional time at school, however, exceptions will be made if cellphones are required for health and medical purposes, to support special education needs, or for educational purposes as directed by an educator,” reads the statement.

But according to Enns, students were doomed to be digitally illiterate long before Ford swore to pry their devices from their hands.

“We’re not equipped. We’re just doing baby steps right now. We need to be teaching media literacy, especially with this election coming up,” says Enns. “Teachers are way behind and we’re not getting enough professional development on it. Digital literacy and fact-checking is just not a priority. We are not doing a good job of it.”

“I heard Queen’s (University) is educating the new faculty of education grads (media literacy), and that’s great, but what about all of us who have been teaching for more than a few years?” says Enns. “This is all new, so anyone who’s been teaching longer than three or four years, what do they know about fact-checking?”

“I think if our government wanted to be proactive instead of reactive, what they should do is more training with the teachers,” adds Olson “I think if we had the teachers more trained with technology, then maybe we could put the phones and Chromebooks and laptops to better use, instead of banning in outright.”

Dockterman argues civic engagement and digital literacy should be two themes at the forefront of goal-setting when it comes to developing new methods of education. The founding fathers of the United States saw public education as a keystone to a vibrant democracy, but according to Dockterman, the education system veered away from this during the Cold War.

“With Sputnik, with a sense that we’re falling behind other countries, so we need to focus on math and science, we need to prepare our children to support our competitiveness in the world and to support each person’s competitiveness in a capitalist environment,” he says. 

As democracy gets more and more complicated, however, Dockterman says it’s important those who develop curriculums and educational policy return their focus to creating adults who can participate in the governance of their country in an increasingly digital world.

“That’s another outcome that comes from looking at the role of schools and education — what was the original intent?” he asks.“Why do we have public education instead of just apprenticeships?”

The future of the classroom

Elon Musk founded a school called Ad Astra (yes, like the movie) in 2014 that is unlike any other. According to a report in Business Insider, it accepts only forty students at a time. It is gradeless, and its students range in age from seven to 14. All of them work together.

At Ad Astra, students are not taught music, sports, or foreign languages. Their focus is on philosophy, politics, science, technology, and math.

Radical arguments that children no longer need to be taught basic spelling, grammar, or mathematics have begun to surface in recent years. After all, the next generation of learners will never have to live without computers that can do these tasks for them.

But Dockterman doesn’t think education as a whole is heading in this direction.

“If you keep having to turn to technology to do the simple stuff, you are undermining the capability of doing the more complex,” he says. “Knowledge matters.”

“My gut reaction is kids should know how to spell and do basic math, it never hurts to already know all that stuff,” adds Enns.

Dockterman does concede that certain things that have been considered staples of education in the past are unlikely to survive the modern revolution.

“Do you need to know how to do long division? Probably not. That’s cumbersome and a pain in the butt.” 

Equally as frightening to some, however, is the idea that the education of the future may not need a teacher at all, but will rather consist of individuals completing activities from behind a screen.

“Here’s the worry, students are almost teaching themselves and not at all caring what the teachers are teaching. You see that on campuses, and we see that in populism in democracy,” says Enns. “People are defying authority and figuring stuff out themselves. Is that the future of education? Where kids just teach themselves? Maybe that’s what this is pointing to.”

Dockterman doesn’t know if this is where education is going, but he’s certain that if it is, it will fail.

“Creating a single pathway to an end, and the way most curricula are structured is a single pathway, and then everyone is going to follow that path and it’s going to work,” he says. “That doesn’t happen, it never works that way.”

He stands by the importance of the classroom in the learning process.

“One of the advantages of having a collection of learners is that those mismatches can be addressed almost dynamically,” he says. “People are getting it and people are not getting it, and being able to see it in another way can help people to understand.”

As for more dynamic and personalized learning software, Dockterman is doubtful that these will experience much success, either. 

“Netflix has a huge amount of money and a huge amount of data and it still offers you stuff you have no interest in at all,” he says. “So any of these systems are only as good as the intelligence behind them and what they have to offer.”

The consensus is that no one in the industry is sure where it’s going next.

At the end of our interview, Dockterman asked me for my thoughts, and I told him I didn’t feel educated enough on the topic to have any answers.

“Your granddaughter will be doing this interview, asking the same question,” he says. “‘So do you think we should lean into technology?’ I just hope you figure it all out, because I don’t know.”