Digital aids in school can be both help and hindrance

The majority of today’s digital teaching tools do not measure up. They have great potential but better coordination and innovative thinking are required, with researchers, teachers and pupils collaborating in their development. Moreover, support for control and review of the range on offer needs to be a national responsibility, according to Agneta Gulz, professor and researcher in cognitive science at Lund University.

Why should digital aids be used for teaching in schools?

“There are a few parameters that give digital teaching aids advantages in comparison with more conventional methods and tools. Pupils can compete against themselves, which works well for most of them, whereas competing against others is not equally successful. Follow-up and rich and nuanced feedback are also facilitated for teachers, who can better adapt their teaching and challenge and support pupils on different levels. With the right design, the teaching tools give the teacher more time to provide more support to smaller groups that need more teacher guidance.

If we take a step back, we can also say that an outstanding advantage of good digital teaching aids is that the tool itself comprises a great deal of educational and subject-teaching experience, skill and expertise. This benefits many pupils, including those who are unfortunate in not having a good teacher in a given subject.”

What do you see as the weaknesses of digital aids?

“The central disadvantage is really blind faith, the idea that the digital has an inherent value for schools and teaching. With mediocre tools and this blind faith, many pupils spend time with tools which are sometimes ineffectual or, in the worst case, impede learning. In that case I would prefer teaching to be ‛not digital at all’ rather than ‛digital but mediocre’”.

With several digital aids, pupils can perform several tasks at the same time: write an email while watching a film, for example. Is this good for learning?

“Many people talk about how it is positive that computers and mobile phones enable individuals to multitask, but the fact is that multitasking lowers the quality of largely all information processing. The more we multitask – e.g. doing several screen-based activities at once – the worse we get over time at focusing, i.e. at choosing what to concentrate on. Multitasking is not something one can learn simply by engaging in it. The effect is, on the contrary, that you break down your ability to focus.”

The total range of digital aids on the market is enormous – over tens of thousands. In an earlier interview from 2015, you mentioned that 3 % of all digital learning tools are good and support pupils’ learning processes. Is that figure still equally poor?

“Yes, it hasn’t changed over the past few years. In absolute numbers, there are many more learning tools of high quality around today, but many poor, inadequate ones have also been added, at least as fast. The estimate of 3% is based on a few hundred different reviewed teaching aids, selected for being the most popular and the most used.

We should also know that very many of the products known as digital teaching tools are in fact digital testing tools. They allow pupils to test the knowledge they already have – or don’t have.”

Do you think there is too much blind faith in digital aids?

“Yes, I do. There is a far too common assumption that the digital has an inherent value for teaching, but there is no educational value in the digital tool itself. The truth is that good digital tools can support learning processes in an incredibly powerful way, while bad ones unfortunately have an equal capacity to hinder learning.”

How can teachers get more help?

“Teacher training programmes need to dedicate significantly more care to digital teaching tools and digital learning materials. Every teacher has the right to be well prepared. These are, after all, among a teacher’s day to day tools. There is currently a lack of guidance and support for teachers and the range on offer is enormous; it is an almost inhuman task for teachers to go through them all and find something suitable. I would like to see no newly qualified teacher emerge from training with the notion that digital tools are of value merely by virtue of being digital.”

How should we be working to develop good digital aids? Should programmers, educators and perhaps other professionals join forces to produce good, adapted teaching aids?

“We need different working methods to those we often see today. We need people with an integrated knowledge of didactics, learning and education, as well as interaction design and programming. Development over time is also completely necessary, i.e. a process which is repeated until the result is satisfactory, with teachers and pupils also participating in the development.

We and many international colleagues are trying to conduct research and education at the intersection of computer science, cognitive science and educational science. It is complex work which is not compatible with commercial requirements and the pressure to meet a certain deadline in order to be able to ‛start selling’.”

Do you believe in schools with both more traditional learning aids and digital ones?

“Yes, without a doubt. We need to arrive at the combinations of technology-supported learning and established non-technological methods that are most effective. This can be achieved through systematic investigation and collaboration of high quality; primarily what I call development-oriented collaborative research, in which teachers and pupils work together with researchers. Only in this type of collaboration can various suitable forms of teaching be developed in an effective and positive way.”

Text: Peter Frodin

Photo: Peter Frodin




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