The crashing classroom

Problems with digitisation of schools widely underestimated

by Nike Heinen and Natalie Wexler

German schools are to be digitised on the double. Is that really a good idea? A glance at the USA shows that there schools are clearly further ahead – and quite disillusioned as well.

  A primary school classroom in Washington D. C. Most of the six-year-olds are sitting in front of their tablets. They are supposed to deal with mathematical problems independently, while the teacher works intensively with a small group. One boy, let us call him Kevin, is staring at his screen. “Add 8 and 3,” the tablet demands.
 
He cannot read very well, so he presses the “read aloud” button. Again and again. Without giving an answer afterwards. He does not understand the word “add.” On the other children’s monitors there are instructions like: “Round 119 to the next ten” and “Find the area of the triangle in the squares”. If one child does not understand the word “add”, do the others understand words like “rounding” and “square”?
 


"The digital world has become a reality at most US schools long ago. In a report by Gallup polling institute, 89 % of students said they were taught digitally several days a week. 96 % of school and school board directors and 85 % of teachers supported “increased use of digital learning tools at their schools. At the same time, it is not clear at all whether the programmes are at all suitable as teaching aids. New studies suggest that they even intensified the problems of pupils with learning difficulties. "



Digital reality in US schools …

The digital world has become a reality at most US schools long ago. In a report by Gallup polling institute, 89 % of students said they were taught digitally several days a week. 96 % of school and school board directors and 85% of teachers supported “increased use of digital learning tools at their schools. At the same time, it is not clear at all whether the programmes are at all suitable as teaching aids. New studies suggest that they even intensified the problems of pupils with learning difficulties. So this enthusiasm rests on no data basis. At least some of the teachers seem to be well aware of this. When asked whether “much information is available on the effectiveness” of the digital tools used, only about a quarter of them answered “yes”.
 
The scientific evidence is thin indeed. Worse still, most of the data shows up negative effects. In 2015, for example, educational researchers published their investigation of millions of high school students in the 36 OECD countries. They found that those students who used computers intensively at school “performed less well in most areas of learning, even when the effects are adjusted for social background and demographic effects.”

… worse exam results

In a 2016 study of college-level students at the US military academy Westpoint, those who had laptops or digital devices in their classes achieved lower scores on exams. In a comparison at Northwest University in 2014, eighth-graders from North Carolina, who learned algebra online, were not able to calculate as well as those traditionally taught frontally. And a 2019 data analysis published by the Paris-based Reboot Foundation, which is committed to “stimulating critical thinking in schools”, found that fourth-graders who used tablets in all or nearly all classes scored an average of one whole grade lower on reading tests than children who used paper alone. The foundation had based its findings on data from the PISA tests, among other things.
 
This effect can also be seen in the so-called “flipped” courses: tutorials teach the material to learners at home. The lessons are then used to consolidate what has been learned; which is, so to speak, reverse teaching. This shows that those who were already strong in math made good progress. But all the others made not progress at all. So digitisation only made the existing differences in performance even greater.

Not more, but less educational justice

And yet, technology was supposed to have exactly the opposite effect. The USA has long had a problem with educational justice. Whenever students are tested, massive gaps open up between the children of well-off families and those from poor backgrounds. In the past, attempts at compensation were made by improving teacher training accordingly. Today, educators are placing their hopes above all in software and online tutorials. Ed-Tech is booming. Even kindergartens and preschools have jumped on the digital bandwagon, with technophile philanthropists like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as eager supporters.
 
Kevin’s school is also one of those located in a poor district of the USA capital. Here, many children have difficulty reading – and because many do not speak English at home, they have difficulty understanding simple words. The school is all the more proud of its “one to one” policy. The term describes the practice increasingly popular in the USA of giving each child a digital terminal. “As technology continues to change and improve our world,” says the school’s website, “we believe that low-income children should not be left behind.”

Errors of the individualisation concept

The vision of these digital enthusiasts includes personalised learning: all children are to be taught at their personal work stations and according to their personal abilities. The digital personalised approach even allows children to themselves choose some of the content they learn.
 
What is impressive about these approaches, however, is not the learning progress, but the extent to which children and learning programmes talk past each other when left alone together. It is true that children are supposed to take “pre-tests” so as to allow the software to determine the appropriate level of questions. But if the terms used by the software do not match the child’s conceptual world, the level does not matter. As is the case with Kevin, who gets into a continuous loop when trying to do his calculations, because he does not understand the words in the question. A human teacher would have gotten to the bottom of the problem immediately instead of asking the question again and again.

Problems of teacher decoupling

The bizarre situations that result from this teacher decoupling can be seen with another first grade at Kevin’s school. Here the pupils are busy with a reading comprehension programme. On one girl’s screen, one can see facts about bananas, including the sentence: “Most bananas come from India.” This is followed by a multiple-choice question. Since the girl was not able to read the word „India“, she asked a classmate where bananas come from. His answer: “From trees.” This is correct, but it was not one of the given answers. In the classroom the children might now have discussed what banana trees are and why most of them come from a country called India. On the computer, on the other hand, two children are left with big question marks over their heads.
 
A report published in 2019 by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado gives poor marks to digital personalised learning. Above all, the scientists testify to “questionable assumptions about education” and “a lack of willingness” for scientific verification.

 


" With individualised, self-chosen learning, an important part of previous school education is lost: the exchange of ideas and discussions, which sharpen the children’s linguistic skills. In community with others they learn to argue, and to accept other opinions. Moreover, the special motivation that only fellow human beings can generate is missing when children work at the monitor. "



Hardly any exchange of ideas,
hardly any discussions left

With individualised, self-chosen learning, an important part of previous school education is lost: the exchange of ideas and discussions, which sharpen the children’s linguistic skills. In community with others they learn to argue, and to accept other opinions. Moreover, the special motivation that only fellow human beings can generate is missing when children work at the monitor. If a teacher had asked Kevin to calculate 8 plus 3, he would probably have been much more inclined to do so. “It is a completely different matter when you are taught by a person”, says cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia. “It becomes important what he or she thinks about you. In this way, children are much more likely to make an effort.”

 


"And so, at the moment digitisation of schools in the USA means above all: leaving the children alone in the digital classroom. Computers are cheaper than good teachers. This makes the already disadvantaged the ones who suffer the most."



Children left alone in the digital classroom

And so, at the moment digitisation of schools in the USA means above all: leaving the children alone in the digital classroom. Computers are cheaper than good teachers. This makes the already disadvantaged the ones who suffer the most: One example is the commercially run Rocketship Public Schools. They are aimed primarily at low-income communes and rely heavily on digital technology. During the so-called learning lab time, a kind of assistant teacher supervises up to 90 students. A single “Learning Lab” thus eliminates the need for several positions for well-trained teachers. The demand is so great and the technology is used so uncritically that in Rocketship schools even pre-school children spend 80 to 100 minutes a day in front of screens.

Learning process disturbed

It is exactly those who particularly need help in learning who are left to a technique directly interfering with their learning process. There are two reasons for this interference: Firstly, at the computer, leisure and learning time are much too close together. When their attention is constantly interrupted by thoughts of the current computer game or the next surf trip through the vast expanse of the net, the deep concentration necessary for sustained learning does not even come about in the first place. The younger the children, the easier it is to distract them. Kevin, too, allows himself to be seduced by the temptations of the tablet. Even after a quarter of an hour with the new information, he has not found the solution for 8 plus 3. Instead he is drawing bright pink lines with his finger, one of the many alternatives for which such a tablet can be used. He sighs and asks: “Can’t I play a game instead?”

Purely digital learning runs contrary to the functioning of the brain

Secondly, some researchers are convinced that purely digital learning runs counter to the way the brain functions: texts on the screen, they suspect, are much more difficult to commit to memory because the three-dimensional impressions of a book are missing (see Technical Review 11/2018, p. 26ff.). This is because the memory store in the human brain, the hippocampus, has evolved from a spatial orientation system of early vertebrates. It can make better use of information that is accompanied by a tactile experience. The “grasping” of information on paper is thus easier than that of information on a screen.
 
Such findings are slowly leading to a change in thinking, at least in the USA. For example, in the schools of Baltimore County the test results of digital schools suddenly slipped in comparison to conventional ones. Five years ago, the county had decided to abandon textbooks and paper altogether in the medium term, but now it has decided to go back to using fewer computers, at least in the early elementary school classes. And Rocketship had to abandon plans to open a third school in Washington D.C. Only 22 students had registered.

While the USA is starting to rethink,
Germany wants to repeat its mistakes

Germany, however, is still moving in the opposite direction. In February 2019, the federal and state governments agreed on the Digital Pact for Schools: five billion euros in subsidies from the federal budget are to help to establish an “up-to-date digital education infrastructure” throughout the country. There are no signs at present that a more balanced approach than in the USA will be adopted.
 
It is true that this expansion is to have “scientific support through educational research“. However, the issue is not so much to introduce digital methods with caution, but above all to ensure the smoothest possible process. Coordinator of the programme is Michael Kerres, Professor of Media Didactics at the University of Duisburg-Essen. His main task is to invite the various researchers supported by the BMBF (Federal Ministry of Education and Research) to his institute and to bring them together with schools. Officially, he is also to “identify gaps in knowledge”.
 
Kerres is one of the German pioneers of e-learning, having started using Internet-based courses as early as in the 1990s. He, too, runs a “Learning Lab”. As opposed to the learning labs of the Rocketship schools, however, here students are not supervised or even their learning successes measured. Here, the staff are considering how they can promote digitisation in schools. Their approach is teacher training and the linking of schools in digital networks so the wheel does not have to be reinvented by every school.

 Questionable “tablet classes”

We find the same picture in Baden-Wuert-temberg: here, some secondary schools have been providing “tablet-classes” since 2015. They were not only introduced as vanguards of digitisation, but were advertised to sceptical parents as “scientifically accompanied school experiments”. But even here, scientific evaluation is not about whether children profit comparably well by digital methods of learning. Only practical questions are examined, for example whether teachers, from the scientists’ point of view, prepare the material of their digital teaching units in a way to fit the digital world.
 
Teachers, in particular, are becoming increasingly concerned about this trend. Schools are acting with conspicuous restraint. So far, they have only drawn 40 million euros from the funding pools, less than ten percent of the amount made available. “We are already getting the impression that the children are much more lacking in concentration,” says a Lower Saxony representative of the teachers’ union. “Digital equipment in schools only causes even more unrest.”

Classical textbook nowhere near superfluous

Brain researcher Martin Korte from the Technical University of Braunschweig adds: “There is a clear lack of research results that systematically and in the long term examine the use of digital media in teaching and training.” He is now touring schools – at the invitation of teachers who would like to know what a neurobiologist thinks about digitised classrooms.
 
In front of the teaching staff assembled in school halls, Korte explains how attention control works, how the use of Internet search engines instead of learners’ own knowledge archives is already changing learning, how it is already reflected in the structures of the brain – and why the classical textbook is far from being superfluous. He gets scene applause every time for these sentences.
 
Korte does not want to be misunderstood: He approves the fact that German schools are upgrading their digital ecquipment. He would be very much in favour of all children from the seventh grade onwards having to take computer science classes, so that they will really understand the digital world and its codes.
 
But what the educational researcher does not like at all is the use of digital media in normal lessons. “The digital world is more of a hindrance than a benefit to the transfer of knowledge,” he says. “It is only useful for deepening what you have already understood.”

Even education entrepreneurs
have serious reservations

Even quite a few education entrepreneurs have great reservations about the current trend. For instance Larry Berger, CEO of the US company Amplify which develops digitally enhanced curricula in math and science, as well as reading programmes from kindergarten to eighth grade: “While technology can reliably convey information, it is not so good at demonstrating the social benefits of knowledge,” he says. “To do this, you have to put that knowledge into a social context.” He would wish to see digitisation oriented a little more towards the classic forms of teaching. For example, he considers it fundamentally wrong to give different students material of varying complexity. “All children should get the same content, then they could deal with it together,” he says. Differentiation, he believes, should only take place once the material is understood. “All pupils could read the Declaration of Independence, for example, but good writers could then write a whole essay on it, while others should only answer individual questions.”
 
He sees digital methods as a way of making the teachers’ work easier: Berger believes that learning programmes can easily group the children automatically and thus support the teachers in the differentiated support and assessment of more than 20 pupils in a class. The system is also less discriminatory: When the computer takes over the task of ability streaming, no child knows which group another child is in. Also unintentional personal preferences of teachers for individual children are prevented.
 
Are digitised teaching methods to be used only as a support system for teachers, in the services of proven methodology? This is a much more modest role for educational technology than most participants in this sector have so far advocated and hoped for. But it would probably improve teaching – instead of worsening it.   •

Source: Technology Review, April 2020

(Translation Current Concerns)

 

 

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