The trouble with e-learning

Most young people have a palpable passion for e-learning. Yet I'll admit being reluctant to sign up my kids up to BYOD. It stands for "bring your own device".

Many ACT schools are making it compulsory. Students will have to bring their own device as their school provides high-speed Wi-Fi. Fast internet access has already been rolled out to most secondary schools. With money confirmed in this month's Barr budget, in a few years it will be rolled out to every primary school.

My concerns are not about cost, although there are equity issues especially for low-income or larger families. Schools are selling Chromebooks for a few hundred dollars. I am more concerned about the potential impact on my kids' attention-span, memory and sleep as the policy more intensely ties our home to the school's digital classrooms and homework load.

Social media sites will be blocked by the Wi-Fi system on campus. E-learning in the classroom is not limited to the internet but a BYOD world is essentially an online world, urging kids to be logged on more often and where social media is an enticing collaborator. A fellow parent calls social media "the new smoking". Like smoking, it's addictive. Another friend says it's more like alcohol, widely regarded as innocuous.

Like alcohol it may harm developing brains. Parents aren't the only ones concerned. "My sister, with her iPad, is always on Instagram," a young adult tells me. "I worry about her. She's 12 years old. She's posting selfies all the time. I am pro selfies because it's one way to control your own image but she's taking images of down her top."

There's a lot of pressure on young people, especially girls, to "show". In the context of feeling an intense need to be accepted by peers, they become anxious about missing out socially online.

Neuroscientists have concerns about the self-referencing demands of e-technology, its need for snap decision-making and multitasking. They think today's students might have fine-tuned these skills to the point of cutting their attention spans. If so, they are less able to pay attention, less able to learn.

This week's Digital Pulse report released by the Australian Computer Society and Deloitte Access Economics points to benefits associated with the inclusion of information and communications technology in schools. But its focus is not on computers improving learning outcomes per se, but on the importance of building the technical capacity of the workforce. It's about economics rather than well-being. I'd prefer a broader conversation about how we conceptualise childhood and life-long learning.

At times devices switch on learning. At other times they get in its way. "It's so easy to be distracted when you're online," a university student tells me. "In lectures, a student was on her phone, on Tumblr the entire time. Why would you bother attending?"

For some school students, the responsibility of taking their own potentially expensive device to school may ask too much of them. Bags can be dropped or kicked. Even among adults, phones and tablets don't last long. They're sticky-taped together.

It's good to know the ACT police are going into schools to tell students about the real risks of social media and to urge them to keep personal information offline.

But schools have an obligation to do more; to talk about privacy and to point to evidence that online classrooms actually assist educational outcomes. At the very least their introduction should be monitored closely against student results. Schools need to convince us that their teachers are on board and will receive the right training. And they mustn't assume we will all be agreeable. They should show us they will support students to look after their devices and help them engage mindfully with the technology. They should support students whose families can't afford to pay for the devices.

Across the ACT, engagement with parents is patchy. Some schools ensure parents can log in and see all the messages students get, from timetable reminders to resources. They are actively supporting the transition, with tips about syncing good online habits at school and home.

Meanwhile, in our homes the battle to contain technology (and be clear about the point of it all) goes on as adults work out boundaries not just for their kids, but for themselves - when to unplug and when to reconnect. Relationships are being tested in this untried territory as our hyper-consumer culture tries to assimilate something new and suddenly ubiquitous.

Technology can become a stumbling block in the parent-child relationship. We can either resist it, or accept that it's a big part of society and work to get the best of it. Good luck to us all.

First published in The Canberra Times, June 19, 2015

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