An hour spent in the school’s computer lab used to be a dream come true for most students. Now, many students can’t imagine their classroom without smart phones, laptops and iPads. This raises the questions about balancing tech time with traditional teaching.An associate professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, Julie Mueller says when she started her research into technology-based learning it was focused on computers and education. Students were learning about computers as a subject, rather than using them as a learning tool.
“Much of what happened was instructing how to use a computer and generally at the level of replacing tasks that already existed,” Mueller said. “So students were using a word processor instead of writing. What has happened very rapidly over the past few years is that it really is about a change in learning and teaching, so that it becomes more about the pedagogy or about how we teach and how we learn than what we learn with.”
And like most changes, there are pros and cons. She says we shouldn’t be looking at replacing textbooks with iPads, but instead focusing on the combined strengths of using both.
It used to be that teachers focused on the three “Rs,” reading, writing and arithmetic. Now it’s the four “Cs,” communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.
She says they’re now looking at learners as self regulated and independent, and the technology that’s really made an impact is mobile technology – things like iPads, tablets, and smart phones, that allow students to direct their learning.
“It’s becoming more thinking about a suite of tools rather than just a computer. I’m talking about what tools better support the learning task,” Mueller said.
St. Jacobs Public School Principal Kathy Mathers says her students used to work in the computer lab. Now there are iPads available in the classrooms, starting right from kindergarten, and Chromebooks for the older students.
“Chromebooks are essentially computers without the memory because you access the cloud for everything you want to store,” Mathers said. “The board has a secure part of the cloud students can put their work on.”
Students use both the iPads and Chromebooks for story writing, practicing drawing numbers and letters, literacy, and math games. The amount of usage is determined by the teacher, Mathers adds.
“It depends on the subject and the activities the teacher has planned and if it’s best suited to be best used with technology then it’s used,” Mathers said. “It’s totally teacher driven.”
She says the biggest skill she sees them gaining is critical thinking. They’re learning how to spot bias and missing items in other people’s writing, while also understanding the technology isn’t just there as an entertainment device.
“They love it. They’re very good at it, they’re very comfortable with it,” Mathers said. “They’ve grown up with it, for them it’s very natural.”
She adds that balance is definitely important, a point that Mueller echoes.
Mueller is also a physical education teacher and says it’s always important to watch how much screen time kids are accumulating because they need an hour of physical activity a day, something that’s not realistic in the average 9-to-3 school day.
“When you’re introducing a learning tool you want to be solving a problem,” Mueller said.
Incorporating traditional learning like building blocks is especially important for young children who need to practice manipulating physical objects to fine-tune their motor skills. Mueller says teachers should be careful everything doesn’t become a swipe, pinch, or click.
The skill she’s seen the most children learning from technology in the classroom was problem-solving. Students are better able to resolve issues themselves.
For example if the Internet isn’t working on their iPad they’re more likely to ask their peers how to fix it before going to the teacher, whereas if they couldn’t find their pencil it would be the other way around.
“We need to look for that balance,” Mueller said. “It’s a learning tool but it shouldn’t be used as a babysitter or to do busy work. Just like you shouldn’t give kids a paper and pencil just to keep them busy.”