Imagine for a moment your own life without technology – no smartphone, no voice recognition software, no laptop, no satellite navigation system, no Siri responding to your every query, no podcasts to allow you to catch up on the latest news as you drive home, no asking the Google gods for an answer to a question as soon as it pops into your head, no social media to distract you from the tasks you are really supposed to be doing.

You would need to rely instead on old fashioned skills like making phone calls and writing with a pen to complete basic tasks such as making arrangements to meet up with a friend after work or taking notes during a meeting.

You would need to rely on your own resources to engage, motivate and inspire children to learn in class and be able to answer for yourself all of those endless questions that are fired at you in the course of a day. While the world would indeed be a very different place for you, would it be any better or worse? 

Over the past decade, our love of technology has exploded exponentially to the point where it is challenging to spend even a portion of your day out of sight (or reach) of some form of technology device. According to technology research company Telsyte, trends such as multi-screening (where more than one device is used simultaneously) “… are on the rise, with 58 per cent of Australians using a device like a smartphone or tablet while watching TV”.

Think for a moment about how often nowadays you hear a child tell you with absolute conviction ‘I’m multi-tasking! Of course I can use a screen and do x,y,z as well!’ Many children in fact seem quite unaware that when they are attempting to multi-task, they are in fact simply switching rapidly between tasks, with sudden changes in attention and focus occurring between each change. 

The education sector is awash with devices, tools, programs and apps which purport to make learning more engaging, stimulating, effective or meaningful – or all of the above! And in many cases the role of technology has indeed changed the face of education in a positive light, particularly when it comes to allowing educational content to be delivered in an individualised and focused manner for learners who have varying abilities or who require their learning to be delivered in different and diverse ways.

Assistive technology tools have opened up educational provisions for children who have additional needs in ways which would have seemed an optimistic dream in years past, and the associated cost of many of these tools has decreased over time. Universal design has seen many devices incorporating better and more varied access methods into their fundamental design structure, making accessibility more seamless for the user.

Classroom and training options, such as flipped or blended learning, bring your own device, online instant reporting of grades, maker sessions and gamification of learning are all providing fascinating and exciting opportunities for learners and teachers alike. Even the role of teacher has changed in many cases to being one of a facilitator and guide rather than a direct conveyor of information and skills. 

But has our love of all things tech-based gone a step too far? Are there some people, and students, for whom technology comes with a very high price tag? If this is the case, what should the next step in the educational technology landscape be?

Obesity and incidental exercise

Australia does not fare well in obesity and overweight statistics around the world, with one in four Australian children (25 per cent) being defined as overweight or obese according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

More and more, our children are spending large chunks of their day sitting down. They tend to be transported to and from school in a family car rather than walking or riding as many children did a generation ago. Reasons for this include travel distance from home to school and parental concerns about traffic safety.

Children walk very little during the day and engage in less planned and incidental exercise and physical activity than is needed to reach peak physical health. According to research by Active Healthy Kids Australia, children in the 12-17-year age bracket walk, on average, 9140 steps each day, well below the recommended target of 12,000 steps.

We know that Australian Government recommendations are that children and young people should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day. Despite this, research tells us that the majority of Australian children and young people are not meeting this target and in some cases are falling well short, with only 15 per cent of young people aged 12-17 years meeting the above 60 minute daily recommendation.

A passionate engagement with screen based media and technology tools such as iPads, smartphones and netbook computers has contributed at least in part to the obesity statistics by simple virtue of the fact that the more time children spend sitting and engaging with a screen, the less time they   are able to spend actively participating in the tasks which will help keep them fit, healthy and active. 

So what’s the solution?

Use effective home/school partnerships which focus on valuing fitness and health parameters and aim to have all children enjoying their time spent being active.

Use technology to record and collect data about fitness and health, such as using pedometers to record footsteps during a day as part of a maths class.

Develop homework tasks which encourage physical activity, such as learning a times table while bouncing a basketball or teaching an outdoor game to classmates during a language-other-than-English class.

Screen time

A recent study by the University of Western Australia has suggested the existing guidelines for screen time use amongst children may need a redesign, given we know that despite Australian Health Department guidelines recommending children over two years spend fewer than two hours looking at screens daily, 45 per cent of eight-year-olds were already exceeding the limit, and the proportion climbed to 80 per cent for children aged between 15 and 16. 

We know that excessive screen time is not desirable for children and young people and yet somehow the use of screens seems to be ever on the rise, rather than decreasing. Adolescents in particular spend large amounts of their day engaged with screen-based activities and often continue this when they come home at night. 

Pleas about ‘everyone else is using Instagram or Facebook or have an iPhone 6!’ can be constant and unrelenting, often leading to parents abandoning common sense and permitting (or ignoring) screens in bedrooms where they are often used long after the young person has supposedly gone to bed.

Screen time use in the hour before bedtime is particularly problematic as it can inhibit the ability to fall asleep after the screen has been switched off and can lead to an overall decrease in the amount of time spent sleeping. For adolescents, sleep is crucial for supporting and consolidating the learning that has just occurred at school and allowing the body time to rest and recover from the activities of the day. 

So what’s the solution?

Inform families about research on the use of screens before bedtime and provide support for families who wish to open conversations with their young person about limiting screen use.

Offer alternative ways of completing a task, such as having an option to use an e-book or a printed activity page.

Ensure that the use of screens for educational activities is based on good evidence-based research and represents the best way of completing a learning task.

Avoid the temptation to use a screen-based activity simply because it provides a useful ‘carrot’ to encourage student participation.
‘Just Google It!’

For young people who are completing an inquiry-based learning task or project, the ability to quickly find information and resources online seems like a gift from the heavens. However, the ability to rapidly Google an answer to a question or find information about a particular topic has a potential downside.

With many millions of hits resulting from a keyword search, children can quickly become overwhelmed by information, with little ability to work out exactly what to do with it. The skill of compiling, collating and sorting through lengthy documents which are written at a range of reading levels can create difficulties and lead to extensive amounts of time spent in non-productive searching.

For some children, particularly those who have a learning difference such as dyslexia or who have executive planning or working memory difficulties,  the strategy of ‘just Googling it’ can be incredibly frustrating and ultimately ineffective. 

So what’s the solution?

Insist on students using a combination of sources for research tasks and demonstrating the use of books, magazines and journals in their bibliography when completing a project.

Show children the process for developing focus questions and then encourage them to use these to guide their research rather than starting with a broad topic and trying to refine it as they go along.

Offer links to reputable sites that contain a limited amount of age appropriate information that can be easily accessed and read by children.

Use a class library during an inquiry project so there is a ready collection of appropriate books and magazines that can be used by students.  

Internet addiction

There is an increasing body of research available on the phenomenon known as internet addiction disorder (IAD) and its potential impact upon young people. To date, however, the condition seems to be doing little to slow the use of technology amongst young people in their school and social lives. So what is internet addiction? Is it a recognised condition or simply a pop psychology term developed to boost clicks on web pages using the term?

In fact, internet addiction does seem to be rapidly making its way into the reputable information channels and is becoming the subject of serious academic research. Both China and South Korea consider it to be a significant public health threat and studies in the US and Europe have uncovered large numbers of people who have difficulty moderating their use of the internet. 

The prevalence varies according to what definition is used for diagnosis, but is in the range of 1.5 to 8 per cent. 

The Better Health Channel provides this definition of the condition: “Internet addiction is an umbrella term that refers to the compulsive need to spend a great deal of time on the internet, to the point where relationships, work and health are allowed to suffer”.

The jury seems to be still out on exactly how internet addiction works and why it seems to affect some people and not others. There is also at present little that is known about the most effective way of treating it and whether traditional approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy are useful in helping people to use the internet in a non-problematic way. There is some research to date which seems to suggest that people with internet addiction may experience changes in their brain and how it operates. 

According to Alice Walton in her article, Internet Addiction: The New Mental Health Disorder?, “Research has shown that people with internet addiction have demonstrable changes in their brains – both in the connections between cells and in the brain areas that control attention, executive control, and emotion processing.

People who have significant difficulties with their internet use behaviour tend to be preoccupied with the internet, spend increasing amounts of time online, may lie about their use and can become moody, irritable or depressed if they attempt to reduce their usage. 

So what’s the solution?

Monitor ongoing academic research on the topic of internet addiction and develop appropriate school-based responses in light of new evidence and research information.

Develop school/home partnerships to support young people who display difficulties in managing their internet use.

Offer alternatives to online tasks where possible.

Provide information to children and families about internet addiction.

Ensure that class and school requirements are not contributing to the difficulties experienced by young people in managing their internet use.