The use of digital technology in schools has made negative headlines over the past 12 months – including high-profile cases of cyberbullying, proposed phone bans and parental pushback against laptop schemes.

However, Australian adults are largely positive about the overall benefits of technology in schools, with sizable support for the future rollout of online exams, blended learning classes and even facial recognition systems in classrooms within the next 10 years.

But a number of issues continue to concern parents and the wider public.

Nearly 40 per cent of adults believe that ‘big tech’ companies such as Google and Microsoft cannot be trusted to play a leading role in supporting schools’ technology use.

Similarly, there is strong public support for mobile phone restrictions – with nearly 80 per cent supporting the idea of classroom bans, and just under one-third support a total schoolwide ban.

Professor Neil Selwyn from Monash University’s Faculty of Education conducted a national survey of 2052 Australian adults to gauge public opinions on digital technology use in schools.

Published today, the report titled: Digital Lessons? Public opinions on the use of digital technologies in Australian schools is one of the first accounts of national public opinion towards the digitisation of classrooms.

The key findings of the report include:

•       66 per cent of adults agree that digital technologies make a positive contribution to Australian schools

•       37 per cent of adults believe ‘Big Tech’ companies cannot be trusted to play a role in school technology

•       79 per cent of adults support schools banning the use of mobile phones while students are in class

•       44 per cent of adults are happy to see online exams; 34 per cent want blended learning opportunities

•       46 per cent of adults would like facial recognition technology (computerised video tracking in schools to monitor attendance and ensure safety) incorporated into classrooms over the next 10 years

•       Just 21 per cent of adults believe that parents should pay for their child’s ‘BYOD’ laptop or digital tablet if schools do not give them a choice of device

The most strongly supported idea throughout the whole survey was the importance of schools to teach students information technology skills that are relevant for future jobs (86.3 per cent).

“For many years, schools were considered to be an important place for young people to gain experience of using computer and internet technology,” Selwyn said.

"However, recently there has been growing criticism that many schools are falling well behind what most of today’s students are doing with technology outside of the classroom."

Selwyn said he was most surprised to find a high level of support for classroom phone bans from adults who otherwise endorsed the need for increased use of digital technology in schools.

Mobile phones have this year been banned from primary school classrooms across NSW under a State Government plan to reduce online bullying and unnecessary distraction.

Some Victorian secondary schools have also issued schoolyard phone bans.

“But despite the strong sentiment for a classroom phone ban, a large majority of adults in the survey (68 per cent) said it was OK for students to bring a mobile phone to school – mainly for safety and security purposes,” Selwyn said.

Facial recognition was the ‘future tech’ that most adults wanted to see in tomorrow’s classrooms, while the potential introduction of cognition-enhancing drugs – some of which have already been approved for use in the US – received strong criticism, as did virtual schools. 

“Despite overwhelming support for the idea of online exams (44.1 per cent), respondents were relatively disapproving of other technologies that are already beginning to become established in school systems across the world,” Selwyn said.

“We’ve got hundreds of full-time virtual secondary schools in the US, with automated essay grading used for more than three million SAT national tests in the US each year.

“These are trends that are highly likely to become established in Australia throughout the 2020s, yet gain some of the lowest levels of approval in the survey.

“In contrast, we find the much more problematic technology of facial recognition to be getting higher levels of approval.”

In light of the report, Selwyn has called on national policymakers and schools to demonstrate leadership in the area of digital technology education and better engage parents in learning methodologies.

He also says IT companies need to be aware of the “public unease” towards ‘Big Tech’ companies and their key role in determining what goes on in classrooms.

“Although the majority of the Australian public see technology as a legitimate area for government support, EdTech is not a current priority issue at any level of government,” Professor Selwyn said.

“Our survey suggests that this is an area of education where state governments might easily take a lead and play more prominent roles in supporting schools to make the best use of digital technology.”

A full copy of the report can be found here.