Social Issues

Is a Laptop Ruining your Child’s Education?

We are, frankly, an addicted race. That little hit of dopamine that we get when our phone buzzes has fuelled a generation that cannot stand to be separated from our screens. Computers, smartphones, tablets; they are so much a part of our lives that our worst offenders are sent to rehab to “come clean” of them.

Yet still, we push our children and demand our schools to have higher IT standards and better technology facilities. But do more hours with computers mean a better education?

In 2014, the Hong Kong Education Bureau launched their fourth initiative to get more mobile technology into schools, and have spent billions of dollars since 2004 to increase schools’ technological capabilities. Many private schools now require pupils to have their own laptop with them every day, sometimes from as young as age seven.

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Many schools require children to have their own laptop

But a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that more time with computers does not translate to better grades. In fact, it has even been shown to lower students’ performance.

The study, which took place in 70 countries, compared international test results in reading, mathematics and science.

“Those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately,” said Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Education Director, in a recent interview with the BBC.

Dr. Jadis Blurton is a Clinical Development Psychologist in Cognitive Development, and Head of Harbour School in Hong Kong. “When computers came on to the scene in the 1980s, we all thought ‘wow, everything’s going to change!’ But nothing has changed. Because they’re just doing the same thing that they’ve always done.”

So educators have pushed forward into new territory. Online charter schools have been hailed as the great leap forward in the education world; letting students learn at their own pace in their own environment, while being able to consult experts in many different fields.

But a study released in October by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University has shown “large scale under-performance” from online schools’ students. Their reading levels on average are equivalent to having missed 72 days of instruction, and maths levels are the equivalent to having missed 180 days. Dr. James Woodworth, Senior Quantitative Research Analyst for CREDO described the results as “somber”.

Brian Gill, a Mathematica senior fellow and lead author of the report, said, “Challenges are exacerbated by minimal student-teacher contact time.” The report also says that children are unable to focus on studying when left alone with laptops, and that parents are failing to fill in the gaps left by a lack of face time with teachers.

So technology, despite being in demand, has earned itself a bad reputation in the education world

Parents and teachers worry about technology’s impact on children’s wellbeing too. Dr. Blurton says she deals with many parents who see technology as an enemy. “Parents tell me the last time they saw their child was the day they got a laptop.”

“I worry that my kids are spending their lives living from screen to screen,” says Tess Lyons, a mother of four children at Kellett School who are required to have their own laptops.

Are we fostering a generation that knows all about how to use computers, but have no idea why not to use them? Are we forcing our children to rely so much on information technology that they lose out on creative, critical thinking? Technology should advance us, not hinder us. We should not blindly demand better IT facilities in schools if they actually decrease performance.

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“It is hard to monitor what their kids are watching and reading on the computers. So we have seen that addiction can arise very easily,” said Ng Siu Fai, a primary teacher at Evangel School in Tseun Kwan O.

Hong Kong is one of the most connected cities in the world, with 81.3% of people having a PC at home. The Hong Kong government has committed to get WiFi into every school by 2018. Ten to fourteen year olds in Hong Kong already spend an average of 18.3 hours per week using a computer, and that doesn’t include time spent on mobile devices.

It seems there is no way to de-interlace our children’s lives from their technology. “You can’t stay ahead of the kids on this,” says Dr. Blurton. “As an educator, that changes everything. Because as an educator, if the point of our job is to provide a way to a better way, if our job is provide the road, we can’t do that if we don’t control the road anymore”

If teachers don’t understand the technology that they are trying to show their students to use, how can they be expected to lead the way into our ever-evolving tech-fuelled future? Recent research shows that Hong Kong, although a world leader in internet, PC and smartphone penetration, is falling woefully behind in training educators how to use their new resources.

The report by The International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) found that 53% of teachers lack the IT skills needed to teach their classes effectively, with 73% reporting that they feel inadequately equipped by their schools.

Dr. Priscilla Chan, who holds a doctorate in international education, said that Hong Kong schools often invest in new software and subsequently pressure teachers to use the technology, whether or not it is an effective tool.

“When I worked at Yew Chung International School, smartboards were the latest big thing. So the school spent millions and millions of dollars on getting each classroom the smartboards, with the new curriculum updates and software. And then there is big expectation that you have to use them, whether you like it or not, because the school has spent all this money on them.”

A lot of people want to show off the nice shiny technology that their schools have,” said Dr. Blurton But is it the right tool for that particular activity? Sometimes the right tool is straws and clay. And other times, it’s a fluorospectrometer. One sounds a lot cooler, but actually the same sorts of problem solving are going for both of those things.”

If schools are going to be relying more and more on technology to teach children, then there is a real need for teachers, parents and students to all be better trained in how to manage these tools.

For teachers, they need the freedom to decide when and how much technology to use in their classroom.

For parents, it’s teaching them that part of their job is to teach responsibility and balance. “Once they see the computer not as being the enemy, but as being part of the whole fabric and context of their kids’ lives, then that becomes one piece in the balance,” said Dr. Blurton.

For children, they must be taught how to responsible users. The Harbour School in Hong Kong, which was just named runner up 21st Century School of the Year, has a one laptop per child policy from grade three.

They claim this only works because they rigorously teach kids how to manage technology. Their “Laptop License” policy makes sure that kids know safe practice, what to upload/download and when to get off the computer. “Kids are given penalty points for misuse, which can lead to a revocation of their license, just like a driver’s license!” said Dr. Blurton

Perhaps we need to start giving “laptop licenses” in our own workplaces too.

Words and images by Louise Joachimowski

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