The presence or absence of digital technology in our lives influences the way we access and process information. It shapes student interactions with family and friends, and of course, teachers. Digital technology makes education easier in some respects, and more challenging in others. It also opens up a world of opportunities for teaching and learning.  Understanding how digital technology influences teaching and learning in both positive and negative ways prepares students and teachers for success in today’s world.

Different Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Digital technology has revolutionised the delivery of information in Australian Schools. The traditional “chalk and talk” lesson is now just one possible teaching and learning method. Educators have been experimenting with other models, including:

  • Blended learning where online exercises and content complement, rather than replace, face-to-face classroom interaction.
  • Hybrid learning, where content delivery frequently takes place online, replacing student-teacher “face time” in class.
  • The flipped classroom – Students are initially exposed to new concepts outside the classroom, usually through online presentations. Class time is used to apply, problem solve, and discuss what has been learnt.
  • Personalised learning which incorporate the use of portable technologies such as mobiles, laptops, and tablets by both teachers and students. Students follow their own learning program. The teacher facilitates learning

The Advantages of a Digitally-Savvy Education

Surveys and comparative studies suggest that the use of digital technology has a positive impact on some learning outcomes and a negative impact on others. A 2014 comparative study by the Hybrid Learning Institute (an advocate of mixing digital and traditional instruction) indicated that nine out of ten schools using hybrid approaches performed better on standardised tests compared to traditional classrooms. Several studies have shown that educational apps can help students reinforce concepts, as well as learn new material. Recent studies of the academic progress of American fifth and eighth graders found that learning experiences generally improved when using tablets at home and in class.

Both teachers and students report higher levels of student engagement and motivation to complete tasks when using tablets, apps, or simulations as learning tools. This was certainly my experience when I worked as an English-language teaching assistant in France. Incorporating video clips and interactive activities into lessons motovated students to engage with new concepts. According to a recent Pew Research Centre survey, 73% of teachers reported using mobile technology in class or allowing students to use it to complete assignments. 47% of teachers surveyed strongly agreed that digital literacy is key to success in academia, as well as in other areas of life, and 44% somewhat agreed.

However, further research must be undertaken if we are to have a clear and balanced picture of the potential benefits and drawbacks of hybrid and other models which incorporate digital technology. Instructors need to consider whether it’s practical for their students to engage with teaching models that rely heavily on digital tools. Some students may be unable to use digital technology due to physical or other limitations. In my case, it allowed me to overcome physical limitations which hampered my ability to complete tasks at the same pace as others.

Educators need to carefully assess what models and tools highlight, extend, and maximise the strengths of teachers and improve student learning.  Additional research about the effects of digital technology and new teaching models will allow teachers and students to make more informed choices about what works for them.

The Drawbacks of Using Digital Tools in the Classroom

Most teachers agree that the Internet is a useful research tool, but some have noted that students expect to find answers instantly. They are often discouraged if they don’t receive instant gratification. Students should be taught to research and think deeply to form their own opinions, rather than to expect a quick fix from digital tools. Learning how to care for the equipment itself is also important. Moreover, technology is not a one-size-fits-all solution to best practice issues.

A well-rounded education system recognises that face-to-face interaction and social skills are as important as digital literacy. Digital tools can complement and even enhance social interaction, but never replace it. Contrary to popular belief, there is no conclusive evidence that the use of digital technology leads to a decrease in a person’s ability to concentrate. Nevertheless, people who spend a lot of time alone using it often exhibit poor social skills, a lack of self-awareness, and low emotional intelligence. Moreover, students can use digital devices to distract themselves and others from learning.

To avoid this, some schools have banned mobile phones in class and seen a marked improvement in student engagement and achievement. Educating school children about the appropriate use of technology is important.

Finding A Balance: Technology is the Servant, Not the Master

Keep in mind that technology should be used selectively as a means to an end and/or because it adds value to the learning experience in some way. Digital technology is a tool, and should not be used simply because it is available and trendy. Ideally, teaching and learning environments help students and teachers get the best out of both new and traditional learning and teaching models.

Education Depends on Teachers and Learners, Not Technology

Technology can’t replace sound educational principles or a commitment to teaching and the pursuit of knowledge. Skilled teachers and learners know how to use resources efficiently and effectively in ways that motivate and challenge them, and to enhance the learning process. The best teachers and learners are not only familiar with specific facts and concepts or their application, but they also can identify their strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to mitigate or turn them to account with the resources at their disposal.

About the Author

PhD in European Languages and Cultures (specialising in Literary Translation) Department of International Studies Macquarie University