A school, near to me here in Perth, has a very interesting saying:

“We open our minds, not our laptops”

The school is held in very high regard. At the school, success is defined clearly with consistent grades and diverse opportunities for its students.

The school makes its stance on technology clear: the thought of a 1:1 computer environment is both economically and pedagogically the wrong decision. For three years, I have been intrigued by this stance and further investigation has revealed that the school may have the right idea.

I have a confession to make, I lost my iPhone… and it was OK! (in-fact it was actually a relief) In December I visited my mother in London. As usual I swapped my Australian SIM card for my UK SIM and my iPhone functioned as normal. Two days into my visit and my iPhone had been stolen. Access to three email accounts, my Facebook and Twitter account, 12 gigs of extremely important files stored in Dropbox. All of my notes, voice memos and photographs floating around somewhere in the hands of a thief.

I had to resign myself to changing all my passwords and locking down my digital life. I purchased a Nokia phone for £9.99. It had a torch on it and… it made phone calls.

Things changed immediately for me. No longer did I find myself almost constantly distracted, incessantly opening a series of apps which delivered needless news and updates. Capturing, editing and sharing photographs, although fun, does need to be done in moderation. Accessing feeds about technology news and education opinion, although important does need to be done in moderation. For the first Christmas in years, I was actually present and existing. Apart from playing with my Nokia torch, my family had my full and undivided attention.

The iPhone, iPad and Microsoft Surface are mobile interfaces which provide a constant connection to your personal digital world. Schools are rife with them and I am certain that Christmas morning of 2012 brought thousands of gifts containing these devices. Ecstatic children and students throughout the world now ready to plug into and nurture their digital existence. I’m certain that most parents were actually pleased at the silence which adorned their Christmas afternoons. However all is not what it seems, the sacrifice for quiet time does come at a cost.

 

Digital media explosion

The Kaiser Family Foundation has been studying media use in the lives of eight- to 18-year-old Americans for 10 years. Over that time, three reports have been published. “Media use” was described as a combination of television, video games, listening to music, reading printed text and using a computer.

Total media exposure in a typical day in 1999 worked out to 6 hours and 19 minutes (the majority spent with TV content). In 2009 this had increased to 10 hours and 45 minutes (of which just 38 minutes was spent reading printed text).

Between 2004 and 2009 the proportion of eight- to 18-year-olds who own their own cell phone has increased from 39% to 66%. iPods and MP3 players has jumped from 18% to 76%. It is these devices, providing a portable, personal supply of music, video, gaming and social media services that are responsible for the huge increase in media consumption.

What does this mean for school grades? The report (available at KFF.org) states: “Youth who spend more time with media report lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment”.

These findings are without a doubt the most alarming. Only 51% of heavy media users (those that consume more than 16 hours in a typical day) achieve good grades of As and Bs, compared to 66% of students who are light media users.

It seems unusual that anybody could spend more than 16 hours in a typical day plugged into a media device, withdrawn from the present moment. These high levels of media consumption can of course, only be achieved through multitasking i.e. listening to music while surfing the internet, or using an iPad while watching television. The actual time spent directly interacting with a device is still an immoderate 7.5 hours a day.

 

Multitasking

A personal frustration of mine is seeing a student off topic due to multitasking when in class. Or worse still, it’s quite commonplace to see teachers checking email, Facebook, house hunting or the like when monitoring a class! When applying oneself, multitasking should be discouraged. It is merely a way that the brain shifts its attention from one task to the next. Providing nothing more than a shallow immersion into either task A or task B. It is a technique which has become mandatory in today’s media rich world, but it can be detrimental if the student cannot consciously fully apply him- or herself. For example when you are filming or photographing an occasion like a wedding or birthday, the photographer finds himself so preoccupied with the camera settings, the sunlight and framing etc, it’s as if he is not there at all. Despite being present, viewing the event entirely through a lens results in the brain not engaging with the subject matter at all. It is only when the images are re-viewed that the topic is fully appreciated.

 

Unconnected is good too

Multitasking is an unfortunate consequence of providing an online device for education. I do not feel that the human brain is capable of fully comprehending a topic or writing an honest and accurate essay while monitoring social networks. Even just being aware that at any moment a chime might ring indicating a new email or instant message is enough to drive the mind absent.

Technology use in education has in the past been compared to being in an aircraft. We’re told to “switch off personal electronic items. Shut down computers and all personal electronic items”. These instructions are negatively likened to some school mobile phone policies. Empowering students to turn their cell phones into learning devices is now absolutely critical, and we are encouraged to remain connected.

But I would argue that perhaps the most valuable switch on your iPad is in fact the Airplane mode! This switch, located in the settings menu will deactivate the cellular, wi-fi, and Bluetooth connections. Don’t be afraid to ask your students at the beginning of a class to turn Airplane mode on. Don’t think it’s unreasonable to insist that the wi-fi on all laptops be turned off as well, providing a state of dis-connection.

The evidence drawn from the Kaiser Family Foundation report clearly identifies that young people’s time has become saturated with digital media use. Time away from media is no longer the default. “This carriage is designated a Quiet Zone” is common on trains in the UK. Museums and libraries remind us that these places are places for thinking. Unadulterated thought, without even the notion that it will be disturbed. To be able to process the world around us, to draw our own conclusions and achieve levels of higher order thinking we need to recognise two fundamental states: Our connected time and our disconnected time.

The disconnected time is where one can think, and if need be write, without distraction. But most importantly write without influence or fear; to speak one’s own thoughts. If we do not learn when to say no, when to close the email client, when to switch off Facebook, we will find that all of our time will be spent doing as the computer asks, and not as we ask of it.

 

The changing landscape

Over the last few years I have witnessed a real shift in the education landscape. It seems clear that technology use is feverish in every aspect of our lives so it makes sense that it should be at the forefront of teaching and learning… right? A calculated risk by teaching staff and a well balanced approach to support curriculum outcomes will enable a diverse and creative environment with the right use of technology.

But as educators, we have a responsibility to ensure that computers, their potential and their implications are understood and managed. Handheld devices like iPads have become a mainstay of young peoples’ lives and unbeknown to many parents they can become a Pandora’s Box of mischief.

This approach to moderated media use, and knowing when to switch off the online audience or influence from search engines is no doubt a priority, but the drive must come from the home and be fully directed by parents. It seems teachers can only lead by example at school and hope that home-life follows suit.

 

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