Learning & development

November 17 2017

How technology affects children’s learning

Professor Andrew Martin MAPS
By Professor of Educational Psychology in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales

Why laptops are better than tablets, and technology needs to stay out of teen's bedrooms

The rapid expansion of technology in children’s lives has enabled many opportunities for their educational development. However, if not used effectively or appropriately, technology can also be a headwind for children’s academic wellbeing. When reviewing evidence and practice in this area, the question is not whether children should use technology for their learning. Rather, the important questions about technology revolve around what, where, when, and how they use it.

What: When it comes to learning, it can be useful to first consider if technology is needed at all. For example, as I describe below, using the internet for learning purposes takes a high level of skill. Without such skill, there is a possibility the child becomes lost, gets off track, or gathers unreliable information. Peer-reviewed text books by reputable publishers are often a one-stop shop for reliable information that does not pose such risks. In the learning situation it may also be useful to use devices that are less about gaming and social networking and more obviously academically- and work-oriented; thus laptops rather than phones and tablets may be appropriate here. The nature of the software used is also important. For example, students are better prepared for the high-level application required for senior school, university/college, and work when using full (not partial or “lite”) versions of recognised word processing, presentation, and spreadsheet software. Similarly, teachers identifying high quality websites for research is also critical.

Where and When: If technology devices are not needed for an academic task, then they can be kept well away from the learning or study area. If there is a substantial risk the child cannot control impulses with regards to gaming, social networking etc, then having the computer in a viewable area may be warranted. During sleep hours, there is little need for any technology in the bedroom (notwithstanding a clock). Furthermore, avoiding use of technology in the hour before bedtime will be good for sleep hygiene. It is also reasonable to have clear rules and boundaries around when gaming and social networking happens during the school week. Indeed, during school term there may be no gaming during the school week; instead, parents might allow some gaming at the weekend. If there are e-violations on house rules, then e-consequences can be quite effective. This might involve, for example, a ban from gaming for a designated period of time.

How: Some of our research has found that longer hours using technology is not necessarily helpful for learning. In fact, excessive hours became quite unhelpful. Notably, in that same research we found that greater quality of use is helpful for learning. However, high quality use does not necessarily come easily. In fact, I have suggested that children may be digital natives when it comes to gaming and social networking—but they are digital novices when it comes to using technology for academic purposes. Indeed, it is often the case that technology skills need to be explicitly taught and developed. As one example of this explicit instruction, I have previously described the steps involved in helping students become better at generating search terms, locating quality websites, extracting reliable information from these websites, and applying that information to their schoolwork in effective ways.

Technology can play a large part in facilitating children’s academic development. The extent to which it does so will depend on what, where, when, and how it is used in the learning process.