Podcast Transcript - Technology & Learning
Tracy Burton interviews Associate Professor Michael Nagel
TRACY: In this Episode I continue my discussion with Associate Professor Michael Nagel from the University of the Sunshine Coast as he shares his research on the role of technology in Modern Education. Professor Nagel I would like to move on now to the topic of Technology in Schools. There has been a great deal of research and discussion on the topic as you know particularly in terms of ‘screen time’ and the role of Technology in the Classroom. We have all heard about the negative impacts of too much screen time and so on but what is the latest research telling us about the impact of technology on teenagers and their learning?
MICHAEL: Well I think what we are seeing as you mentioned there are a lot of studies. They are saying that we need to be very cautious about the amount of time that teenagers spend on screens. We know that screens are disrupting sleep patterns. We know that they aren’t dependent, although there are a lot of people say that they might be. For all intents and purposes they are a device, they are a tool that teachers know how to use and parents know how to use well and that students and children get a lot from. Ironically we also know that most of the evidence says to date we still don’t know how to use technology well in terms of learning. We are learning still how to do that. Part of the reason for that is that technology has changed so markedly in very a short time. And so we haven’t had a great deal of opportunity to use particular things to see what the long term implications are because it changes so rapidly. If you think of an iPhone, I mean an iPhone has only been around for a very short time but that is a computer in the hand that young people today hold. Fifteen years ago it was a laptop, twenty years ago it was a desktop and things change so rapidly that we really haven’t got a hand on how well to use technology. We are still learning.
TRACY: What is too much screen time in your opinion?
MICHAEL: Well ok if you look at the American Paediatric Association says that children from 0 to two should have no screen time what-so-ever. After two from about ten or twelve years of age they recommend about two hours a week. And then beyond that it has to be mediated depending upon needs and assessment but there are some researchers who suggest that probably when you’re hitting adolescence probably no more than five to six hours weekly.
TRACY: If children watch screens more than that, consume more than that, what impact does that have on them?
MICHAEL: Again it’s one of those things that most research that is available is not about causations, it’s not about things causing so you have to look at a number of studies across a number of disciplines and say that what do we see going on. Ostensibly we see a negative impact on behaviour, on sleep patterns, on engagement with the real world and we find a number of studies that say that if you have a disproportionate amount of time on screen it can have a negative impact on your social and emotional development. Cognitive development is a little bit harder to measure but certainly in how you engage with the world there are some studies that say looking too much time on screen is not as beneficial as some might think.
TRACY: If we break down a teenager’s screen diet if you like, in any given day they may consume television programs, learning apps, military games, drawing games and of course social media. Is there such a thing as a healthy choice?
MICHAEL: I think what parents should know is that you could probably separate television from all other screens because the nature of the screens is very different as is the nature of engagement. Television is a very passive enterprise for the most part regardless of what you’re watching. The other devises that young people use whether they’re gaming or phones or whatever require a level of engagement to interaction that varies and that’s the part of technology that we really don’t know a great deal about. It’s important too I think for listeners to understand I am not anti-technology per se and sometimes I am often critiqued for being that, for being a dinosaur. I think that it’s important that we look at what the evidence says. My whole view when it comes to childhood development and learning is that anything to do and with children should be based on the best available evidence. And the best available evidence suggests that we should be very cautious on how much time or how much investment we put in insuring the children are on screens because they spend a great deal of time socially on their own volition and so do we want to exacerbate the number of hours they are playing on the screen by having them do too much on screens.
TRACY: If a student uses a screen in the classroom for an example, there is often this great desire to not give up the screen - in the classroom or at home. How do you manage that as a parent if you like?
MICHAEL: Well there are two things. I think that you have to start in the early stages. You can’t invoke a set of guidelines with a fifteen year old if you haven’t been doing it since they were five. So if you are going to have technology and you want your children to use it responsibly, you have to have guidelines, you have to set up parameters and you have to be consistent across time, whether they are five, ten or fifteen. The other thing is really important is that you have to model behaviour that you expect. If you have your phone at the dinner table, your phone goes off and you answer it, why would you expect your child to do anything differently? So whatever rules or boundaries you are going to set up you do it early in life, you are consistent and you model that behaviour. Otherwise you would expect a fifteen year old to do something that you want them to do if you are not showing them how.
TRACY: That’s an excellent point. In terms of screen consumption and I am generalising here, but many boys today tend to engage heavily with video games. Is this increased use of technology linked to the increased impulsivity and the distractedness that you have identified?
MICHAEL: There is some evidence and some studies that suggest that one of the things that happens with screens because of their interactivity and because when you look at a web page or anything there is often many things going on simultaneously, and it’s interesting because the human brain can actually only attend to one thing at a time. It’s a bit of a misnomer that multitasking where people think that you are doing multiple things simultaneously, with the exception perhaps of walking and chewing bubble gum. Most of the times where you are trying to focus on something, your brain can only do one thing at a time. This is why using a mobile phone while you are in your car is highly problematic because while you attend to the phone you are shifting your attention away from driving. And so there is evidence that suggests that if you spend a disproportionate amount of time on screens, you might be training your brain to work in a particular sort of way, so that when you step into a classroom where you are asking to have your focus or attention on the person or the individual thing that is going on you struggle to do that. Again it’s one of those things that is relatively new in the research literature about that. Does it impact on impulsivity, does it negatively add to impulsivity? And preliminary studies suggest that it does, it does because the nature of the beast such that a screen is not something passive as passive say as a book, where it is very focused there are many things going on simultaneously which asks you to shift your attention rapidly and try to come back to a focus is often quite difficult.
TRACY: Is the effect the same on boys and girls?
MICHAEL: Predominantly, but as you mentioned earlier what we see with technology is girls typically are still using technology by and large for social media, for social gathering, and boys are using it for gaming, with the exemption maybe of the new fad Pokémon Go where it seems that there is no gender separation there. I have seen both boys and girls walking through parks quite voraciously looking for augmented realities. So there is a difference in what they are engaging with which theoretically will impact on how they will engage with it.
TRACY: You talked about Pokémon Go. There is almost an addictive nature to using screens. Where does this come from in the human brain?
MICHAEL: It’s actually part of the human brain but also the design of technology. Many of the games that young people use or engage with are actually designed under sort of gambling addiction research so we know for example that a powerful neuro transmitting part of the brain called dopamine in it’s an excitatory chemical so if you are driving in your car for an example and you hear a song and you listen it’s a positive sort of an emotional response it can elevate dopamine 9% and you feel pretty good. What games do is they give you the same sort of initial buzz, so when you are playing a game and you achieve a certain level or score it’s exciting. You feel good doing it. You see young people out in the park playing Pokémon Go and you can see the smiles on their faces, they’re elated, this level of excitement. Good game design, and when I say good game design I’m not talking about positive benefit but people design games really well, engage those people so they stay on the game and they keep playing the game. There’s a dependency that exists when you excite dopamine levels. So if you do that really well you can certainly hook people for extended periods of time. A year ago, there’s a manual that psychiatrists and psychologists use that looks at mental health conditions. It’s a diagnostic manual and about a year ago internet addiction was put in this manual as a true mental health concern, along the same lines as gambling addiction, alcohol addiction, because if we spend a great proportion of time on the internet you get the same sort of buzz, the same sort of feeling that you might get from those other addictions and can actually go through the same sort of withdrawals so there is a really addictive feature about screens that parents should be aware of if their children are engaged with it too much.
TRACY: How do you combat that?
MICHAEL: Again it’s about setting those guidelines and parameters early in life and ensuring that children are doing more than just gaming, whether they be involved in various extra-curricular activities or sporting activities, making sure that the kids are involved in different things not just sitting in that room playing Xbox.
TRACY: So setting clear boundaries?
TRACY: Some students are becoming increasingly reluctant to want to take hand written notes, preferring to type everything, getting back to the use of the screen, where more traditional learning activities are perhaps undervalued. What are your thoughts on this?
MICHAEL: Again, we have seen some really interesting studies and I teach a curse in Educational Psychology and I show my students research evidence because the same thing that I said to you a moment ago anything that what we do to and with children should be based on the best available evidence. And I show then the evidence that tells us that when you are taking hand written notes you are actually engaging many different areas of the brain that you don’t do when you are typing on a keyboard. So we know that hand writing notes actually commits things to memory and at a deeper level of learning than tapping on a key board. And it’s those types of studies that people should have access to and talk about so we know that as you sit on front of a lecture theatre or in a classroom you are writing things by hand you are committing more attention to the message and committing more to memory than if you were manipulating it on a screen.
TRACY: So with that in mind: how is technology best used in a classroom, in a school, to achieve a positive learning outcome?
MICHAEL: Well I think that I would refer back to a quote by Bill Gates himself who said that it’s important to remember that technology is a tool, the motivation and how to use it is the responsibility of the teacher’. And I think that’s important for teachers. Probably if they want to engage in technology in a particular way, don’t engage with technology for technology’s sake, find the evidence that says if I use it in this particular way there is some benefit. If you don’t have the evidence leave it alone.
TRACY: Professor Nagel what’s your view on the use of iPads within a Primary School and also the benefits of using learning technologies in the earlier years?
MICHAEL: It’s a highly contentious issue and a highly debatable issue and I know there are plenty of people who support the use of the iPads. Again as someone who has spent his career looking at how children develop and learn, the evidence that I have come across suggests that the time spent on an IPads is time misused or underused where kids can be exploring and learning the world around them. One of the things that I think is really interesting is that we tend to, as I have previously mentioned, we tend to cherry pick data when we look at things. Australia now is talking about NAPLAN results, and every couple of years we talk about PISA results which are international studies over the OECD Countries about who does well in Literacy, Numeracy and Science. And the last time when the PISA results came out Australia was ranked fourteenth and of course there was uproar of why we were lagging behind. So we look at countries like, or cities even Shanghai, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan who top the charts. What’s really interesting is when we look at what they are doing; we should also look at what they are not doing. So in 2015 the OECD published a report ‘Computers in Schools’ and the general gist of the report and I’m paraphrasing the director of the education for the OECD who basically said that, ‘To date the use of computers in schools has shown no marked benefit in educational outcomes and in fact it might be creating more problems that what it’s worth.’ He was quick to say too if you look at the countries that use computers, the least in schools and at home for school benefit include Hong Kong, Shanghai, South Korea, Japan, and Finland, the top five countries who do the best in Literacy, Numeracy and Science. The country that uses the computers the most is Australia. Australia uses computers in schools and at home more than any other country in the OECD in terms of total time commitment. Now, we rank fourteenth and anyone can download that report from the OECD. The interesting thing that the Director was saying in the report was that by and large Australia actually, even though they are using those, it is actually doing not too badly in how they use it. But overall, the fundamental message is we have yet to really and truly understand what is the best way to use a computer to enhance educational outcomes. We don’t have enough evidence, we are still learning about that and I think that it goes back to what I said earlier it’s a work in progress. Technology is with us, it is not the be all and end all, it’s not a pen say for learning it’s a tool and one other study that I think is really interesting, a couple of Professors that I know in the United States, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek at Temple University and Roberta Golinkoff at University of Delaware did a fascinating study where they looked at 80,000 apps that were self-proclaimed educational learning apps. Anyone can design an app and badge it so these were Apps that call themselves learning Apps or educational Apps that kids could download and use. And ostensibly what they said that of the 80,000 Apps that they looked at, less than 5% had any educative value in terms of learning. If you look at pillars of learning or the science of learning. And they said that most of them amounted to nothing more than digital candy. Kids engaged with it, they got hooked on it, they got hyper, and it was not really doing anything for them. Like the OECD report was saying we have no critique of the Apps per se in using the Apps. We have to design technology in Apps based on pillars of learning and science of learning not on pure enjoying or entertainment. There has to be a foundation for learning that supports these and we are starting to do that, we are getting better at that. I have colleagues at my university that are looking at science of learning as a formation for devices. To date we just haven’t been very good at it.
TRACY: What is your opinion on coding?
MICHAEL: You know it’s interesting because I have heard people say if you teach a child how to code that helps develop their mental cognition, their cognitive activity and the questions I ask is in teaching a child to code does that actually supplant or is that better than teaching them to do something else that doesn’t require the financial resources for the coding either the things that they can do with pens or papers that have the same outcome. Unless you can demonstrate a huge benefit, the expense doesn’t match up. And in terms of children’s mental cognition; mental cognition improves with age, we get better at thinking about abstract thoughts and about thinking about what people are thinking as we grow older and so while it might enhance mental cognition in some way or in some kind of aspect is it actually better than some of the things that we have done historically? I haven’t seen any evidence to convince me that it is.
TRACY: So are you suggesting that we should move away from technology perhaps and resume more of traditional style of learning?
MICHAEL: Well it’s interesting because what I am about to say again some people might say I am a bit of a Luddite but I think if people consider the fact that the very technology that they are holding in their hands that they are using is a product of an education system that had not technology. The very creative minds that developed iPads, iPhones, computers and the recorder that we are using now came from an era of people who got out and explored, played and learned in a particular way so I don’t think that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater but I also don’t think that we should be jumping on the computer bandwagon saying that this is going to revolutionise the world. I just don’t see it.
TRACY: Let’s finish up today by looking at the future. What direction should technology take from your research, and in your opinion - where should we go from here?
MICHAEL: I think that the most important thing is for teachers and parents to, it sounds paradoxical, but I would say that they would need to engage with the technology. Look for the research, look for the evidence and look for opportunities to use technology that are beneficial. There are plenty of people out there who are doing just that who are looking for beneficial ways to use technology. I think that what parents should be thinking about in teachers, again it comes back to if someone is purporting to use something for a particular benefit you have to ask what is the evidence? How is that supporting my child’s learning and or development? And if there isn’t any evidence, again leave it alone, unless you have the evidence leave it alone.
TRACY: Professor Nagel, thanks for joining me today.
MICHAEL: My pleasure, thank you for having me.
TRACY: And that concludes our two part series with our Associate Professor Michael Nagel from the University of the Sunshine Coast. We hope that you found the discussion informative and educational. This podcast was produced by Tracy Burton featuring music by Paul Cusick. Thanks to Dr Ricardo Simeoni for his audio support. Thanks for listening.