An article in my local paper looks at a recommendation by the Government’s science and education committee that every school child have access to a digital device such as a computer, laptop or tablet. Already, there are schools in which the ipad equivalent has replaced pen and paper, and there is something of a scramble amongst the rest of us to appear modern, relevant and aware of the needs of the ‘21st century learner.’

This, it strikes me, is one of those complex issues on which it’s difficult, and indeed unhelpful, to take sides. Done well, the integration of such technologies into teaching will have some tremendous benefits. Done poorly, it will be a costly exercise in window dressing, and one that increases inequalities within our schools. So, rather than be for or against the move, I would rather think briefly about where the opportunities and dangers lie.

The opportunities are very real. One that seems particularly important to me is the chance to engage with students in a world in which they are already comfortable and skilled. Often in education students mill about outside the knowledge house, fascinated by what lies within, but too daunted by the building’s façade to ever approach (we insist, for example, upon a particular type of grammar, when discussing academic ideas. Why?) If the student feels comfortable in the medium already, then there’s good evidence a significant hurdle can be dismantled.

Similarly, I like the democratic potential that exists in the digital world. Sure, at its worst, this means little more than a lot of angry ex-talkshow callers, typing out obscenities, but in a civil engagement, many of the things that scare people away from active participation in debate (I am too young to have a valid opinion, I’m embarrassed by the way my voice sounds, that person looks at me funny whenever I talk, my spelling’s bad, I need time to go away and think before I answer, that bully is dominating the conversation) can be circumvented in a digital environment.

There’s also the extended reach of expertise. If you’re trying, and failing, to introduce calculus for the fifteenth consecutive year, while at the same time some communication genius in Hull has nailed it in a twenty minute youtube clip, isn’t it sort of tragic for your students not to have access to that?

The cons though, should not be ignored. Equality is huge. The students who don’t have access to this equipment will simply be disadvantaged. And it’s not just about having them at school. It’s about broadband in the home, a quiet place in the house in which to participate in extended learning etc. It’s got to be the first problem to be solved.

The second is the tendency not to adapt, but to appear to adapt. So long as every student has a device, and they’re being used occasionally, there’s every chance we’ll think the job’s been done. ‘Look at that, no paper on the desks. How tremendously modern we are.’ The introduction can only be justified if it sits at the centre of a cultural shift, with regard to delivery.

Distraction is a valid worry. How many people struggle to get through their of daily tasks because they are constantly ambushed by irrelevant emails, facebook anxiety and the seduction of attention seeking trivia? Teenagers are, above all else, social creatures. One of the most vital skills we learn in school is how to block out the surrounding noise and focus on the task at hand. And the digital world, for all its charms, is really really noisy.

Finally, and I may come back to this properly in a future post, many of the things that make the digital world so tremendously exciting, rely upon more traditional skill sets. Literacy, numeracy, contextual knowledge, critical thinking etc are tools we need students to bring to the digital table before any real learning can occur. There is a danger that, in our rush to engage with the modern world, we’ll neglect the old world skills that would make such engagement rewarding.

So, there you are, proceed with caution. One thing I’m sure of is that the very worst motivation we can have in all of this is the fear of being left behind. This sort of idea that young people have moved into a strange new world called the future, and we must follow them, or go the way of the dinosaurs. This is an awful reason to act for two reasons.

First, adults almost never get it right when deciding what it is the kids are up to. Our idea of their online experience, and the experience itself, are likely far apart. Second, we don’t apply this logic to other areas of teen engagement. Noticing that teenage alcohol consumption was rising would not be an excellent reason for introducing drinking into schools, in order that we stay relevant to the 21st century learner. We’re not meant to be preparing our students for the future, we’re meant to be helping them shape it. Anything less is an abdication of responsibility.

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