The use of some technologies in the classroom could be hurting rather than helping learning, according to a growing body of research.
International studies are questioning the practice of replacing hard copy schoolbooks with electronic tablets, a trend that appears to be on the increase in Ireland.
The Department of Education keeps no figures on the number of post-primary schools where students now use individual electronic devices as a primary learning tool in the classroom.
However, tech company Wriggle said it now has contracts with more than 100 second level schools, where a total of around 40,000 students each have individual tablets supplied via their school.
Wriggle estimates that there may be an additional 20 to 25 post-primary schools with contracts with another technology provider.
This would represent somewhere between 10%-15% of Irish post primary schools.
An expert in technical communication has warned, however, that simply replacing hard copy text books with technology may be damaging children’s ability to learn.
Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn, a lecturer in Technical Communication and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick, said international research shows that crucial skills such as the ability to empathise and critically analyse texts may be compromised by a shift to reading texts on tablets.
She said such a move replaces the deep reading process which the reader of a hard copy text experiences, with “skim” reading, where the reader looks out for key words and may believe that they are fully absorbing the text but in fact are not.
“We may think we are processing the information in the same way,” she says “but in reality our ability to empathise and critically analyse the text are all being compromised.”
She said this has huge societal implications.
Dr Marcus-Quinn said while reading on tablets is suited to certain kinds of short texts and certain kinds of reading exercises, it does not deliver the level of immersion that leads to deep comprehension.
Citing ongoing studies led by Norwegian researchers, but involving academics in 30 countries, Dr Marcus- Quinn said it is vital that teachers are allowed to decide which blend of learning is most suited to their own students in their class.
She advised against a “whole school” approach, where a school centrally makes a decision which affects the role electronic devices such as tablets play in classrooms, across the entire school or across different stages of learning.
While the Department of Education has not gathered data on this issue, it appears that a growing number of schools are requiring students to use tablets in the classroom instead of hard copy textbooks in the Junior Cycle years.
However those students return to the more traditional reliance on hard copy textbooks for their Senior or Leaving Certificate years.
Schools using tablets on this “whole school” basis typically charge each student around €600 for purchase of a tablet. Parents are obliged to purchase the device from one particular company, and cannot bring in an existing digital device.
Schools, and the company Wriggle, which supplies the technology to many schools, say this is because the devices need to be specially configured, in order to limit usage and protect students.
They say older devices frequently have out of date operating systems which make this difficult or impossible.
Wriggle said that parental concerns around use of the technology were valid. A spokesperson said the company was trying to promote a “blended” approach, and would not promote “screen time 100% of the time”.
The Department of Education requires schools to consult with parents over the use of technology by students during the school day. But some parents complain that this does not go far enough. There is no requirement on a school to take the views of parents into account.
The University of Limerick has recently begun teaching first year students how to take handwritten notes during lectures.
The university wants to encourage students to write lecture notes rather than type them on laptops.
Arts and Humanities librarian Pattie Punch said research indicates that when one is typing the brain is in “neutral’, whereas the effort of handwriting – where the brain and body must form the shapes of different letters – leads to a more active and more reflective kind of learning.