Digital Saturation Linked to Falling Reading Levels
Today the average Australian household has 12 Internet enabled devices. We have invited this technology into our homes, our workplaces and our schools and as yet it is unregulated. It hasn’t been possible to study long term effects because…there has been no long term yet!
We all celebrate the fact that all of humanity’s combined knowledge is now available to anyone with access to a modem. We love the connections it forges between people who would be otherwise isolated and if we want a world where empathy is valued, exposure to one another is of paramount importance.
However, as an educator, I have concerns about the impact all this connection is having on our kids and their learning. My concerns are shared by many, including Pasi Sahlberg. Sahlberg is a Finnish educational reformer and writer of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?
Sahlberg worries that our ‘digitally drenched’ students are suffering the consequences of our lack of restraint. He says that, “digital immersion changes the way children think and process information that may make deeper level learning difficult”. He points to the falling PISA reading levels of all developed countries since the beginning of ‘technology saturation’…including the much lauded Finland.
He reasons that in Finland reading results have dropped since 2006 but pedagogy and teaching have not changed. In 2006 there were no smartphones or iPads. So what has changed is the level of technology saturation. There may well be other factors, but what are they?
In my own work I find it interesting, and worrying, when I watch kids research. They tend to skip from link to link, website to website, with little assessment of the value or validity of the information they are gathering. They skim read for information and often miss the real import of what they are reading. Even at high school level, they don’t seem to judge the value of information from a blogger as any different to that of a news channel or a government organisation or a university research unit.
So, how can we ensure that our kids’ use of technology in schools is balanced and adding value? Melissa Marshall is the Head of Digital Learning at Santa Maria College, she makes these recommendations.
- First of all, a sound digital citizenship education is paramount. Students at SMC learn about how to operate in the digital world through their ICT lessons, in Health classes and through elective Technology and Commerce subjects. There are also sessions for parents at various Parent Information Nights throughout the year. These address issues that are particularly pertinent to certain age groups. Information is power, but we need to get better at understanding its power.
- In the era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts,’ students need to be armed with the tools to critically analyse information. Sites like the Wayback Machine, Wolfram Alpha and easywhois show students where their information comes from and how it can be used. Other skills such as learning how to use Google operators effectively are incredibly useful for students when researching. We have to remember not to treat Google as a person who answers questions like a person. It is a search algorithm and therefore, does not respond accurately when the wrong keywords are used. Many students (and adults) type in their queries word for word.
- It is up to teachers to consider best practice. If technology allows students to discuss, debate, share, critique, create, transform and use their time meaningfully, it should be used wholeheartedly. If technology merely functions as a substitution, for example a worksheet online instead of on paper, it does not add value to the learning. When teachers and parents ask questions that students cannot Google answers to, this requires them to think creatively and make judgements about what information they do have access to.
- The discussion in schools now is about learning with technology, not the technology itself. It is relatively easy to implement a 1:1 device program for students. Changing the way we teach and learn is where the real challenge lies. The aim is ‘visible learning, invisible technology.’
And what can we do at home to manage technology saturation?
- There is nothing worse than whiling away precious time on social media and feeling stressed because you are behind in your work. I tell students to practice intentional connectivity. This starts with turning notifications off for all apps (including email) and setting aside time to check them – so that they don’t control you. Notifications intentionally kick our brains into high gear: but it might be important! It is much more satisfying to focus and complete a task without being constantly interrupted. So, turn them off!
- We feel better when we choose a behaviour. Perhaps this means altering routines so that your phone is not part of the early morning and late evening. Looking at social media and answering email first thing in the morning can make both children and adults vulnerable to all kinds of unwanted emotions (depending on what is seen.) The first thoughts and actions in the morning set the tone for the entire day. The last thoughts and actions before bed set the tone for sleep quality.
- Have a central place in the house where all devices ‘sleep’ that is not a bedroom – this includes for all adults in the house – and remove devices from the table. We like to do a challenge where the first person to check their phone at dinnertime has to stack the dishwasher!
- The Twenty Minute Rule: For students and adults, having a 20-minute non-technology break when you walk in the door after a long day (reading, article writing on paper, playing chess, musical instrument practice, a brisk walk or mindfulness) is a fantastic way to re-boot your brain and prevents mindless hours of scrolling. Do anything but get on a phone or laptop, and chances are you will return to work or study more energised. Otherwise, if you are like me, you’ll waste time on screens, end up with a sudden burst of energy at night, stay up too late and go to bed even later – rinse and repeat the next day. Choose an activity to suit your interests and observe the change.