Are Smartphones Dumbing Down Education? – OpEd


By Yossi Mekelberg

A recent report by UNESCO, titled “Technology in Education,” has warned about the potential pitfalls presented by the use of digital technology in the classroom. It reminded me of an experience I had when these gadgets first began to be used by students. During my Middle East politics class, while I was outlining some significant historical developments, I spotted a student laboring over his tablet. To be honest, I thought he was sending emails or too busy with social media to engage with the class, until suddenly he interrupted me and announced to everybody that his search engine had confirmed the information that I was sharing with them. It was my first realization that my credibility as a lecturer depended on what the internet search results agreed with, and not necessarily on my track record. But it also made me aware of the potential of this new technology to enable students to be more proactive learners constantly looking for new sources of knowledge.

The UNESCO report highlighted the debate among many educators on whether the introduction of technology enhances the education experience or does the opposite, making it poorer, shallower and compromising quality in the name of glitz and gimmicks, while widening the gap between those who can afford the technology and those who cannot. The report does not pretend to supply conclusive results or recommendations, but it does a good job in highlighting what we who have been in education for many years sense — that the jury is still out concerning the benefits of digital technology and its added value.

It would be wrong to refer to digital education as one phenomenon, while in reality the term is a shortcut to a wide range of hardware, software and applications that are used in education to better and worse effect. The effectiveness and utility of using digital technology in education is determined by geography, the quality of the equipment and content available, how well staff are trained, whether gender and cultural differences have been taken into consideration, and how it is balanced with other methods of teaching and learning.

However, as we consider our ever-increasing reliance on technology, there are two sectors pushing hard for digital education that should be treated with suspicion. The first and most obvious group comprises those who develop and sell this technology. They are mainly better versed in technology than in education, and tend to neglect the human side of education and the need to deal with learners as individuals with different educational requirements.

The other sector that suffers from an extreme case of ulterior motive is made up of those who manage education, whether in government departments or within schools and universities, and who see technology as a cost-cutting exercise. Many of them either have no first-hand experience in education, or have moved to management at a relatively young age and lost touch with what is taking place in the classroom. Counter-intuitively, a piece of technology is less flexible than a teacher.

It would be foolish to promote a blanket rejection of digital technology in education, just as it is equally imprudent to think that the future of education lies only with machines. In recent years, investing in digital education has, in many cases, replaced investment in teachers, and ensuring that they are efficiently and correctly employing these digital platforms to enhance students’ experience, as well as allaying teachers’ fears that one day machines will replace humans in class.

Moreover, many of those in charge of education are failing to distinguish between quality and standardization, which digital education exacerbates by allowing bureaucrats to attempt to control these elements at the expense of encouraging creativity and diversity. This leads to the mediocrity of a one-size-fits-all approach that leaves many young people behind.

Admittedly, there are positive examples of digital technology enabling increased access to teaching and learning resources in a way learners have never experienced before. But on the flip side, being exposed to infinite sources of information without the guidance and tools to discern between the reliable and credible ones and those that are merely figments of someone’s imagination, is causing long-lasting damage to both the acquisition of knowledge and our ability to understand the world around us in any sphere of existence. Furthermore, high-quality education has always favored the haves over the have-nots, which in turn determines their future, while the disparities in access to digital resources worsen this inequality.

A key finding of the well-argued UNESCO report is that there is “little robust evidence on digital technology’s added value in education.” One reason for this is that the new technologies emerge, change and are replaced at such a pace that makes it impossible to properly evaluate them, which is inevitable when commercial incentives to introduce new platforms are allowed to take precedence over educational considerations. Moreover, studies that sing the praises of digital education mainly originate, unsurprisingly, from those who develop the technologies. This scenario mirrors that of the pharmaceutical industry, but this time it is damaging minds rather than bodies.

And, as with any other application of technology, there is the risk of inappropriate or excessive use that brings with it behavioral challenges that might be difficult to address, either in class or by educational managers. Bullying, for instance, has always existed, but perpetrating it on one’s phone or computer, including while in a formal educational setting, is becoming easier, more intense and more harmful.

There is also no escape from recognizing that the very nature of digital information affects detrimentally and disproportionately the younger generation, a cohort that is already suffering excessively from concentration deficit, a condition that affects a student’s ability to pay attention to fully developed arguments or to read original texts, and limits their capacity for critical thinking, reading and writing. The very nature of much digital learning is rather solitary, and in a society where mental health issues affect a large proportion of young people, their social skills are bound to suffer, too. Such solitary learning also limits the ability of education staff to be present to assist them in seeking help.

Digital technology is here to stay, and AI will soon take it to a new, but not necessarily improved, level. The solution is not to reverse this development, but to ensure that in the march of humankind to acquire and improve knowledge, technology does not erase our humanity to the extent that instead of machines serving humans, the future becomes one in which humans serve the machines and those who profit from them.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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