Health professionals are joining the debate over devices in education, by calling for “evidence-based” guidelines around the use of digital technology in schools and more “purposeful and moderate” use of screens.
The action group, called Sensible Screen Use in Schools (SSUiS), includes pediatric physiotherapists, clinical psychologists, opticians and occupational therapists.
Although the uptake of digital technologies by schools has been “well intended”, they say that not enough consideration is being given to how too much screen time in school time can potentially affect children’s health and development.
Today they are launching a website that brings together research on the impacts of device use in schools. Much of it has been published within the 18 months since the previous Government announced its digital shake up of education.
SSUiS founder Auckland paediatric physiotherapist Julie Cullen says “an increasing number” of studies are showing links between high screen use and negative impacts on children’s health and wellbeing. This needs to be recognised when making school policies.
“While a lot of these are associations and need more research, further studies are repeating the results. A lot of the information we have used is very recent, with results published in the last year or two.
“Research from the OECD has also found that high screen use in schools is associated with reduced learning outcomes in some areas, and with reduced digital skills. And yet, screen learning is being rolled out in some schools, with near full immersion – even at primary level.”
Cullen says she set up the website because the way she saw devices being used in schools, particularly with very young children, “didn’t sit well with my understanding of child development.”
As a parent to four primary school-aged children, she adds, “this topic is pretty relevant to me personally, as it is to many parents.”
“We recognise that understanding how digital technologies work and gaining digital skills is going to be very important for children to have equal opportunities on leaving school. We also recognise that the introduction of devices into schools has been well intended.
More research is needed, she says, but “if studies show that moderate screen use can have the best outcomes for educational achievement and gaining digital skills, and increasing evidence is linking high screen use to negative impacts on the health and well-being of young people [then] we need to be talking about this. We need to act now, not in five or 10 years.
“Our kids deserve our best effort to look at the research that does exist, and to make evidence-based decisions.”
SSUiS also includes parents and IT and education professionals. This range of experience has helped the group consider the issue from all angles, says Cullen.
She stresses that “the use of digital technology in schools is not a topic with black and white answers, it’s not all good or all bad”.
There are “many different views on this topic”, she adds. This can be seen in the way the implementation of digital technology differs hugely from school to school, and even classroom to classroom.
“Those views may all have valid points, [however] we have developed this site because we think our view also needs to be considered.”
The website weighs up the benefits and risks of digital technology use in school. Cullen hopes it can act as a resource with recommendations for both teachers and families. There are also strategies for concerned parents to take action, including letter templates to contact the MoE or communicate with their schools.
“We would like to see this issue being discussed and considered seriously by schools and the Ministry of Education.
“We would like to see parents and teachers who have concerns realising that they are not alone and feeling safe to discuss them.”
SSUiS is also calling for guidelines to be drawn up around the use of digital technology in schools, similar to those in the US. In Baltimore, an independent ‘school digital health council’, comprising paediatricians and other health professionals, provides guidance on classroom technology.
It recommends minimal screen use in early childhood education (in the US, typically five years old), no more than half the learning school day on screens in high school and a gradual increase from primary school. It also advises students take screen breaks every 20 minutes and that homework should be given in both digital and print form to suit all learners and families.
The group is backed by international education experts including Finnish author and scholar Pasi Sahlberg and Max Stossel, Head of Education for the Centre for Humane Technology, an organisation of former tech insiders and CEOs “dedicated to realigning technology with humanity’s best interests”.
Cullen says Sydney-based Sahlberg got involved – giving advice and feedback on the website – after she met him last year.
“He was in New Zealand [and] he spoke about children’s declining wellbeing and how media and digital technologies may be behind that. He said this is one of the global concerns among educators, paediatrics and parents, and that it’s very important that we start to talk about this.”
An MoE spokeswoman told Education Central that “the Ministry acknowledges the points made by Sensible Screen-Use in Schools: ‘there’s a place for using digital tools to enhance children’s learning’ and that it should be ‘moderate, purposeful and evidence-based’ and at ‘developmentally appropriate levels’.”
But regarding screen time in school, the Ministry’s chief science advisor Professor Stuart McNaughton has stated that, “apart from extremes, it’s not the amount of time spent with digital technologies [that’s important] it’s the usage, content and relationships with valued learning objectives”.
It is “a common misconception” that the new curriculum content is about using devices, adds Ellen MacGregor-Reid, the Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary for Early Learning and Student Achievement.
“The new content is about teaching the computational thinking principles of how digital technologies work and how to use that knowledge to design solutions to real world problems.”
In 2017 the MoE ran 53 workshops across New Zealand to show how computational thinking could be taught without the use of screens.
MacGregor-Reid cites a new entrant teacher who teaches concepts about algorithms to five-year-olds based around a problem-solving exercise about how to get ready at the swimming pool.
Ultimately, she says, it is up to schools, kura and wharekura to design their own teaching and learning programmes to suit their own views and philosophies appropriate to their community.
But Victoria University School of Education senior lecturer Dr Bronwyn Wood says she is concerned that “the push for the new digital technology curriculum and use of devices” has outpaced knowledge of how to use them well.
“We need to slow down everything, until we can get up to pace on what actually is useful for students to learn through digital technology and what isn’t.”
The issue is that it’s taken so long for such studies to come out. “We were so overwhelmed by the pace of change in technology that we didn’t have ways to respond appropriately in the pedagogy.”
Educators need to be better at saying when schools should use devices and when they shouldn’t, says Wood.
“I don’t want to put my head in the sand and say we don’t need technology, of course we do, but we need far greater critical thinking about when and how we use it. “
“You can put screens in front of kids but until the focus actually shifts from having the screen there, to actually what is going on with the thinking, and whether the screen is actually even useful, then let’s put it away.”
“We need to be asking questions,” adds Cullen.
“Is it okay for our teens to be on a screen for 10 or more hours a day, because with four or five hours of school screen use, a few more for homework and then recreational use, that’s not unusual.
“Is it OK for our primary age children to be on a screen for most of their school work, then homework and recreation? Do we need one-to-one iPad initiatives for our five-year-olds?
“All screen content isn’t equal, but the total number of hours per day is something to consider as well.”
Schools and communities need to work together, she says. “It can’t be just viewed as the parents’ problem to manage screen use, when schools are asking parents to give their children a personal device and to work on it at home.”
The New Zealand education system must look carefully at “what is best for our children, now and for their future”.
“We need to re-evaluate the use of screens to teach basic skills such as reading and writing, to limit the use of devices and distractions for our children and adolescents and to allow children the space to develop social skills and relationships through interaction with humans not screens.”