Technology’s Impact on Learning


24 July, 2023


The purpose of any technology is to meet the needs of humanity and solve problems or complete tasks in a more effective and efficient way; however, when applied to the educational sphere, technology’s purpose becomes more complicated. Not only is technology used with the purpose of enabling and improving learning, but Information Communication Technology (ICT) skills in
and of themselves, are required by students if they are to be prepared for the world in which they will live. The paradox continues when you consider that studies are now showing that technology is a two-edged sword: it is a necessity, yet it can also be a disrupter both to learning and to wellbeing. With the rise of artificial intelligence, it has perhaps never been more important to be technologically savvy, but how do we ensure our students are actually learning, and how do we ensure they are actually staying healthy, whilst still building their knowledge in this arena?

At the Association of Heads of Independent Schools Australia Biennial Conference in 2017, Andreas Schleicher (Director of Education & Skills, OECD) said, “The future five to ten years’ landscape of learning does not look very good. Technology is making learning worse, rather than better”. He went on to say, “On the whole, PISA (Program of International Student Assessment) research  can’t see any assistance in learning by the use of technology”.

This is a controversial statement, not least because being literate in ICT is one of the key General Capabilities laid out by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for the National Curriculum. Having said that, things are rarely black and white, so let’s break it down a bit.

There have been scant few large-scale independent studies on the impact of technology on learning, however, McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm whose Australian arm provides regular research reports on the state of education, used PISA testing from 2018 to delve more deeply and determine whether technology is having any positive effect on learning and if so, where. In their June 2020 Report, ‘New global data reveal education technology’s impact on learning’, the results from 340,000 15-year-olds from 51 countries were analysed.

The results were far more nuanced than that of Andreas Schleicher’s assertions and indicated that:

  • The type of device matters – data projectors and internet connected computers correlate with nearly a grade level better performance. However, in every learning area (PISA tests Reading, Mathematics and Science), students who solely use tablets in the classroom perform half a grade lower than those who do not.
  • Geography matters – the relationship between technology and learning varies greatly between regions around the world. In North America, there are clear learning benefits via the use of laptops, indicating a more sophisticated use by students and teachers in that region.
  • The people using the technology matter – technology in the hands of teachers only produces improved learning universally and is associated with higher scores compared to technology being used solely by students; this is especially the case in Reading. While collaborative use of digital devices by teacher and students in Science has a positive effect on learning. One of the most conclusive findings was that exclusive use of devices by students is associated with significantly lower outcomes everywhere.
  • Intensity matters – students who use technology intensely (60+ minutes/subject) or not at all, perform better than those who use it moderately (1 – 60 minutes/ subject). However, a consistent finding was that students who spend any time on devices in their Literacy and Language Arts classes perform about half a grade below those who spend no time at all on devices.
  • A strong learning culture (such as at Scotch Oakburn College) matters – in lower performing school systems, technology is associated with worse results.

In balancing the opportunities against the potential pitfalls of technology in learning, some argue it would be beneficial from a learning perspective to go back to pen and paper because myriad studies have demonstrated that the physical act of handwriting produces greater neural activity than does typing. It has been proven that writing and drawing results in greater recall, understanding, and ability to respond to conceptual questions and put information into one’s own words. There are also significant remedial effects in disabilities such as dyslexia, ADD and ADHD. But where would that leave us in our endeavours to upskill our IT capabilities in a world that is becoming increasingly digital? Collectively, the results from the research by McKinsey actually indicate that educational systems that look holistically at their use of technology and use a data-informed approach can achieve learning gains from the strategic and subject-specific use of technology in the classroom. In fact, when used the right way, technology can aid learning to the point that it accelerates it beyond the expected gains associated with age and maturity. Finding the balance, between the pen and the keyboard, is our ongoing challenge.

Now, if we move forward to McKinsey & Company’s May 2023 report, ‘Snapshot of the disruptors impacting the future of education (Insights from a national study of 501 teachers)’, we can see that they now cite ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technological change’ as the number one disruptor in education today. In the last few years, things have progressed significantly, and AI now poses a raft of academic, ethical and philosophical issues around learning that all of us in Education – students and teachers alike – must adjust to at an uncomfortable pace.

A piece of art created by Microsoft Bing’s Image Creator. Image Creator generates AI images based on your text. This example shows a snippet of our article, “Geography matters – the relationship between technology and learning in a surrealist style”.

When used the right way, Artificial Intelligence ‘chatbots’, such as ChatGPT, can facilitate learning by providing immediate feedback on queries, enabling access to vast amounts of information, to enable responses to prompts, and saving time. There are virtual reality and simulation tools that are truly exciting and undoubtedly a learning boon. But conversely, chatbot responses that are not based on fact or that lack fact-checking capacity, can negatively impact grades, reinforce biases and societal inequalities, decrease interpersonal interactions, and limit creativity, language development and comprehension. If AI does the ‘thinking’ to produce the response to a prompt, there is likely to be no understanding by the student of the key concepts and basic truths upon which the response is founded, even assuming the chatbot has used factual information. A logical endpoint could be that a student could gain a certificate or degree without any real understanding
of the knowledge they need to befunctional in their workplace. How can they be successful lifelong learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed members of the community if they have foregone the process of learning how to learn, lost the ability to discern fact from fiction, and instilled little relevant intellectual building blocks in their minds?

ACARA cites seven general capabilities. They are Literacy, Numeracy, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Critical and Creative Thinking, Personal and Social Capability, Ethical Understanding, and Intercultural Understanding. The last four of these are the human elements of ACARA’s General Capabilities and it is these that can’t be replaced by technology and AI. These human elements are areas that education must increasingly focus on in the future to ensure students are ready for the changing world of work and more importantly that our graduates are able to be positive contributors to their communities and society.

But let’s come back to the paradox of technology and its impact on Mental Health and Wellbeing, which McKinsey identified as the third most significant disruptor in education. As educators, we are duty-bound to look beyond strict academic outcomes as the only measure of a student’s success and research consistently finds that excessive recreational use of technology has detrimental  effects on the health and wellbeing of its users, with effects such as (but not limited to): poor sleep habits; an inability to concentrate and complete tasks; poor eyesight, posture, fine and gross  motor skills; a lack of emotional regulation and curiosity; low resilience; increased anxiety, depression and online bullying; and addictions to gaming and gambling. However, it is important
to note that using technology in learning contexts has been found NOT to have the same deleterious effects on wellbeing as when it is used socially or recreationally. Yet we know the same devices are often used both for learning and for social and recreational purposes, and they are perpetually accessible, thus the line is blurred between learning and otherwise when it comes to technology and mental health.

All of the above is why the College has rules, guidelines and policies around the responsible use of technology, and why we don’t allow mobile phones to be used during school hours, unless  approved by a teacher for educational purposes. It is also why the College has strongly encouraged parents to not allow technology in students’ bedrooms, to make sure it is turned off well
before bedtime and why we have guest speakers to present to students and parents about the dangers of social media, etc. It is why we use technology alongside our students, exposing them to new  skills and introducing them to new ways of presenting their learning. It is why we are exposing students to AI tools in a controlled environment; to their benefits and pitfalls. Importantly, with the rate of change of technology and armed with the findings in this article, a group of staff are investigating and researching the most effective ways to use technology in assisting and accelerating our students’ learning. Their findings will help shape our ICT curriculum, the specific scope and sequence for the ICT skills that our students are taught across their education. Word processing, databases and data logging, spreadsheets, statistics and graphing skills, presentation skills, creative software, coding, videoing and editing, design software, and simulation are all important ICT literacy skills for students to develop.

When researching, students must also be able to discern opinion from fact, and engage in rational, mature and informed debate. Teachers must guide our students’ use of technology to accelerate their learning, not use it as a short-cut to simply complete a task. Efficiency and problem solving are important, but using technology and AI to circumnavigate actual learning, is a genuine threat to personal long-term success and we are all responsible for making sure that doesn’t eventuate.

Therefore, our collective responsibility is to mitigate the disruptive risks posed by technology and AI, both to learning and health, whilst exploiting the advantages they provide to ensure our  students are developing the skills and capacity to grow intellectually, physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually.

In conclusion, in 2019 all Australian Education Ministers signed the Mparntwe (pronounced m’barn-twa) Educational Declaration. It sets out a vision for a world class education system that encourages and supports every student to be the very best they can be, no matter where they live or what kind of learning challenges they may face. It states that our education system should promote both excellence and equity, and it should produce young people who are “successful life-long learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed members of the community”.

That is our goal, our challenge is to use technology wisely to achieve that.

Andy Müller