Pugwash: Technology has positive and negative effects in education

Credit: Ashley Lai Credit: Ashley Lai

At Pugwash, our discussions regarding ethics in science and technology can cover a lot of ground. Some of the topics are removed from our day-to-day lives, such as discussions of cryonics or space junk. Other topics have a little more personal involvement, like last week’s regarding technology in the classroom.

We began talking about the practical problems that come from using technology. Does it work? Does it help learning? A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that, on aggregate, there was no correlation between increased use of technology and improved test results. This overall data was supported by many personal experiences. One Pugwash member talked about how their school had received funding for smartboards, which are like a cross between whiteboards, projector screens, and tablets. In their experience, the smartboards offered no better functionality than a regular whiteboard.

Another anecdote was a native Floridian’s experience with a state requirement for an online class. They were disappointed with the class, and said most people saw it as just an excuse to not physically stay in school the entire day. Instead of using the extra time to work on the online class, they went to Chipotle or hung out with friends.

Doing schoolwork online also leads to many other distractions. It can be harder, in some classes, to browse Reddit or Facebook while the teacher is in the room with the students. When students are on their own, however, distractions are hard to avoid. One member, an international student from Germany, explained how they had all their lectures recorded online. The idea was for students to be able to go back through the material at their own pace, watching the hard parts repeatedly or the easier parts at twice the normal speed. Because of this, most students end up not going to lecture, because the video was available. However, they also don’t watch the video, because it’s easier to skip it when it’s an “on your own time” activity. The inclusion of technology only makes it easier for students to be lazy.

Many of the American members agreed that if they had the choice to avoid lectures, they probably would. Another German student, however, countered that we shouldn’t blame the technology for the attitude of the students. This member suggested that some might prefer the videotaped lectures to be available for early classes, because they would rather watch the recording sometime when they’re more awake.

Another point was that the existing technology probably isn’t being used as effectively as it could be, to put it generously. More bluntly, it could be horribly misused. Teachers, textbook producers, and the entire education industry are often being pushed to include more technology “because it’s the future.” Without proper training on how to use the technology, and without research on its effectiveness, including technology for the sake of following a fad can’t be expected to produce any results. One member’s father works in textbook publishing, and the member said he often recommended not using the software that he was being pushed to include.

However, just because technology is currently being misused doesn’t mean we should give up on it. It can still allow classes to do things in new and different ways, some of which might be effective. The OECD study looked at the correlation between technology and test scores in aggregate, which means it could be missing both really poor performers and also some really stellar uses of tech. An example was given of how physics classes can now simulate extremely complex processes that would have been hard to represent before computer modeling, or hard to conceptually grasp without computer visualization.

Approaching the topic from a different angle, one Pugwash member brought up the effect of technology on students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This member had worked with low-income students who didn’t have a computer at home, and they had a lot of trouble learning to work with the school computers. Wouldn’t including technology as part of the curriculum tilt the playing field even further against poor students?

That very reason is why technology needs to be included, another member said. If the exposure to computers is started early enough, then the students could learn how to use it at the same rate through the school system. The Pugwash member continued to say that in addition to regular reading literacy, web or computer literacy should also be a required skill for graduation from the school system. Other participants thought that was a good idea, but maybe a little idealistic, because devoting more time to another standard would have to cut into already small resources.

The last major issue Pugwash addressed was the idea of a classroom where human pupils were instructed solely by robots or smart software. Is the presence of human teachers somehow intrinsically beneficial to learning? The general consensus was that a human touch was important. More than just information providers, teachers serve as mentors, caregivers, and friends. There’s also something about seeing another human get excited about a subject that a robot just wouldn’t match. One member thought that even though they could be programmed to show excitement, students would still roll their eyes because they knew it would be just a program meant to show that “learning is fun!”

Another point that was brought up was that a person would still be at the other end of the program. Maybe the individual classrooms wouldn’t have a person in them, but a person would have to design the curriculum or set the program in motion. To have a cohesive educational system, some person would have to be in charge. But what if, as the last commentator of the night suggested, machine learning could do that better than any human?

Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization that discusses the implications of science, technology, and medicine on society. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on the use of technology in education.