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education Archives - FreedomLab

Digital tools in the classroom

In many countries around the world, digital devices such as Chromebooks, iPads and Windows devices are making their way into the classroom. Google, Microsoft and Apple are battling for dominance in classrooms and want their devices and tools in the hands of the next generation of consumers. Many teachers and students are positive about the implementation of digital tools in the classroom. However, the performance of children who use digital devices has not improved substantially and some research has even shown that their influence is simply negative. What drives the implementation of digital devices in classrooms?

 

Our observations

  • Even though the education market is not particularly profitable for Big Tech companies compared to other markets they are in, companies such as Apple and Google are battling for dominance in the classroom. Critics say this is because it provides access to a relationship with customers that havemuch greater lifetime value for them beyond their time in elementary school or the K-12 system.
  • The world wide web has opened up the opportunity to educate whenever, wherever and scale up like never before. Moocs, online tutoring, educational apps, online education platforms or entire (online) schools, keep expanding as digital possibilities (e.g. 4G/5G infrastructure, affordability) increase. Since traditional education is now less valued by employers, alternative education, including online education, has become more attractive (e.g. up-to-date, less expensive) as a serious alternative in preparation for a future job.
  • A recent Gallup report found that teachers, principals and administrators see great value in using digital learning tools now and in the future. The top three uses in which they experienced effectiveness are: 1) doing research or searches for information; 2) Creating projects, reports or presentations; 3) providing practice lessons and exercises. At the same time, teachers, principals and administrators say there is some but not a lot of information available about the effectiveness of digital learning tools.
  • A study by the OECD concluded that those schools that use computers heavily at school perform a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics. Countries that invest heavily in ICT for education showed no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science. Moreover, technology appeared to be of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
  • In a report by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado on personalized learning, the authors expressed their concern for the privacy of students and the lack of research support for the effectiveness of digital devices.
  • In a survey of Education Week Research Center, a strong majority of U.S. principals worried that the implementation of digital tools and devices is leading to too much screen time for students, students working alone too often, and the tech industry gaining too much influence on public education.

Connecting the dots

With technology being omnipresent in our daily lives through our smartphones and laptops, it is to be expected that classrooms around the world will adopt digital tools as well, if only to correspond with daily practices. As we wrote before, for example, YouTube is a preferred learning tool for Gen Z, which they also use extensively outside the classroom. What is more, digital learning tools can meet the needs of modern students to study whenever, wherever. The Gallup report on the use of technology in education shows that most teachers would like to make more use of digital tools in their classroom, selecting tools that can provide immediate and actionable data on students’ progress, allow for personalized instruction based on students’ skill levels andengage students with school and learning. Finally, schools often use the implementation of technology in education to promote their school as upto-date and futureproof. This positive attitude of schools andteachers as well as students is an important driver of the implementation of digital tools in classrooms.

Big Tech companies are developing digital products just for schools and often offer them for free. Digital devices such as laptops and iPads are also offered to schools for special prices, which makes it easier for schools to buy them for their students. One of the main arguments of tech companies to do this is that they want to provide each student a fair chance to get familiar with technology and have access to internet. However, as the history of the usage of technological tools shows, when customers are used to a certain interface, program or brand, that is a huge advantage for a tech company in terms of customer loyalty. Providing students with tools and devices means that their operating system, their whole ecosystem, becomes ingrained in students minds. Either way, Big Tech companies are an important driver of the implementation of digital tools and devices in classrooms.

However, the effectiveness of digital tools and devices in classrooms is yet to be proven. Although the Gallup report shows that many teachers see value in the adoption of technology in education, convincing scientific evidence of this value has not been provided yet. Moreover, many of the more extensive empirical studies on the advantages of digital tools and devices in classrooms didn’t show any advantages or even deterioration in the educational performance of students. MIT recently even published an article that argued technology in the classroom can hold students back, claiming that technology should primarily support teachers in their tasks instead of aiming to replace them. Videos and audio recordings, for example, can be used to bring topics to life, but should not replace a lesson provided by a real, live teacher.

Implications

  • The use of digital devices and tools in the classroom automatically forces students to spend more time in front of screens and work alone, compared to traditional teaching. These aspects of the usage of digital devices and tools in general are increasingly being criticized for the negative impact they have on youngsters. Moreover, more screen time is increasingly associated with poor kids and less screen time with rich kids. Along with the lack of substantial evidence that digital tools and devices are actually beneficial in the classroom, this criticism is giving rise to the popularity of a countertrend in education: techfree schools such as Waldorf education. Although this is a modest trend, it might be a weak signal of an upcoming reevaluation of digital tools and devices in education.  
  • The drivers of digital tools and devices in education are strong: the target group (e.g. teachers, students) is eager to use them and its providers are motivated to deliver them. The lack of evidence of its effectiveness is therefore not enough to stop this trend, especially since many would perceive the absence of digital tools and devices as too big a contrast with life outside the classroom. The skepticism about their effectiveness is, however, causing uncertainty about which devices and tools are best to use inside a classroom, which makes it unclear where this trend is headed.
  • Digital tools that can help out with administrative tasks, for example helping teachers to take attendanceor grading, shows the most immediate benefit till now. This is in accordance with other disciplines, in which automation of routine tasks is currently one of the most successful applications too.  

 

Teaching youngsters coding skills with logic

The digital world has become omnipresent in our daily lives. Therefore, the skills to understand and create digital objects such as websites or tools are becoming increasingly important. In order to do so, one must master coding skills. After literacy, coding skills might thus become one of the most important sets of skills to teach next generations, providing them equal chances to participate in an ever more digitized world. Although these skills appear to be a brand-new educational topic, they are strongly related to ancient philosophy, namely formal logic, a discipline that formalized the rules of thought that underlie many subjects such as scientific research, grammar and chess.

Our observations

  • All sorts of initiatives to teach coding to next generations are arising. Last month, for example, Disney and Roblox teamed up to advance kids’ coding skills with the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker CreatorChallenge, offering fans the opportunity to learn how to design and race their own spaceship. But educational coding apps (e.g. Kodable, Daisy the Dinosaur), coding programs in schools and even entire coding schools are also gaining popularity.
  • The top three coding languages in the world are currently JavaScript, which was developed in 1995 and is one of the essential technologies of the World Wide Web. Next is Python, developed in 1991 and known for its readability due to the use of our natural language in its script. Python is currently one of the fastest growing languages. Finally, there is Java, an open source script developed in 1995 and used by, for example, Twitter and Netflix. In total, there are currently about 700 coding languages.
  • The only admission requirement of the famous coding school 42, a tuition-free and non-profit coding school which opened its doors in Paris in 2013, is a passing grade for a test in logics. None of the traditional degrees (e.g. bachelor’s, masters) are required, not even a primary or secondary school diploma.
  • In the West, logic was first developed by ancient philosopher Aristotle and gradually became widely accepted in science and mathematics. Logic traditionally includes the formalization of rules of thought (e.g. a circle cannot be a square because one of the rules of thought is that something can only be identical to itself). These rules are not freely agreed upon by their creators, they are universal principles that every valid argument necessarily adheres to. An argument or complex line of thought can be reduced to this formalized language, after which it is possible to examine whether it is coherent and/or whether the argumentation is valid. Since Aristotle, logic has deepened and expanded.
  • Today, logic is extensively applied in the field of artificial intelligence with, for example, argumentation theory. One of the first programming languages (1970s), Prolog, originates directly in formal logic. Coding is intrinsically related to formal logic, for coherence and valid reasoning are crucial in coding too. Of course, both in logical reasoning and coding, rules can be applied in an invalid manner. In logic,this leads to incoherence, contradictions or invalid conclusions, in programs, it can lead to errors in performance.

Connecting the dots

Coding skills, the ability to read and write the language of computer software, are considered an important prerequisite for participating in an increasingly digitized world. In order to code, one must have knowledge of aprogramming or scripting language (e.g. Python or JavaScript). Python, for example, is considered one of the easiest coding languages to learn because it uses elements of our natural language, unlike JavaScript, for example. With coding, one translates certain tasks that are expressed in natural language (e.g. “whenever someone visits our website, ask if they want to subscribe to our newsletter”) to a line of instructions that computers can execute. These (coding) instructions need to be very precise and well-structured in order for a program to perform in the way that was intended by its developers.

One of the most important capacities for coding in general is a good sense of logic. This is an important skill because it enables a programmer to write universal rules that can follow their own path (e.g. whenever x happens, then y, except when z happens, then skip y), rather than being bound to static instructions (e.g. always first do x, then do y, then do z, etc.). Moreover, having a good understanding of logical reasoning is needed to translate everyday sentences so that they align with the basic patterns of code language (e.g. “dogs can run” becomes “all dogs are creatures that run” and then, for example,dCr). Finally, logical reasoning is needed in order for programmers to detect and understand errors or undesired outcomes in a program. For example, when a statement is programmed as reversible, it is important to be able to comprehend whether this is correct. In case of the sentence “all dogs are creatures that run”, for example, this is false (e.g. when reversed, it becomes “all creatures that run are dogs”). However, the sentence “no time without change” could be reversed: “no change without time” (depending on your view on time). These are only very simple examples, but in a program with hundreds of instructions, this can get very complicated and logical reasoning is necessary to keep it from running errors as well as maintain a structured overview and understanding.  

In our daily lives, pure logical reasoning is not something we explicitly encounter much. The most common occasion for engaging in pure logical reasoning, is when we are asked to take an IQ test, in which logicalreasoning is usually tested in two ways: First, the testee is asked to find (in)valid argumentation or drawconclusions (e.g. If Peter is bigger than Karen, then Peter is bigger than John. Peter is bigger than Karen. Ergo: a. Karen is bigger than John, b. Peter is bigger than John, b. Karen is smaller than John). The second way is to testrecognition of patterns in visuals. However, what is less known, is that these types of logic are actually explicit in formal logic: the discipline in which (un)sound reasoning is captured in rules, so one can judge whether a line of thought is coherent and leads to a certain conclusion or not. Studying logic and the relationship between logic and ordinary speech can help a person better structure his own arguments and scrutinize the arguments of others. There are arguments used in everyday life that are rife with errors because most people are untrained in logic and therefore unaware of how to formulate an argument correctly. Besides helping us avoid invalid arguments, as discussed, a good sense of logic is also an important competence for mastering coding skills. Moreover, coding languages are updated over time and new ones are introduced on a regular basis. Therefore, in a world in which coding is ubiquitous, teaching children formal logic provides them with a skill they can fall back on when learning any (new) coding language that might be relevant in the future.  

Implications

  • Although there are already many online apps, programs, games, etc. with which youngsters can learn coding, not every child will have access to such resources (e.g. due to lack of money, parents that are unaware of these possibilities or the importance of these skills to their children). To ensure that all children have equal chances, it is likely that coding will be introduced in education systems at some point. However, as we’ve argued, coding languages change and it is uncertain which coding language will be relevant in the future. It is therefore plausible that formal logic will be introduced as well. Teaching coding skills as well as formal logic will require upskilling programs for teachers around the world.
  • Although formal logic is often considered to be complex and mainly suited for the highly educated, in the late 1970s, philosopher and founder of philosophy for children (P4C) Matthew Lipman was the first to introduce formal logic to children in primary schools through his children’s novel Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery. He was convinced that logic was necessary to improve, for example, critical thinking, creative thinking and problem solving. P4C is gaining popularity globally and several studies have shown thatengaging in P4C can permanently raise a child’s IQ by 6.5 points.
  • In many countries, the law, court rulings and government policies are public in order for citizens to monitor their functioning. If citizens become able to read code, they might demand that the coding scripts used for public affairs become publicly accessible as well. For digital programs are used more and more to support or even carry out legislation (e.g. fining citizens for small offences) or, for example, to nudge us into changing our behavior. The coding script that is used for such tasks is a strong determinant of how a policy or law is interpreted by, for example, a policymaker.
  • In a more distant future, userfriendly interfaces might largely come to replace current coding languages, leaving the actual coding to computers. However, having a more in-depth understanding of logical reasoning will remain important, because it helps us see how the digital world around us functions, which is paramount, as it constitutes an increasingly large part of our lives.

Digital natives perform like digital immigrants online

What happened?

This week, Stanford University published a study on students’ ability to reason about the credibility of information they encounter online. As it turned out, the digital natives (they grew up in the digital era) are very easily fooled, despite the fact that they have been given media literacy courses and spend lots of time online. Frequently made mistakes include judging information as trustworthy because it comes up first in search engines, perceiving a website as reliable because it ends in “.org” and believing statements by a person who has many followers on, for example, Twitter. These results are somewhat counterintuitive as we tend to think that misjudging online information is mostly a problem of the elderly, who can be referred to as digital immigrants since they did not grew up in the digital era.

What does this mean?

Clearly, this is not just a generational problem. As common-sense philosopher Thomas Reid already noted in the 18th century, it is in our nature to believe information that comes to us. This is a useful disposition when we need to learn a lot. Were we to question everything our parents and caretakers try to teach us, our acquisition of knowledge would slow down dramatically. To emphasize how easily fake news can form false narratives, MIT recently released a deep fake in which Nixon gives a speech on the moon landing as if it had failed. As the sources of information about the world have become numerous and often unreliable with the rise of the digital era, young people, just like the elderly, should have a critical disposition towards the information they encounter online. For if they are not able to critically evaluate this information, they will internalize false claims and misleading arguments. 

What’s next?

Since media literacy courses and time spent online apparently haven’t done the trick, the search for a way to enable people to be more resistant to misleading information or simply fake news is far from over. This week, internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee launched a plan to fix the internet, called The Contract for the Web. It includes nine principles (divided over four themes: access & openness, privacy & data rights, positive tech and public action), three each for governments, companies and citizens. In these plans, fighting fake news is an important point of attention. Yet, the disappointing results of digital natives’ ability to judge online information show that, for now, we have to be careful not to rely too much on citizens and this in turn, would imply that governments and companies have to take a leading role in protecting citizens from disinformation.