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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.


  • 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.  


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.