Does digital learning mean lazy learners?

Is the increase in technology having a detrimental effect on language learning?

There is no doubt about it, digital technologies have made lessons more efficient, allowed limitless access to learning materials and given teachers an abundance of materials to help shape engaging lessons. Long gone are the days of students fidgeting while long-winded grammar presentations are slowly hand-written on the whiteboard or blackboard, instead, a quick press of a button and a powerpoint slide sweeps in to view, complete with fancy whooshes and Hollywood style special effects.  Interactive whiteboards and classroom tablets boast the swish, cutting edge personality the ELT industry has adopted and videos, songs, Flash games, and blogs now hold the same gravity as the register.  But are we really encouraging learning?

If students are being attacked by English on all levels, in a multi-sensory, surround sound operation, surely this is going to have a positive impact on language acquisition, right? I’m not so sure. Yes, students are having more opportunity to meet language but I’m not entirely sure they are forming meaningful connections or working enough with it to commit it to long-term memory.  Instead, I fear that we are guiding students towards an all singing and dancing sensory overload which, while it is undeniably enjoyable, leaves very little take out.

Indeed, despite technology epitomising 21st-century learning, the jury is still out on the impact of technological influences compared to traditional methods.  Ackerman & Goldsmith’s 2011 studies demonstrate how while reading online under pressure yields similar results to paper i.e. under exam conditions; when reading at the reader’s own pace retention levels are significantly lower when reading on screen as opposed to traditional paper texts.  They eluded to subconscious differences in how we process the material, deeming on-screen information less important than its paper equivalents. This makes total sense when we consider how our “scroll culture” of skim reading websites and news articles makes us superficial consumers.

If we are more conducive to learning from paper are we fooling ourselves that the online practice and digital explanations we offer to our students are no more than a waste of energy, in all senses?

I, personally am a huge fan of the PowerPoint presentation as I feel it makes me more present in the classroom, saving time, giving clear, legible explanations (yes I suffer from teacheritis, the inability to write clearly) and providing clear examples to illustrate my language teaching at the touch of the bottom.  What I have noticed, however, is the increase in students asking me to email the presentation to them or simply taking a photo of the projected slides, and this is where problems start.  It’s like those annoying people at festivals or concerts who insist on holding their phones in the air to film their favourite singer for the whole performance. Whilst it’s nice to have that footage on your phone it is very unlikely that you will probably ever look at it again, it will instead be designated to the depths of your telephone memory and forgotten about for all eternity.  And this I fear is what happens to the majority of the digital files that are sent to our students. Digital handouts and exercises are only valid if there is enough re-working and processing by the students, otherwise, they tend to take on a game aspect which our subconscious simply doesn’t attribute enough importance to.

Are we at danger of pushing so much content that our lessons actually lose their true content? And if you can get your head around that paradox, does the way that we consume digital technology mean that for anything more than a competitive or superficial element we should be avoiding it in the classroom rather than embracing it?   The flipped classroom approach is an interesting one as it would both highlight these problems and seemingly alleviate them as it demands a commitment from students outside the classroom that the lessons’ success is then pinned on.  This model requires students to go beyond a superficial level of engagement and instead fully immerse themselves in the language in order to have any possibility of participating in the face to face elements. In theory. But in a world of Instagram filters and life hacks, are students distorting the reality of their true language abilities?


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