The Role Of Technology In Education Outcomes


Why do I need a teacher when I have Google?

You will forget most of what teachers make you learn and think, but you will never forget how they made you feel.

– (British education visionary Sir John Jones answering a question from a 15-year-old student)

Students sending instant messages to each other rather than speaking, iPads and laptops at every desk, and a teacher who has not delivered a monologue from the front of the classroom this semester. The classroom of the future is here, but is it more effective? And what have the impacts of the digital classroom revolution been on teachers and successful education outcomes? The ability of teachers to evoke a love and passion for learning is something that cannot be easily replaced.

The advancement in technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to education outcomes and individual student success. Technology has enabled education to be available to students who previously had limited access. Interactive learning is bolstered by technology and children are exposed from a young age to digital devices and their intuitive user interface. Technology is also responsible for globalisation in education, as teachers and students can research and share information at a level that would have been incomprehensible a mere decade ago. But as technology grows in leaps and bounds, we as education professionals also need to be aware of the challenges associated with integrating it into the classroom.

Relationships are the key to successful education outcomes, and teachers are the ones that foster environments where personal relationships and interactions flourish and encourage students to love to learn. Technology can encourage a lack of human interaction, whether that is teacher-student interaction or student-student interaction. Socialisation and communication are extremely important in early childhood classrooms, and introducing structures that are too digital heavy can impede the development of these young students and hinder their later education. There has been a lot of media attention recently about the rise of cyber-bullying and the devastating impacts it can have on vulnerable students and their families. Technology, in particular social media, has added a level of anonymity to peer interactions – students think they are untouchable online, and will say things to others that they would never say to another person’s face. Increasing awareness and educating students in how to cope with the online world and the real-world effects of online conversations has helped with this issue, but as technology evolves rapidly it is difficult for teachers and parents to keep up.

One of the most important things that is emphasised in high school teaching is training students in the art of critical thinking and analysis, away from the traditional model of rote learning and the simple repetition of facts in exams rooms without any real understanding on the student’s behalf. We are now in an age where the answer to any question can be found on Google, and the basis of many high school assignments is Wikipedia. Libraries are physically throwing out hard copy books in favour of online resources. Student no longer visit libraries, search for books, take notes, and reference their information as they used to. However, the importance of careful research and critical analysis (Where did this information come from? Who wrote it? Is this a reliable source?) is something that teachers need to emphasise, especially in high school in preparation for tertiary studies. This is an ongoing challenge for teachers as they attempt to balance technology and critical thinking whilst also instilling a love of learning into students.

In June this year, the Guardian Teacher Network ran a special series to explore how technology was changing the role of teachers across different learning areas. Their perspective, which I wholly agree with, is that technologies can never replace great teaching. The reasons for this are based around the concept that teachers are not just imparters of information and knowledge, but play an integral role in the development of students on an emotional and social level. The goal of teachers is to provide independent thought and encourage independent enquiry, leading ultimately to independent learning. This is a role that cannot be replaced by technology.

Technology is a tool. It has a place in education but it cannot replace the role of teachers. Technology, including iPads and laptops, can be used effectively within primary and secondary classrooms to support learning and help develop productivity, problem solving skills and independence. The Guardian series authors stated that as teachers they would “use technology if it is the best tool for the job to enhance learning” – whatever the best tool for the job is, the classroom teacher will have the students use it. This decision needs to be partly based on teacher judgement and also the overall approach by schools and government education departments. Teachers need to be trained to best use technology and understand how and when it can benefit their students.

How has technology transformed the role of a teacher? Technology promotes active engagement – as opposed to passive engagement that involves copying down words from a textbook or a blackboard, or listening to a teacher speak at the front of the room for long periods of time. Active engagement is a key part of encouraging critical thinking and analysis, even with younger students. It can encourage students to problem solve and find solutions both independently and in collaboration with other students. As mentioned above, teachers need to be trained in how technology can be used most effectively so that they can plan their classes and incorporate technology into their lesson plans.

I had the honour of hosting Sir John Jones in July, as he delivered a session as part of QELi’s Good to Great leadership development program for education professionals. A specialist in change leadership, curriculum design, organisational culture and sustainable education frameworks, Sir John Jones was knighted in 2003 for his services to education after working in challenging schools across north-west England.

Sir John challenges teachers to reignite their passion for teaching and he also reminds us of the profound influence teachers can have over their students and their futures. As he says: “The good news is that teachers make the difference. The bad news is that teachers make the difference”. This emphasises the idea that a great teacher with the right tools can achieve so much more than technology on its own.

As research has shown, many factors influence a child’s learning, direction, ambition and achievement – including poverty, the neighbourhood, and the breakdown of the family. But for Sir John, if you come across a teacher who is a “magic weaver”, then it can be life changing. For education to be memorable and effective, there needs to be emotional connection between the teacher and the student, and that is why Sir John says teaching is “80 per cent relationships and 20 per cent relationships”. Technology cannot take the place of this relationship, but it can enhance it.

Sir John is not alone in his philosophy that the teacher is the most important factor in a child’s education. Award-winning American author and technology expert, Dr David Thornburg, has researched and spoken extensively on the topic of technology in education, and the need for education to focus on the future rather than the past. He takes a straightforward approach to the argument that computers and technology have made teachers irrelevant, stating that “Any teacher that can be replaced with a computer, deserves to be”. To me, this reinforces the need to invest properly in teachers and ensure that graduates are prepared and knowledgeable about how to approach their careers and their own education philosophies.

In order to improve education outcomes and individual student success, governments need to continue to invest in teachers – in their training, in their development and in their professional success. Teachers are the key to student success and development, and technology undoubtedly has a role to play within this process. To conclude, I share the words of Bill Gates: “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.”

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Stephen Brown
Dr Stephen Brown is CEO of the Queensland Education Leadership Institute (QELi).
Stephen Brown

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