Reality trumps virtuality

By Ingo Leipner, June 2021

Computers in schools can be useful, but they can also cause harm.

Photo: © Michael Schnell /

The London Acorn School is not a Waldorf school. What distinguishes it, however, is its clear stance on digital media. The school’s website states: “Our increasing addiction to smartphones and other devices limits the downtime that the brain needs to process, wander and dream and is particularly detrimental to the development of young minds. While we introduce technology later on, in the early years we are very careful about exposing our children to screens.”

At this school, pupils under the age of twelve do not use smartphones or computers, nor do they watch television, even during the holidays. The school’s approach is one of a “gradual integration” of electronic devices. The internet remains off limits to anyone under 16 – both at home and at school. Starting from the age of 14, computers are introduced as part of the lessons.

Sarah Thorne is the director of the London Acorn School. According to the Guardian newspaper, she has good reasons for this restricted use of digital media. It allows teachers to promote much more important skills than simply filling in Excel sheets, namely key skills such as judgement, creativity and concentration. “School is an educational journey,” says Thorne, “we want to make it as diverse, enriching and interesting as possible.” 

For this reason, the “Bündnis für humane Bildung” (Alliance for Humane Education) and ELIANT are calling for digital-free kindergartens and primary schools. This demand is supported by almost 100,000 people across Europe who have signed a petition organised by the two organisations. This is because, they argue, it is only at a senior school level that young people reach the cognitive maturity to deal creatively with IT systems. The famous developmental biologist Jean Piaget calls this period, between the ages of 12 and 14, the “formal operational phase”. It is during this stage that formal operations gradually begin to occur in the brain that primary school and kindergarten children are not yet capable of. In other words, the ability for abstract thinking and self-reflection begin to mature – indispensable prerequisites for the responsible use of computers.­

In addition to age, there is another criterion for determining when computers can start to be used in a beneficial way. A distinction can be made between active and passive use of digital media: for passive learning programmes, a large amount of data processing power is needed to find the “right” task for the pupil in the database – this is known as “learning analytics”. Dirk Ifenthaler from the University of Mannheim provides a definition of this: “Learning Analytics uses dynamically generated data from learners and learning environments to analyse and visualise them in real time, with the aim of modelling and optimising teaching-learning processes and learning environments.” “Learning analytics” measures the length of time certain data is used and how long a learner stays in the learning environment. Along which paths are they travelling, which contributions do they make to discussions, how is their progress when learning – also in comparison to their classmates. This forms the basis for making interventions and forecasts. According to Ifenthaler, all data will be linked to findings in learning psychology “in order to understand and support the learning processes and behaviour of the users”.

This sounds scientific, but the consequences can be fatal. Sybille Schmitz has shown the limits of such passive learning programmes from an educational point of view; she is a lecturer and consultant for early childhood education and development. Her example is the educational software “Anton”: this app is currently very popular and offers over 100,000 activities with more than 200 different types of exercises, interactive explanations, as well as many educational games. Virtual rewards such as coins, trophies or avatar decoration are built into this “learning app”, even from as early as the first class. This links the child’s achievements to external rewards, which foregrounds extrinsic motivation and undermines any intrinsic motivation.

In addition, this activates the addiction loop in the child’s brain. This also applies to the games offered. Furthermore, Schmitz states that this causes the child’s mental agility to become sluggish, because when using a “learning app”, the child no longer has to perform many, especially strenuous, tasks themselves. As an example: it is much more challenging for a pupil to draw and label a coordinate system with pencil and ruler than to solve this task simply by selecting an answer from a drop-down menu. Especially when it comes to subjects such as geometry, the autonomous application of compasses, erasers, pencils, set squares and rulers is essential for the long-term memory in order to ensure a sustained learning process.

Although this work is more strenuous than clicking on solutions, “the pride in one’s own achievement,” says Schmitz, “is many times greater.” As the child’s exercise book fills up, their achievement becomes tangible, their progress can be (literally) grasped. “In the long term (...) the child’s learning success is thereby experienced as a real achievement of their own,” says Schmitz. And as far as active media use is concerned, real “media literacy” (Paula Bleckmann) is far more than mere “swiping competence”. In addition to the ability to absorb information, concentrate and engage in critical thinking, there is also a need for productive competence. This involves a robust understanding of the craft of media production, because those who learn to explain and argue at school are also able to produce texts that are compelling to their readers. Those who understand the language of images can take photos or shoot videos that can also be displayed on a website. Combined with “edge computing” (decentralised data processing not involving the cloud), an engaging way of dealing with digital media could emerge through this – provided that children from the age of twelve have reached the requisite level of maturity.

“Edge computing” is a concept originally developed for industry to better protect trade secrets. A company’s important data only originates on-site and offline, it is processed solely at this location. This approach can serve as a model for ensuring the prudent management of sensitive pupil data. The use of Linux as an operating system and open source software makes it possible to learn everything essential on an intranet and offline: programming, software applications such as word processing, film editing or web publishing. In the process, no pupil data is leaked to the internet. Especially in the Corona era, secure and high-quality provisions are an integral part of digital distance learning. In their use, data protection and the location of the servers must also be taken into account.

The Netherlands is regarded to be a digital paradise: the country is a world leader when it comes to providing broadband connections to the internet. The government reacted immediately to the first lockdown by equipping students with appropriate technology, such as laptops. This seemed to be guaranteed to be a successful distance learning solution, until scientists from Oxford began to analyse the data. These researchers had previously studied the performance of 350,000 primary school pupils during lockdown for the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science. The Netherlands offered optimal conditions for their study: “The key to our study design,” the educational researchers say, “was the fact that national exams take place twice in Holland.” The periods of these exams are January/February and May/June, in other words exactly before and after the closure of schools, which lasted eight weeks and began on 16 March 2020. For comparison, the researchers drew on exam results from 2017 – 2019.

The result: “The average loss of learning corresponds to one fifth of the school year, which is almost exactly the period during which the schools remained closed,” write Per Engzell and his colleagues. In plain language: the children could just as well have spent eight weeks sitting around twiddling their thumbs! “These results mean,” say the researchers, “that the students made little or no progress while being homeschooled.” A particularly alarming finding was that the losses were as high as 55 per cent for pupils from educationally disadvantaged households. German education economist Ludger Wößmann also commented on the study. Speaking to the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, he said: “I fear that due to the longer school closures in our country, the losses in terms of learning are likely to be much greater.”

These scientific results are supported by subjective observations made by a music teacher in Baden-Württemberg. She enthusiastically immersed herself in digital remote learning – among other things by producing “radio programmes” together with pupils. Her assessment of homeschooling:

  • “Many children no longer really read what is written in the text, but rather simply start clicking around haphazardly.”
  • “As a teacher, I am experiencing an increase in the blurring of boundaries, because emails or internal messages arrive at any time of the day or night, from pupils or parents. This also constitutes a form of focussing on the individual, but is being taken … to the extreme.”
  • “The children are completely exhausted after six to eight hours of online teaching (as are the teachers!).
  • More time is needed for autonomous, self-directed learning. Children can’t simply quickly be put through the motions.”
  • “Parents are emphasising the importance of personal attention (putting in an appearance). In other words, individual attention and personal enquiries.”

Remote digital learning for an emergency situation will remain a temporary crutch, which should soon be dispensed with. This does not detract from the necessity of implementing this form of emergency teaching in order to prevent students from falling behind completely. Someone with a broken leg is also glad to have crutches. Real learning is always a social process, tied to interaction with other people. For this, we need good teachers who work with their classes in a way that creates a spark of passion. Learning can only take place in “resonance spaces” (Hartmut Rosa). This is achieved above all in physical classes, which should not be sacrificed for the sake of digital euphoria. Following coronavirus, it is necessary to carefully examine how much digital infrastructure we consciously dismantle in order to re-establish this interpersonal resonance. For this resonance would fall by the wayside even in the case of perfect digital systems. Under no circumstances should coronavirus permanently cause screens to be plastered all over our kindergartens or primary schools, even if the IT lobby is currently seeing its chance to move in. 

About the author: Ingo Leipner holds a degree in economics, and works as a journalist and author


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