Do smartphones as educational tools really benefit children?

Smartphones may be detrimental to early childhood development, affecting learning, sleeping and stress, say educators. — dpa

Many children already have their own smartphone by the time they're in primary school these days. And the devices have sometimes been indispensable for Covid-related distance learning. But they also have serious drawbacks, educators point out.

Klaus Zierer, professor of education at the University of Augsburg in Germany, says school authorities should take a close look at schoolchildren's smartphone use, warning that excessive use could lead to massive learning deficits.

He says the latest results of research by the acclaimed New Zealand educator John Hattie show that intensive smartphone use can cause learning lags of up to a year.

What's more, Zierer adds, smartphone use has been linked to poor sleep quality and cyberbullying, further factors that adversely affect academic achievement.

As Zierer notes, digitalisation in educational settings is an object of unabated research. And a large number of studies indicate that indiscriminate consumption of digital media outside the classroom makes children fall far behind in their schoolwork.

"Media literacy is one of the central educational tasks of our time, and schools in particular have to make a substantial contribution," he remarks.

Zierer has been collaborating for years with Hattie, a professor of education and director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

A proponent of evidence-based teaching, ie using only methods verified from evidence to be effective, Hattie became known to a wider public in 2008 with his book "Visible Learning."

The book is a synthesis of more than 800 meta-analyses – ie statistical analyses of data from multiple independent studies – covering more than 80 million school-aged students. It aims to identify the factors that contribute best to academic achievement. Ever since, "Visible Learning" has been drawn on for new teaching methods and expanded by Hattie and Zierer with further meta-analyses.

Zierer says that more than 1,800 meta-analyses comprising about 100,000 studies of the learning performance of some 300,000 million schoolchildren around the world have now been synthesised.

The pandemic's effects on schooling are currently a focus of intensive research, notes Zierer, who says the empirical evidence clearly shows learning losses.

School closures and the shift to remote, online learning have impacted all schoolchildren, he says, "but especially, unfortunately, children from disadvantaged families who have been out of school for as much as a year."

While the losses were offset somewhat by boosting schools' digital infrastructure, "digital distance learning can't replace in-person learning," Zierer remarks.

This, he says, is further confirmation of what has been known for more than 30 years, namely "digital media by themselves don't revolutionise schooling. Poor teaching isn't made better by digital media – only good teaching can benefit from them." – dpa

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