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The view from across the eDesk


November 4, 2020 Valerie Steeves, Professor, University of Ottawa


Students’ perspectives of tech in the classroom

OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS, The eQuality Project team has conducted a number of qualitative studies with young people between the ages of 11 and 17 to explore their online lives. Although this kind of qualitative research isn’t generalizable, it does provide a rich picture of the kinds of attitudes and perspectives that can be found within the general student population. For teachers interested in using technology effectively in the classroom, the data provides a number of standout findings.

Four notable findings about tech in the classroom

1. School is important.
First, the good news. All of the young people we spoke to in a recent study we conducted with our partner MediaSmarts identified school as the most important place to learn how to use technology well. Although parents continue to play a pivotal role, students credited their teachers with providing them with the skills they need to identify good educational resources and get the most out of their devices. Even better, these skills translated to students’ daily lives, making them better able to use tech to explore their own interests and keep in touch with their friends. This is a clear win for digital literacy education and underlines the importance of having an engaged teacher in the wired classroom to help students learn how to use devices effectively.

2. Surveillance feels creepy.
On the other hand, our research participants consistently report that the kinds
of protective surveillance schools use—to filter offensive content and monitor for cyberbullying, for example —continues to interrupt their learning. Certainly, being blocked from good educational content can be annoying for both students and teachers, but the real problem from the students’ perspective is that this kind of monitoring feels “creepy” and “stalkery” to them. Many of them tell us that they are less likely to try new things, explore nonmainstream ideas or take risks that may fail because a digital copy of their actions may haunt them throughout
their education.

3.Technology is losing its lustre.
Students’ discomfort with the online surveillance they experience at school (and at home and in the marketplace) may also explain why they no longer tend to talk about technology as exciting or liberating. Devices have definitely become the infrastructure of their day, but the playful attitude that they had 20 years ago has given way to a fatalistic acknowledgment that those devices come with downsides. Many of them worry about the effect tech has on their sleep, their sense of connection with family and friends, and their willingness to get off the couch and go outdoors.

4. Tech can be confining.
Most surprisingly, they are starting to think critically about when tech can help them learn and when it can be a barrier. Over the past three years in particular, we’ve heard from a number of students that devices can cause problems, especially when they are doing math or science homework; they want to be free to put down their devices and use paper and pencil to solve equations because paper and pencil are better suited to the nonlinear nature of the task they’ve been assigned. Similarly, many indicate that they prefer to use books when they are researching a topic, precisely because the content in books has been curated, and libraries organize books in ways that make it easier to find relevant material. This ­suggests we need to ensure that school infrastructures that require homework to be completed or handed in online, for example, don’t nudge students into using the wrong tool for the task.


The importance of both the teacher and the physical classroom has been underlined by our recent qualitative study exploring students’ experiences of emergency remote learning during the COVID-19 isolation. Our research participants unanimously
reported that, although electronic communication was “better than nothing,” they learn best when they are physically in a classroom with a teacher who can guide their learning, provide them with examples and challenge their thinking.

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