Digital Learning

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Digital learning is supposed to be not only a plus but also a necessity for a modern school. But Martin Turkis isn’t sold on the notion that better technology equals better education.

On a recent tour of one of San Francisco’s sexiest public schools, the principal proudly pointed out that the kindergartners use iPads to complete much of their classwork and that by third grade they’re expected to be adepts with Google’s G Suite. Many parents of prospective students were impressed. My wife was horrified.

The topic of screen overload for kids inspires heated debate: While many experts argue that it contributes to ADHD, inability to read human emotions, difficulty with logical reasoning, and a general decrease in mental health, the fact that it’s very difficult for researchers to move beyond correlation and prove causation gives many parents and educators a pass for going with the techno-flow. Thus youngsters pick up tablets rather than books.

But there’s another reason to challenge the prevalence of tech in schools: Despite the enormous cost of such gadgets, research indicates that they don’t improve educational outcomes and may even hold students back. One international OECD analysis finds “no appreciable improvements in student achievement” in nations with tech-laden learning. A more recent study at West Point found that students who used tablets or laptops in class significantly under-performed their paper-and-pen peers. And these findings aren’t outliers – they represent the trend in serious investigations of techno-educational efficacy.

Why, then, do so many favor digitizing our children’s learning? Starry-eyed futurism? The white-knuckled economic angst of tiger-parents? Gadget-worship? The corporate colonization of classrooms? All of the above? Whatever the case, the money thrown at ed-tech might be better spent decreasing class sizes or paying teachers in San Francisco a just wage.


Years ago, as a young English teacher, the room filled with the rising chatter of laughter and conversation when I ended lessons early. Not so now. Just last week we wrapped up before the bell. The classroom remained sadly, sullenly silent – students gazing dumbly at their phones, fingers feverishly twitching out texts.

There are some helpful classroom technologies, so we should remain open – but the instructional value of such “innovations” mustn’t be taken on faith when children are on the line. So my wife and I will be scratching that sexy school off our list.

With a Perspective, I’m Martin Turkis.

Martin Turkis is a teacher, musician and writer. He lives in San Francisco.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the Perspectives series and external links in this text are those of its commentators and not necessarily those of its funder or KQED Public Radio.)