'Technology means teaching in 2018 is different – and we need to adapt'

Technology has not only changed the way students interact, but also their ability to concentrate and empathise, writes Boston College principal Jo Maher

Jo Maher

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I was 16 years old in 2002, studying at a sixth-form college, with no Facebook, no Twitter and no smartphones. Google was around, but it took a few minutes turn the computer on, another few to dial up the modem and then you probably still had to load Encarta to source reliable information.

It is fair to say that it was easier for me to actually learn than to use the computer in a college lesson. As the type of student who once asked her chemistry teacher to explain the real-life application of a complex equation, and then, having received a blank look, switched off and dug out her English homework to complete in the lesson, I am well aware that if I were 16 today, I would be asking my teachers: “Do I need to learn that when in real life I can just look it up on my phone?”

Students interact digitally

Technology is influencing not only how our students learn, but also how they interact with the world around them. A recent report by the technology firm LivePerson said that in the UK 74.4 per cent of young people surveyed interact with each other digitally more than they do in the real world.

Research also suggests that technology is contributing to decreasing the concentration span of our learners, reducing their levels of empathy and negatively affecting their mental health. There is no doubt about it –  teaching in 2018 is significantly different to 2002, and the pace of technological change and resultant changes in our student’s learning habits are making it hard for both teachers and training programs to keep up. 

To improve teacher training, either formal qualifications or professional development, firstly we need more research at sector level to improve our understanding of how technological changes are affecting students in college environments. The research findings can then inform teacher training qualification content and design. This should be followed by meaningful recommendations regarding what our in-service teachers can do to develop their practice. It is important that research does not just stop at the door of the classroom and extends to areas such as individual tutorials.  

Adapting teacher training

Adapting the content of teacher training does not mean that what we are currently teaching our teachers is not fit for purpose, or that specifications need a full rewrite. But there may be scope to consider approaches to delivery styles because of how technology is affecting our learners. For example, as an experienced practitioner psychologist and qualified teacher, I have been reflecting on how building rapport via face-to-face meetings may be a "norm" to me but not to an 18-year-old who may be more likely to share their thoughts and emotions on WhatsApp or Snapchat. 

How comfortable our students are in engaging with us has implications for both teaching staff and support staff who deliver individual tutorials or counselling sessions. Therefore, the time it takes to build rapport via a face-to-face meeting may need to increase in order to be effective, resulting in longer sessions, which increases costs. Using technology may be a way to support learners through a medium they are more comfortable with, whilst managing costs. However, in order to make decisions such as this, we need to have an evidence base to inform the approach and application. We must ensure any changes to delivery or staff training are ethical and effective.

The technological revolution is here and we need to better understand its impact and examine ways to support both our new teachers and the thousands nationally who have been teaching since 2002, in order to improve our teaching practices in a changing world.   

Jo Maher is principal of Boston College

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