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Singapore, May 30, 2017 – Watch the British drama series Downton Abbey and you’ll find yourself chuckling when Mrs Patmore, the head chef, fears the invention of the electric whisk. Although meant to make her job easier, this gave her job insecurities.  Then came the shock of having a refrigerator in the kitchen. The Dowager Countess of Grantham comments too: “First, electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an

H.G. Wells novel”.  Even the Earl of Grantham has his moment, appalled by having a “wireless” (radio) in the home, fearing that his family would do nothing but sit around it all day instead of making conversation. A “phase” that will pass he comments. The fears people had in the late 19th and early 20th century over newly invented gadgets and technology, all of which we take for granted today. Why do us humans fear change?

Technology in Australia’s schools is thriving, with Year 1s (children between the ages of 6 and 7) of a private school in Perth providing iPads for our next generation to not only learn phonics and math, but to also unleash their creativity such as writing short stories, producing mini movie clips and sharing excursion experiences. Technology enables students to collaborate with one another, receive immediate feedback and gain access to updated digital textbooks.

The learning environment of “digital natives” is very different from what the current generation of parents experienced at school. At Coding Garage, we regularly meet with parents who share their concerns or raise legitimate questions about the impact of new technologies in the classroom. In this article, we address three of their most common fears.

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(1) How does the tech-driven teaching environment compare with the “pen and paper” methods? How can children focus with so many distractions?

Computers or tablets are often multi-purpose. As parents experience themselves at their work place with the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) practice, one may use the same laptop for work and play. Hence, whether in the classroom or at home to do their homework, children may be more distracted by the possibility to chat with friends on social media or to play online games. The lack of focus associated with a constant digital multi-tasking may prevent them from performing assignments or readings on foundational skills that require a sustained attention and acute concentration. A 2012 study by OECD (The Straits Times) found that students who use computers very often in school get worse results, particular in reading performance, than those who use them moderately.

Solutions that can typically be implemented by teachers and parents alike is to install programs to control access to certain apps. However, rather than controlling the environment, we believe that teaching children how to focus in a digital environment is more effective for them to acquire good habits. In a society characterized by real-time information and constant social media interactions, children need to learn how to appropriately use technology and resist distractions to be future-ready.

In fact, if well integrated into the curriculum, technology is part of the solution. By offering a more immersive learning experience, and making it fun for the digital natives to learn, focus is a natural outcome.  Technology also makes it possible to cater to individual needs, for instance by offering solutions for students with dyslexia or learning difficulties, making the classroom more inclusive and engaged.

(2) How do we control the content that my child is potentially exposed to? What if my child misplaces the tablet?

With the use of web-based tools in the classroom, parents are often concerned about safety and privacy for their children, especially at a young age.

Schools take precautions. Staff are trained to help students with the appropriate use of technology, there are rules and students are required to abide them. Other measures in place include internet filtering, restrictions based on age groups and monitoring systems to alert staff of any inappropriate use.  Increased education in helping parents remove this fear can help. This will enable parents to take a more active part in their children’s learning and homework, hence reducing the digital divide. The fact remains, like the radio or refrigerator, technology is here to stay and education is the best way to ease fears.

Parents worry too that their children may misplace the hardware provided in school through damage, loss or theft. Measures vary by country and school to prevent and manage this risk. These typically include systems installed on laptops to track the devices if stolen, use of cloud technology to avoid loss of data, as well as insurance policies to keep thefts and recovery costs down. In Australia for instance, some schools ensure that devices are insured countrywide.

(3) What about the impact digital tools may have on my child’s health?

Parents usually express concerns related to the impact of screen time on the eyesight and the exposure to radiation on their child’s health. There is a particular concern about the Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) emitted by hand-held devices, including tablet computers used at school and connected to the internet. Radiation emitted by cell phones or tablets is nonionizing radiation as opposed to ionizing radiation, meaning that it doesn’t break down atoms and molecules, but our bodies still absorb it. This is measured by the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), which is the rate at which energy from wireless technology is absorbed into the body. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that devices perform with a SAR level of less than 1.6 watts per kilogram (W/kg) over 1g of tissue. The EU regulators enforce a limit of 2 W/kg but over 10g of tissue.  For instance, the latest iPad model has an SAR of 1.18 W/kg over 1g.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), despite many studies, the evidence for any effect of electromagnetic fields remains highly controversial. “The results to date contain many inconsistencies, but no large increases in risk have been found for cancer in children or adults.” WHO still pursues research to address possible health effects of exposure to EMF in the long run, especially for children.

FCC indicates that “For users who are concerned with the adequacy of this standard or who otherwise wish to further reduce their exposure, the most effective means to reduce exposure is to hold the mobile phone away from the body and to use a speakerphone or hands-free accessory.” As a precautionary measure, when using tablets, teachers and parents may ensure that children keep space between themselves and the device.

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Technology is an enabler. Building the capacity of educators, parents, and children to appropriately use it at school and at home is critical to successfully reinventing education and transforming fears into positive change drivers.

Delphine Günther & Jasmine Tang, for Empire Code.

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