How to learn in a digital world

Saturday, 01 May 2021

We all know it: the world of our childhood and the world that our children are growing up in is different. Access to technology is obviously one of the most notable differences - not simply in our children’s (and our own) lives, but also in the way that they process information, at home and at school. 

But are these changes good, bad or just plain ugly? A recent report commissioned by the Gonski Institute for Education, entitled ‘Growing Up Digital Australia’, suggests all three. The report surveyed 1876 Australian educators on their observations and concerns regarding the changes that technology is leveraging. 

Using the 1967 Clint Eastwood spaghetti western “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” as the structure for this article, here’s the facts on how Australian educators believe that digital devices have impacted our children’s education, psyche and behaviour.

The Bad: According the report, teachers have seen some big shifts in the way students behave, interact and learn:  

  • 84% of teachers believe that digital technologies are a growing distraction in the learning environment. 
  • 66% of teachers note that children are arriving at school tired due to an increase in online activities, and that they are too tired to complete homework. 
  • 60% of teachers state that there is also a decrease in student physical activity.
  • More than 90% of teachers noted increases in the prevalence of online harassment and bullying, and more than one-third of teachers have dealt with more than ten incidents of cyberbullying and online harassment in the last 3-5 years. 

At face value some of these concepts seem connected directly to student engagement with digital technologies, although I am not sure this can be justified exclusive of their external environments. 

The Ugly:  Further to this, a 2017 American study surveyed over half a million secondary students aged 13 to 18 years noting a direct correlation between social media usage and adolescent depressive episodes. Additionally, 78% of teachers note a decrease in empathy in students, demonstrating that technology is directly affecting our children’s psychological makeup. 

The Good: It is not all doom and gloom on the technology front. Reports also show that two thirds of teachers believe that technology supports the facilitation of inquiry-based learning. And more than half of the teachers believe that technology enhances learning particularly in student-centred learning programs, such as Maths Pathways. Over 60% of teachers believe technology has positively impacted the learning experience for students with disabilities. Research also supports outside of schooling online gaming stating that in moderation these interactive games support collaboration, teamwork, and peer-to-peer learning. 

And what about the opportunities? Technology in education should only be used if it can enhance the learning experience. If it can’t then traditional methods should not be ignored. Technology can still be seen as an option with a bright future but the individual school needs to plan for its value add. 

I, however, believe that interactive learning using Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence and interactive learning games are only just at the beginning of their journey in education. 

Technology in education has the ability to create personalised learning opportunities through pre-recorded content, online interactive quizzes, by gamifying the learning and shifting the teacher-student dynamic to address the students needs at that particular time.

Nick Johnstone 

This article first appeared in the May 2021 edition of Focus Magazine

Sources: Growing Up Digital Australia Technical Report Part 1 -

Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time

Vista College, 2019. How Technology has changed Education. [Blog] Available at: < /> [Accessed 7 April 2021].