The Research Files Episode 58: Pasi Sahlberg on Growing Up Digital

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From Teacher magazine, I'm Rebecca Vukovic and you're listening to an episode of The Research Files. My guest today is Pasi Sahlberg, a Professor of Education Policy at the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW Sydney. He joins me to discuss the ongoing research project he's been working on that explores how the widespread use of media and digital technologies is impacting the wellbeing, health and learning of Australian children.

The findings have been published in the Growing Up Digital Australia: Phase 1 Technical Report, co-written with Dr Amy Graham, a Research Fellow at the Gonski Institute. To give you a bit of a snapshot, the first phase of the study asked teachers and school principals to compare what they are observing in their schools and classrooms regarding students' use of media and digital technologies, to what was happening three to five years ago.

A total of 1876 respondents completed the survey, three-quarters of them were female and, for the most part, respondents were experienced educators, with 48 per cent of the sample having more than 20 years' teaching experience. Half of the respondents were classroom teachers, 30 per cent were principals and the remainder were involved in early childhood settings, school administration and temporary teaching positions.

In our interview, we delve deep into the findings to come from the study and Pasi shares his insights into how digital technologies impact a child's readiness to learn in the classroom. Let's get started.

Rebecca Vukovic: Professor Pasi Sahlberg, thanks for joining Teacher magazine.

Pasi Sahlberg: Thank you very much for having me.

RV: To begin, could you give listeners a brief overview of who was involved in this study?

PS: Yeah, we initially distributed the survey to our Gonski Institute for Education database members – that represents about 2000 teachers and schools and principals, mostly here in New South Wales but across the country, really. So we invited school leaders, teachers and educators, and school administrators, to be part of this study. During the data collection, we also used what people call ‘snowballing' – in other words, we [asked] other organisations and our colleagues to invite people to take part in this survey. So eventually, when we reached about 2000 responses, we decided to close the survey and keep it that way. People need to keep in mind that the Growing Up Digital Australia study that we are talking about here is part of the Growing Up Digital global [project], as we call it. That was first done in Alberta, Canada, a few years ago, so we are following a similar type of procedure in data collection and analysis as well.

RV: Could you explain briefly how you went about conducting the study?

PS: Well as I said, because this is part of the international study that started about five years ago, where at that time, I was a visiting professor at Harvard University in the United States. So we started to work on this study with our medical school at Harvard and Alberta Teachers' Association in Canada. The methodology that we are using now in this study was developed then by my Harvard colleagues and the Albertan educators, teachers and researchers as well.

So we are using a typical survey qualtrics online questionnaire that was aimed at school staff, teachers and principals (primarily), including pre-schools here. And it's a mix of questions using the Likert scale, but we also had open-ended questions that allowed teachers to speak a little bit about what they really see in school. I think it's also important to mention that this is the first phase of the study that is really concentrating on collecting views and data from Australian classrooms as seen by teachers, educators over there and we will have much more data coming later on. But what we are talking about now is really focusing on, putting the teachers' and educators' lens on this phenomena that we are looking at.

RV: Yes and I will ask you a little bit more about Phase 2 and 3 later, but the report says: ‘we need better research to inform deeper understandings of how media and digital technologies affect children's lives, learning and wellbeing'. I'm wondering, was this the motivation for conducting the study in the first place?

PS: Yeah this was definitely the motivation to start the Growing Up Digital study in Canada a few years ago, when we realised that children are spending a growing amount of time every day with different types of screens and technology and media but there was very little research done about how this is affecting young people, their wellbeing and health, and certainly learning. I think what we want to stress here is that we are dealing with a very complex thing, this is similar to trying to argue … you know this long argument in health, among health people, what is the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer? And we still cannot prove, there is still no evidence that cigarette smoking actually causes lung cancer but the health experts are saying that there's about 80 to 90 per cent risk factor for the heavy smokers to get lung cancer at some point in their lives.

And this is a similar thing here – that the research is not able to, and our research is certainly not able to, show that if children use a lot of media and digital technologies, that they would be suffering from some of these consequences that we were able to show in this research. But the reason why we wanted to do the study here in Australia, first of all, is that the findings in Alberta a few years earlier, in Canada (in a fairly similar situation and circumstances), were very interesting and they were very well received by educators and families as well, and young people themselves.

So we thought, when we have the data instruments and the design available, when I came here a couple of years ago to Australia, that this is one of the studies that I definitely wanted to do here. And the Gonski Institute and the University of New South Wales have been really keen to support this thing. So that is why. We simply want to contribute to this debate about how the increasing use of media and digital technologies is affecting young peoples' wellbeing, health, identity and, eventually, learning. That's a big question that we are exploring here: can we establish a better, understandable connection between how children use technology and how it's affecting eventually their learning at school?

RV: Yeah and I'd like to go into some of those findings now. The first issue I'd like to delve into is the way these digital technologies are impacting students' social and emotional competencies, including their ability to form and maintain relationships. I'm going to read out a few statistics to come from this study. When asked to compare the situations in their schools today to what they were three to five years ago, 95 per cent of teachers say that the number of students with emotional challenges has increased, 92 per cent say that the number of children with social challenges has increased, and 88 per cent say that the number of students who need behaviour support has increased. So I'm wondering then, what impact does this have on a child's readiness to learn?

PS: Yeah that's a great question really and the interesting thing that we've found in this study is that the proportion of children that come to school with emotional, social and behavioural challenges, as seen by teachers and educators in Alberta and here in Australia, is very similar. So we are talking about the growing trend, increasing number of children who are somehow at risk when they come to school. So it's not just an Australian thing, this seems to be the same thing in Canada as well. I think the common sense, if you're a teacher you probably agree, that if you have a lot of children who don't feel good in terms of their emotional situation or feelings, or social connections with your peers and other people in the school, or if you cannot control your behaviours – learning becomes harder.

And we also know from research how important the engagement, student engagement is for successful learning. And this is what we are looking at and seeing here from the perspective of Australian teachers – that many teachers in this study, they question how much deep learning really is possible in the classroom when the children are unhappy or where they are tired, or when they don't feel good with themselves, or they cannot manage their own behaviours, or they have difficulties or conflicts with their friends. So I think this points to a declining self-regulation and self-control among young people, increasing anxiousness and overall a declining wellbeing that is well reported in other studies and data here in Australia. So if the kids, if they don't feel good with themselves or if everything is not alright, then engaging well in what teachers and the school is expecting them to do (or what the parents are expecting [of] them), is getting harder and harder. And this is exactly what this study is showing.

RV: I'd like to talk now a little bit more about families, because in this study you were interested in finding out which children are caught up in that digital divide and whether family circumstances get in the way of children having the same opportunities with technology. Of course, this issue is being talked about more than ever, as schools navigate the move to online learning in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In your study, what insights did teachers offer regarding this digital divide?

PS: Yeah this is one of those questions that was not included in the Canadian version of the Growing Up Digital study but we wanted to do this because understanding inequity or inequalities in an Australian context in education is one of those things that the Gonski Institute is really doing. You know, 20 years ago we had the term ‘digital divide' refer to the kind of the gap between those people who have a connection to the internet and everything that comes through that, and those who didn't. Now we live in a time, here in Australia and a big part of the world, where practically most people and most young people have some sort of connection to the internet. So the digital divide is not any more whether you have access to the internet. The problem now – and that's what we see very well now during this pandemic situation when most of the schools and most of the children have been studying at home using different types of digital platforms – is that not everybody has the same type of connection. The connectivity is a very different thing, although you may have a connection to email and some other things that you can do.

But that's the kind of thing that our data very clearly is showing, that this divide, in terms of the quality of the connection and connectivity, is surprisingly large in different parts of the world and certainly here in Australia as we see in this study. For example, we hear from teachers how they often see that the poverty, the socio-economic conditions where the children live and come from to school, is effecting heavily their ability to get connected and connectedness to the learning activities or things that the schools are asking children to do. Some teachers told us that the educational divide between higher- and lower-performing students was increasing, and often these children have not so good habits or develop habits learned at home when they come to school, and they often don't recognise the educational value of the learning technologies that are used.

I guess the way to summarise this sentiment among educators in Australia is that often technology is used as entertainment or a treat, rather than a tool to learn and accomplish something, and the differences between the families, according to this data, are visible in schools.

RV: Really interesting. And that kind of leads into my next question because I'm hoping to talk about digital distraction now because of course this is a really big concern for teachers around the country. In fact the vast majority (or 85 per cent) of teachers in your study believe that digital technologies are a growing distraction in the learning environment. What were some of the concerns raised by teachers regarding this distraction, and I'm also wondering, what impact does this distraction have on students' learning in the classroom?

PS: Yeah this is another great question really, and I think we need much more research and data about what this distraction actually means. But the common sense - and again, this is very visible in our data as well – is that when the children are in a classroom with their devices, or when they're doing homework, that they cannot really concentrate on what they should be doing. The teachers, for example, in our data, this survey, they told us that when the classrooms are in [progress], when the learning should be taking place through and with the teacher, that the kids are not listening, that they cannot concentrate and their level of interest is often declining. Many teachers refer to children having more difficulties in remembering things (in memory problems), or even taking notes in a lesson, or unwillingness to solve problems that require a little bit more effort.

So the kind of thing that young people, again, according to the teachers in this data and the Canadian data as well, shows that the children seem to expect that everything should happen very quickly – they have difficulties to tolerate the boredom, the moments where not much is happening or the moments when they should be thinking and kind of trying harder to work on the maths or science problems. You know, there was one teacher who talked about this by saying that the students who spend most of their home time engaging with digital technology find non-technology related tasks at school ‘irrelevant' or even, they said, ‘boring'. Many teachers talk about students' lack of interest in applying themselves to learning basic skills like handwriting or doing mathematical calculations or computations by hand. And many other teachers spoke about students' lack of focus on assigned work and even laziness at completing homework at times, that the data clearly show as well. So if the schoolwork is not on a student's device or computer or smartphone, it was a battle to engage students to do that. So those were some of the findings that we can read from the teachers' and principals' responses here.

RV: And I'm going to read out some other figures to come from this report and you have mentioned some of them just now but 60 per cent of teachers noted a decline in students' physical activity, 67 per cent observed decreases in students' completion of homework on time, and 67 per cent think the number of children arriving at school tired has increased. But the one I'd like to talk more about now is the one on empathy – 78 per cent of teachers have noticed a decrease in student empathy and I found this so interesting. So could you tell me a little bit more about that one?

PS: Yes, of course. You know the declining student empathy, as we saw this in our research, was something that we didn't really anticipate to come through so strongly. This is something that was an issue in the Canadian study a few years earlier but showing such a high rate of declining empathy was a surprise. At the same time however, if you look at some of the studies, particularly North American research about empathy, there are clear indications that during the last 10 or 20 years, the levels of empathy among young people, (particularly among those who are enrolling in higher education like colleges) has significantly declined. So in that way, that was not a surprising thing.

But, you know, when we read the teacher's responses and certainly if you have conversations with teachers you can easily hear when teachers say that they feel that they are not so much respected anymore by students, certainly those teachers who have a longer career and we have about half of our teachers in this survey had been teaching or in education for more than 20 years, so they can see this trend. This is what the teachers also say, that many of the students, often they consider themselves … they only consider themselves in the view of the world, and some teachers even describe the students as ‘apathetic'.

So, I think that this is a really worrying thing and, again, it's very difficult to put the finger on children's use of media and technology. I think this decline in empathy is a result of many other things. But certainly, this indicates that we need to take a much closer look at what is causing this decline in empathy among young people, not only here in Australia, but around the world really, so that we can better understand what the schools could and should do, and how parents could address this issue better.

RV: We'll be back after this quick message from our sponsor.

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RV: And another really interesting point to come from the study was that although students are spending more time on devices than ever before, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're using it in a sophisticated way. And I'm wondering, was that the sentiment from teachers as well?

PS: Yes it was. Again, it was one of the surprising things for us to realise. Now, despite using digital technologies more than ever by young people – and there's a lot of statistics and evidence on that – it seems like the skill level that children and young people have with their devices remains rather low and has not kept in step with the increasing time that they spend with these devices. The students' interest in doing more complex and sophisticated tasks or problems, or creating content, was simply not there as we read the teachers' responses.

And many teachers show their frustration. They see their students just as passive users, consumers of the media and the internet space, rather than creating and doing something more in-depth. I must say that obviously there are exceptions to this, we also heard about wonderful examples from teachers where students, for example, were running podcasts or using technology really to create new things and new ideas. But the big concern the teachers show in our data was that the students didn't really have the good enough research skills and that the kids often choose to play games, but they are not able to search or use the technology to analyse or synthesise the unique issues that they find online.

So I think, these days, it's also good to ask how well students are able to distinguish real news or evidence-based information from fake news. And this seems to be one of the concerns among teachers as well, that the increasing heavy use and the increasing reliance on information that is coming from their devices, really raises this question of how well the kids are able to understand how valid and reliable and factual this information is. There is a lot of evidence in our data that this is something that many of the teachers are wondering now.

RV: Yeah that's really interesting. And Pasi one of the more alarming figures to come from the report was that almost all teachers noted increases in the prevalence of online harassment and bullying amongst their students. And I'm wondering, what did teachers say about their own preparedness to deal with these issues, and also do they feel supported to manage them effectively?

PS: This is again kind of a surprising thing for me, as somebody who recently moved to Australia from Finland. I think, first of all, I've been surprised about the kind of magnitude of bullying overall in schools here in Australia. This seems to be one of the big issues and I very quickly learned here that looking at my own children's school here in Sydney, or visiting schools, that the bullying and harassment issues is really something that everybody is concerned about in the school.

But this is the big issue also when we look at the data and, as you said, more than [four in five] teachers said that they have been dealing with the online cyberbullying during the last 12 months, regularly. So it's a big issue. I think what the teachers are telling us in this survey and data is that they are concerned about, where is the line between what the parents should be responsible for and what is the educator's or school's task? Many teachers felt that the expectations on them to lead and take care of these issues – by society and by the parents – is not reasonable.

They say that they were regularly called in to intervene in issues of bullying and harassment even when the issues happened outside of the school, and they were expected to help children to deal with these online habits and often they said that they are expected to do the job that is clearly the parent's job. So, it seems like teachers are not specifically prepared to handle these issues and, as I said, they are often concerned about who at the end of the day is responsible for the behavioural issues related to bullying and harassment. And this of course is something that goes beyond the online, the cyberbullying, this is the more general issue about who should be dealing with these things? If you ask me, outside of this research now, I think we need much more open conversation here between the schools and the parents and the carers about – how do we make sure all our children are raised in a way that they can live a good life afterwards?

RV: Pasi, I'm aware that I've focused a lot of my questions so far on some of the more negative issues to come from the report. But despite all of them, on the whole, teachers said that digital technologies are useful in the classroom. In fact, 43 per cent of teachers and principals believe that digital technologies enhance the learning and teaching activities, rather than detract from them. And also interestingly, 60 per cent of teachers believed technology has impacted learning experiences for students with disabilities in a positive way. Could you share some of the other ‘positives' to come from the report?

PS: Yeah Rebecca, it's very important to bring this issue as well. I think we probably need to begin these conversations by looking at the positive things. And it goes without question that many, many teachers see the benefits that the technology provides them with the work that they do with the children. And I think this is very much obvious now when the kids are not able to go to school and classes are cancelled, that how much more the technology can do compared to if we didn't have that one at all.

So, I would put it this way, the teachers actually love the benefits that the digital media and the devices that they have can offer. They often also understand that the technology is a tool and it offers many opportunities for teaching and learning that wouldn't exist otherwise. If we look at the data of what the teachers actually writing there (regarding the positive uses of media and digital technology). As you said, two-thirds of the teachers believe that the opportunity to facilitate what we call ‘inquiry-based teaching and learning' – that means that we are expecting children to design or come up with their own problems that they want to study and then go and look for the information and exchange that information and communicate that with others and come up with some type of solutions or outcomes – it's much enhanced by the use of technology. So, that's what the teachers are saying. Also most of the teachers, Australian teachers in this study that we are talking about, told us that the students' reporting of their own learning and these projects that they do was much improved by the fact that they can use the technologies.

So, the devices that we have now in schools and in homes, help teachers to also facilitate better communication and collaboration with one another and with parents as well, that is obvious at the time of this pandemic as well.

RV: Just finally, and I know you mentioned this right at the beginning of the interview –these findings from Phase 1 will inform the development of a survey for parents, grandparents and caregivers and that will become Phase 2. And then the final stage, Phase 3, will involve capturing the views of young people. So when can listeners expect to hear more about Phase 2 and 3?

PS: Yes, as we speak now we are just finalising the Phase 2 survey that will go to parents and caregivers and also grandparents. I think that grandparents are often a forgotten important group of educators for children. So, we are asking the same types of questions from them in the second phase that will roll out as soon as this situation really allows us to do that. We understand that now there are so many other things that parents and grandparents need to worry about than answering our survey, so we need to wait a while. But, I guess within the next few months, when the situation is little bit more normal than it is now, we are able to do that. So that will bring us another angle to the same questions of how media and digital technologies are changing and shaping the children's lives and wellbeing and affecting their wellbeing and learning as well. So, the results out of this second phase survey would probably be available somewhere in November, I would say.

And then the third phase that will complete this three-cycle study that we are doing, that will look at the young people and children themselves, will kick off soon after that. So probably in about a year, in the early winter next year, we're going to have kind of a first completed picture of how young people in Australia grow up in this digital world. Let me remind [you] once again, that we are not talking about causal study – which means that we are not trying to prove that some things that we can see in schools or homes are happening because of any particular reason – we are in the business of looking at correlations and then trying to understand what we should do with these findings and better understanding.

We truly hope that people would find this evidence that we are able to produce through this research, not only this first phase but the others as well, that it would help these conversations that we need to have more and in a deeper way, more detailed way, in our schools and homes and communities, to really make sure we can help our young people and children to live in this complicated and complex world, responsibly and safely and in a healthy way.

RV: Yeah fantastic, well we'll be following the study with interest over the coming months and into next year as well. Professor Pasi Sahlberg, it's been lovely speaking with you. Thanks for sharing your work with Teacher magazine.

PS: Thank you very much Rebecca and thanks for your interest as well and stay safe.

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Gonski Institute for Education. (2020). Growing Up Digital Australia: Phase 1 technical report. Gonski Institute for Education. UNSW.

Pasi Sahlberg says teachers reported that socio-economic conditions have a significant effect on a students’ connectedness to learning in an online environment. How do you work to overcome these issues at your school? Have you found a way to support students who have limited access to the internet and devices while they are learning remotely?

He adds that teachers ‘understand that the technology is a tool and it offers many opportunities for teaching and learning that wouldn’t exist otherwise’. In what ways has technology positively impacted the way teaching and learning takes place in your classroom?