Technology getting in the way of Learning

6 minute read

Technology expectations for students are excessive and stressful

I have had the opportunity to observe my kids attempt to learn virtually through their school’s online platform. Actually, this opportunity was involuntarily forced upon me since I was the go-to IT support person for my kids.

They encountered links that did not work, pages that did not load, “submit assignment” buttons that did nothing, and external apps that required additional logins. The learning was constantly interrupted with technology forcing the kids to jump through hoops.

What were they actually learning?

Stress, not help, from school technology

I saw my kids being stressed about time – finishing the clicking, reading, and doing before they had to rejoin the live video call for the classroom. The teacher expectations of how long the individual task should take was grossly underestimated. Ten or fifteen minutes to meander through links and get multiple tabs or programs to cooperate is not enough time. 

As a working adult I would not like this setup for my job. Maybe if it was a requirement of my job I would find methods to learn and practice this routine so it became second-nature to me. But I am an ADULT with an adult brain that has been practicing the art of doing work for decades.

Expecting a child to seamlessly navigate a virtual learning platform is unrealistic. For kids with ADHD and/or executive function challenges this platform induces stress and self-doubt and is far from effective and fun.

Are we training kids to be good button-clickers or do we want them to be lifelong learners?

I choose lifelong learners.

Why kids with ADHD need less technology in their learning

In a previous post I talked about Working Memory – the ability to hold information in the front of your mind long enough to process it and act on it. If the goal of school is to teach content and expect the student to absorb, process, manipulate, and master said content then we need to give the student the proper environment and tools to achieve this.

The environment includes more than just objects, sights, and sounds in the classroom. Technology is part of the learning environment and too large of a part in my opinion.

It is amazing how much content educators and innovators have created and added to the internet. Math games or cool videos set to music with animation were not available when I was a kid. At first glance this seems fun and engaging. But it is a black hole we can fall into if we are not careful.

Intangible vs. intangible learning resources

When a child sits down in front of a computer for school their Working Memory immediately beings to take in information. If they are in a science lesson I would expect the goal of that lesson to be learning about science. Let’s pick the solar system as an example.

If the student is learning virtually they have to find the science class in their online learning platform. Then they have to find this particular lesson. The lesson may include embedded content, external links, and an embedded quiz.

Without the ability to have a worksheet, notes, or a book next to them, the student has to click between tabs (assuming they have not accidentally closed one) to read the content and the click back and answer the question. Repeat for each question. Repeat even more if you lose your place in the quiz or don’t understand the content you read in the lesson.

And the kids still doesn’t remember all the planet names or what a gas giant is because their brainpower was spent on clicking and not on LEARNING.

I don’t know about you, but as an adult this SKILL of navigating back and forth digitally took lots of practice to develop and make efficient. Some days it does give me a headache though.

And adults typically have a fully-developed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain managing the Working Memory. Kids do not! Also, kids with ADHD have a prefontal cortex that can be developing more slowly that those of their peers without ADHD.

Where did all the books go at school?

We need more books and not just library books. Textbooks.

Students need a tangible piece of information that they can navigate at their own pace and mark various pages with bookmarks or post-it notes. The book can be open while they complete an assignment on paper. Students can easily reread sections that were confusing.

There is negligible mental energy being expended reading the book compared to finding the correct pages to read on the computer. Four web sites linked back to one online learning platform are less efficient than ONE textbook.

I acknowledge that not all textbooks are perfect. The internet is a tremendous sources of information, available to fill in gaps of content in textbooks or expand our learning beyond a textbook chapter.

My point is that we need to provide our ADHD learners with tools that SUPPORT their learning style, not tools that CONSUME excessive energy.

Better learning tools for students with ADHD and Executive Function Challenges

Each child is different and will require different supports and tools to guide them to their best learning.

I do see a pattern of technology impeding the learning process instead of aiding it for kids with ADHD. We need to step back and reassess how much we expect the kids to use technology and if it is being effective or a burden.

  • Do you see the child struggle just to find the assignment?
  • Do you think the child is expending a large amount of mental and emotional energy to simply complete the online assignment?
  • Does the child say that they have difficulty reading a math problem, history question, reading passage, or other assignment on the screen and understanding it?

Not everyone has access to a printer at home but printing work can be one solution. Some kids need that tangible paper and pencil to do their work.

Seeing, reading, drawing, doodling, and scribbling through their work on paper makes the learning process connected to them.

The empty space between their mind and the screen can be a void of confusion. Touching and manipulating the work on paper can help bridge the gap.

Engage the teachers for help modifying the learning experience

Parents and caregivers need to engage the teachers in this endeavor. We need to tell the teacher what we see that WORKS and DOESN’T WORK for our kids. Advocate for better learning environments and tools for our kids – ones that actually fit their thinking and learning style. If the goal is to have the child truly engaged in the learning then the teachers should be apt to working with the parents and caregivers to achieve the right balance for the student.

Requests that we can make on behalf of our kids:

  • Textbooks
  • Printed worksheets
  • Printed notes or lesson plans from the teacher
  • Printed homework 
  • Ability to submit work scanned or photographed from a piece of paper instead of completing an embedded virtual homework assignment

Although sometimes the format of these papers are not conducive to effective thinking and learning.

If a school paper is crammed full of information it can be just as mentally overwhelming as a virtual learning platform. See my solution to tackling a confusing Math Worksheet here.

Ideas the kids might provide if they are feeling confident to speak-up for themselves:

  • Asking the teacher for more time to complete online tasks (maybe during virtual class or after school the same day)
  • Asking the teacher to load the assignment list in an easier-to-find location on the virtual platform
  • Asking the teacher if they can help ease the transitions between online learning modules be guiding the student more or consolidating the information so the student is navigating less
  • Asking the parent/caregiver to help them locate and pull-up all relevant modules and tabs to help get the student ORGANIZED so that the student can CONSERVE their energy for the reading, thinking, and learning

Technology reduction and student empowerment

I realize that what I am suggesting requires more TIME and ENERGY on behalf of the ADULTS. I understand that we are already taxed with responsibilities of our own. But if we INVEST this energy in providing our kids the right supports their stress about school will decrease, their ability to learn will increase, and over time the need for our intervention will decrease.

The students who do speak up for themselves and ADVOCATE for their learning needs are those kids who have been EMPOWERED. They know what tools they need, which tools are not effective, and how to ask for what they need.

These are kids who have been acknowledge, supported, and encouraged by the adults in their life to be lifelong learners.

These kids have been taught that it is the Learning Process that matters – the journey to the quiz, test, or grade.

They know they are supported to learn, explore, fail, and try again without shame and criticism.

These are students who will be successful because they trust themselves to try difficult things.

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