When cognitive psychologist Teresa Cerratto-Pargman and her colleagues at Stockholm University studied what happens when tablet computers integrate into the school classroom, they observed an incredible willingness of the educators to get the tablets to work.

—    We wanted to research what happens with the tablet computers in the classroom. We saw how the teachers grouped themselves to integrate the tablets – and handle technical, pedagogical, and organisational challenges. The teachers were heroes! They struggled to get the tablets to work, even though they had no guidelines for how to use them and didn’t know what content to fill. And the school management was also very willing, Teresa says.

Teresa tells us that when digital technology is used to optimise the learning experience, it is such a significant change that time must be set aside, which those teachers didn´t get. 

Teresa Cerratto-Pargman, Associate Professor, Department of Computer and Systems Sciences.
Teresa Cerratto-Pargman, Department of Computer and Systems Sciences.

—    I am a cognitive psychologist and interested in how people appropriate technologies and develop their symbolic and technical tools. I believe that the school must discuss and plan for what to do with the technology and also plan the pedagogics for such technologies. It takes time, and it requires that teachers work as a group. One single teacher cannot do much, she explains.

Technology is not black and white

Whether the digitisation will make the school children learn more or less, Teresa believes that it is not that simple, we must be more accurate – technology is not black and white.

—    From what I have seen, children learn other things from technology; develop other competencies, which have more to do with an interest in participating in communities and creating stuff. Programming and ‘makerspaces’ – collaborative working environments that encourage the sharing of knowledge, tools, ideas, and results – fascinated the kids, Teresa says.

You can also see that children absorb programming differently depending on which level they study. Teresa tells us that she read about children who are programming already in preschool.

—   It’s great if they can get that opportunity – programming supports the logical thinking. It can also create a sense of community through, for instance, programming a dancing robot together as a group, she says.

When it comes to programming in primary and secondary school level, Teresa says that it raises many larger issues.

—    Should it be mandatory? What does this mean in practice? Should it be on all topics or just in mathematics and technology? And what do the children do with their new competencies? The ongoing debate on digital competence speaks a need for pupils not to consume digital tools, also be able to produce them as well. It also states that it favours the development of critical thinking. But programming is not synonymous with being critical because there are coding a tool. If programming should be a critical task, you need an adapted pedagogics.

When language is a challenge

Teresa and her colleagues conducted classroom observations and interviews at schools in Husby and Kista, where teachers and pupils have a clear challenge – the language. It is crucial that directors of the schools and educators have a plan for the integration of new tools and discussion of new practices and teaching challenges.

—    In the middle of a semester, you may suddenly get non-Swedish speaking pupils into the classroom. Then various applications can be useful to practice pronunciation, vocabulary, spelling skills, help children to visualise their words and to think about what they say and how they speak. They can read what they say, which is both fun and develops a particular consciousness about their use of language, Teresa says.

Teresa’s research team could also observe how important it was for the pupils’ self-confidence to see the result of what they’ve created.

—    I saw kids become truly proud when they had created a video, which for example, showed them explaining grammatical rules of Swedish or an abstract concept in physics in Swedish. To be able to contribute in this way means a lot for those who have Swedish as a second language, Teresa continues.

Teresa believes most of the didactical apps they are integrated into the classroom favour rehearsing, and that is positive as that is also part of learning something new, such as a new language. Those applications that support learning based on training, rehearsing, answering right or wrong are beneficial as learning involves repetition so they children can build skills in the target language.

—    To listen to good pronunciation in one app is good exercise. But there are also many tools for producing multimodal content. Then we researchers have to see that there is a whole world based on practices that are analogue. In the classroom we have to say, 'now we do this with technology', and then ask the question of how we can do it without technology, she says.

Values and ideologies behind the tools must be questioned

For Teresa, it is clear that digital tools in the classroom are here to stay and there is much to gain from describing what is problematic. Schools that can prepare better before they introduce new technologies can avoid mistakes. What has happened so far with tablet computers in the schools, she experiences as experimental.

—    I would like to study what values and ideologies are behind the technology. Teachers experience pressure by the requirement to use technology and that this shouldn’t be questioned. Often without reflecting on what they are doing and what the political and commercial interests are. Partnering with businesses is not problematic by it self. And if the mission from manufacturers, for instance of learning material, is to ensure that pupils are learning and not just to sell, then it's great. And if the manufacturers have educational skills, it’s even better, Teresa says.

Teresa testifies that the schools are under pressure – if they don´t have tablet computers they are not seen as modern schools. You have to accept that it takes time and energy for each school to find its way to integrate technology. There are also schools that do not want tablets, or that let pupils pick them out of a locker when they need them. The schools have chosen their strategy and that we must respect.

—    To say that the digital tools are always better is a totalitarian thinking. I think that the discourse is entrenched with technology being synonymous with progress, growth and innovation. Technology often highlights as a solution, but which problem does it solve?, Teresa asks.

The criticism is all about moral questions

Criticism of the schools’ use of digital technology is often about that digital tools are interfering with your ability to concentrate, or that there is a risk that teachers leave the teaching to the apps. Teresa believes it is easy that the criticism is about moral issues and argues that the problem arises when the teachers have to negotiate with the pupils about the tablets being school tools instead of toys.

—    Then, I think the school needs to address ethical questions: why you shouldn’t watch this movie? Why should I not share this post? What images can I use? How does Google work and why does it rank some links at the top of the search list? How do the algorithms work in social media? There is still much to do, Teresa adds.

Click the links below to read more about Teresa's work on this topic: