Be selective on technology use in school

It should be a means to a meaningful end, not an end in itself, as teachers work to enrich the student experience

When a study last year found that technology use in schools does not improve student performance, my educator friends were split largely into two camps.

One group said: "I told you so!"

The second insisted there were schools that used technology more effectively than others.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based think-tank that carried out the study on education systems in various countries, including Singapore, found that frequent use of computers in school is more likely to be associated with lower marks.

The study is good fodder for discussion in an education system where teachers are encouraged to use technology as a tool to impart the syllabus to tech-savvy kids.

The research, however, did not cover the impact of technology usage at home on children - and I would be curious to find out how big a part that plays in their academic performance, especially in a society where many children have access to computers at home.

I can't control how much technology my children are exposed to in school but I can, and do, limit how much they use it at home.

Grades aside, I'm more concerned about the effects of technology on the child's well-being. This was the case especially after I interviewed former gaming addicts.

It is an uphill battle, especially when my son, aged 10, and daughter, seven, are digital natives, so my aim is to ensure that they have a good balance of screen-free playtime.

The holidays last month gave me a good chance to carry out my plan as we did not travel overseas and spent many days at home.

I do not ban my children from using the computer, but I set limits for them in terms of their favourite activities online - games for my son and cartoons on YouTube for my daughter.

They can take part in these activities for a period of time (the length of which depends on the activities we have for the day) after they have completed their chores and piano practice.

As a result, computer time has become a reward or treat, instead of being a given.

This does not include the occasions when, for instance, we watch YouTube tutorials to learn how to fold origami pinwheels or cut paper snowflakes.

At the same time, I remind my children that they have many alternatives for fun at home, including storybooks, crafts, board games, building toys and so on.

I found that, as much as my son enjoys playing games online, he is usually too busy devouring his books after trips to the library or second-hand bookshops to ask for more gaming time.

Building toys such as Lego or Magformers also keep my children occupied for long stretches.

My daughter wanted to build a Lego caravan for her mini figurine toys, and decided to enlist her brother's help.

They spent a couple of afternoons creating a monstrous contraption that would ferry all the little "animals" and their "food" about for a holiday. Both collapsed in heaps of laughter on the floor each time the vehicle broke apart under the weight of the animals and food.

My son had several play dates during the holidays, and my only request was that they not spend all the time on computer games.

As it turned out, they had so much fun with football, badminton, card games such as Monopoly Deal and board games such as chess that computer games did not figure at all.

This has inspired me to search for more board games to have in hand for future play dates.

I stuck to the theme of old-school fun for Christmas, and bought a book on folding paper aeroplanes as a gift for my son.

He has since been learning how to fold a range of paper aeroplanes that fly at various speeds, heights and lengths of time, and spent many enjoyable afternoons taking them for test flights with his sister.

The unadulterated joy on their faces as they watch the paper creations sail over a wide field beats their zombie-like expressions facing the computer any time.

My daughter's gift was a timed word game called Tapple, which we could play as a family. I had been searching for a family game that would be appropriate for players of different ages, and we had plenty of fun, some bickering, and a few occasions when their Papa and I were stumped for words and they beat us at the game.

When we attended a wedding dinner last year, friends we chatted with wondered why our children did not have an electronic device to keep them occupied.

The answer was simple - my husband and I do not own iPhones or iPads.

We do have Android smartphones, but my husband's has few gaming apps and mine has none at all.

My answer to my kids each time they ask for games to be installed on my phone?

My phone doesn't have enough memory - and it's true. My phone is filled with pictures and videos of them instead.

As an entertainment device, my phone is of little value to them, and that pleases me no end. 

With such dinosaur parents, my kids are probably thankful that they have relatives with iPhones and iPads - so they do get their device time, usually bonding over games with relatives who own these devices whenever we have family gatherings.

My son has no problems discussing online games with his friends either because his reading material includes Minecraft handbooks (even though he does not play the game, in which players mine materials from the environment to create buildings in all shapes and sizes) and a Guinness book of gaming records.

As the kids head back to school today, my wish list for the new year is simple:

I hope schools use technology selectively, and not just because it's available.

I also hope that it is used as a means to a meaningful end, rather than as an end in itself.

More importantly, I hope that my kids will continue to have time for old-school fun as they start the new school year.

•Jane Ng is a former education journalist and now a freelance writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline 'Be selective on technology use in school'. Print Edition | Subscribe