Opinion | How social media is fuelling a global learning crisis

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As if there were not already enough crises to worry about, publication last week of the results of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s global Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey reveals yet another: a silent learning crisis which underpins an “unprecedented drop” in school performance worldwide.
Whether the Covid-19 pandemic is to blame or a growing addiction to skimming, scanning and scrolling through increasingly pervasive social media is not entirely clear. But according to Robert Jenkins, chief of education at Unicef, the implications are crystal clear: “We are looking at a nearly unsurmountable scale of loss to children’s schooling.”

The Pisa survey, done once every three years, provides more than a comprehensive comparison on which education systems are performing best among the 81 participating economies. It also offers a clear record since the surveys were launched in 2000 of whether literacy and numeracy are improving or declining worldwide.

The latest Pisa survey, delayed by a year because of pandemic lockdowns, tested 690,000 15-year-old students worldwide, and the findings were troubling. Educational achievement across the three tested areas – reading, maths and science – has declined sharply since the last survey in 2018.
Some things have stayed the same. Singapore students remain the world’s best performers against all three measures, some three to five schooling years ahead of the average student worldwide. A small group of East Asian economies consistently lead the world – Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Meanwhile, kids who suffered shorter school shutdowns during the pandemic generally saw the smallest decline in school performance.
If the education crisis was solely a result of pandemic dislocation, we might be able to draw more comfort. Now that the pandemic is largely behind us, we would be able to look forward to a sharp and quick recovery. But the uncomfortable news from the Pisa survey is that achievement levels have been flatlining since 2012.

More students are poor readers. Unicef says that only a third of the world’s 10-year-olds can read and understand a simple story. The previous Pisa survey found that 49 per cent of students agreed with the statement: “I read only if I have to.”

Other negative forces appear to be at work. Andreas Schleicher, lead author of the latest Pisa report, points to teacher shortages, low teacher salaries and teachers’ low social standing in many societies. But, in particular, he and other educators point to the global explosion of social media.
Their attitude to the digital revolution is multifaceted. On one hand, it has made it easier for teachers to access rich sources of high-quality teaching materials. Digitally literate students today have speedy access to a vast reservoir of data and learning materials.


How a Hong Kong school embraces ChatGPT in the classroom

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But the social media revolution that has been turbocharged by the digital revolution has delivered a host of problematic changes which appear to be damaging students’ educational progress and capacity to learn.
First and perhaps foremost, social media provides a powerful source of distraction. As Finnish maths and philosophy teacher Esko Häyrynen noted in a recent Financial Times article: “It’s more difficult to concentrate on studying for long periods of time because everything is done on a computer and notifications are pinging all the time.” The Pisa report said that 65 per cent of students complained they were distracted by devices during some maths lessons, with 59 per cent distracted by others using their phones, tablets or laptops.
But worse than simple distraction, educators are increasingly concerned about what Simon Kuper of the Financial Times calls “simplism” as youngsters skim, scan and scroll across their social media feeds: “People who lose reading skills also lose thinking skills. Their need for simplicity is met by politicians offering ‘simplism’: the ideology of simple answers for complex problems.” He calls former US president Donald Trump the “chief simplist” with the speaking capacity of a 10-year-0ld.


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The brevity of communication on social media suppresses exposure to views outside one’s echo chamber and purges nuance at the expense of simple, black-and-white explanations. It has generated what participants at the US National Academy of Sciences’ Nobel Prize Summit call a “misinfodemic”.

These concerns are echoed in the Ljubljana Reading Manifesto, unveiled in October: “While digital technologies offer much potential for new forms of learning, recent empirical research shows that the digital environment is having a negative impact on reading.” Signatories are particularly concerned about the temptations social media provides “to read in a superficial and scattered manner” and the need to encourage higher-level reading.

This is at the heart of the Pisa testing and which the Ljubljana signatories say is “our most powerful tool for analytic and critical thinking. Without it, we are ill-equipped to counter populist simplification, conspiracy theories and disinformation.”

If educators are right that much of the decline in Pisa performance is down to social-media-induced “simplism” rather than traumatic pandemic disruption, our learning crisis is unlikely to be temporary. The tech-driven smart jobs of our economic future will require stronger literacy, numeracy and scientific competencies, and the slippage that the latest Pisa report describes is no small matter.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades

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