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'I have a lot of concerns about it' - Researcher urges caution over use of online platforms

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A researcher is recommending caution over schools' growing use of online platforms and videos for teaching. File photo Photo: 123RF

A researcher is recommending caution over schools' growing use of online platforms and videos for teaching.

This country's teachers were among the biggest users of IT in the classroom before the pandemic, and lockdown learning has made it even more widespread.

Teachers told RNZ tools like video tutorials were useful and helped them ensure classroom time was used well.

But some parents were not convinced.

Megan Smith told RNZ she was not impressed by the maths videos her daughter was asked to watch in her final year of primary school.

"It was American and they talked fast and it wasn't at a child's level. It wasn't engaging and it wasn't fun. It was just rattling off how to do it," she said.

Remuera Intermediate principal Kyle Brewerton said his school used video tutorials as a way of "front-loading" information to children as homework followed by in-class work with their teacher.

"It's making better use of time. We know and we hear all the time that schools are time poor. There are so many things that are required to happen during the school day and so many students in the school class. This is about efficiency.

"The benefit is you can rewatch it. So if you don't get it the first time round, unlike the classroom where you have to stop the entire class and say 'please teacher, re-explain that whole thing just because I didn't get it', you can watch it and re-watch," Brewerton said.

"If you're still not sure then you can still go to the teacher."

Massey University professor Jodie Hunter said New Zealand schools used technology more than schools in other countries.

Hunter said in maths that was partly because some of the online resources were very good, but those resources could not be a solution for poor subject knowledge on the part of teachers.

"The teacher is the person who needs to be teaching the children, not relying on online resources. And my second part of that where I do get concerned is for a lot of the online resources and tools that you can find online, they're not necessarily quality-assured."

Teachers were turning to online resources because they were not getting enough locally-made resources from the Education Ministry, she said.

Auckland teacher Subash Chandar K said he had been making maths video tutorials for 10 years and last year his videos received one million views.

Chandar K said there were two main reasons students and teachers used the videos - they provided students with a means of learning concepts when they were ready, and they provided explanations that might succeed where other explanations had failed.

"You can't tell me that all 30 kids in your class are ready to learn at that exact moment when you're about to teach that concept to them. There's no guarantee that's happening and even the best teacher would say that that's actually not possible, that all 30 kids would understand the full concept they're trying to explain," he said.

"Just because a teacher says 'hey go watch a video', doesn't mean that they actually don't know the stuff. It's basically 'well when you're ready to learn, here's a little resource'."

Auckland University academic Dr Lisa Darragh was studying the use of online platforms and apps for maths teaching.

Darragh said before the pandemic she was "quite stunned" by the widespread use of online platforms in New Zealand schools.

That prompted her to survey schools, with 80 percent of 500 that responded saying they used the programs and she was sure their use had grown since the pandemic began in 2019.

"The marketing of these programs has really exploded throughout the entire world so its quite likely we have greater levels of uptake," she said.

Darragh said the marketing was often "hard sell" and the programs suited the way many New Zealand teachers ran their classrooms, especially in primary schools.

"We have quite a common practice where the teachers work with some of the children whilst the other children are working independently and I think these programs fit into that style where you can park some children in front of the devices working on these platforms while the others are working with the teacher. I think also when you have the devices in the classroom then you also want to be using them," she said.

It was difficult to know how effective the programs were because it was hard to divorce their impact from the impact of the teacher, she said.

"Children find them fun, they're engaging and motivating. The ones that are pitched at primary schools are really quite gameified and so there's a lot of doing maths via a game but also because of these reward systems embedded into the games," she said.

Darragh said a game might be a good way to practice, but she warned there were downsides.

"I have a lot of concerns about it," she said.

"The removing of the teacher from the equation is highly problematic... The most important thing for a learner is the relationship with the teacher. The teacher knows the child, the teacher can provide the right kind of learning for that child, they can create a really positive learning environment in the subject of maths and that is the number one thing and so as soon as you take the teacher out of the equation you've already got an impoverished learning situation."

However, Darragh said the principals and teachers she surveyed insisted the programs did not replace teaching and were used only to support teaching.

She was also worried the platforms were commercial, so they were designed to make money and collected huge amounts of data about how users were using them, she said.

Advances in artificial intelligence were allowing the programs to respond immediately to students' interaction with the programs, she said.

"These platforms can start to make decisions about teaching that cut the teacher out of those decisions and I think that's a trend we should worry about."

Darragh said the idea of a personalised approach to learning was a key part of the marketing for many of online platforms but she warned a personalised approach would not reflect local issues and contexts.

"We're much better off having our teaching tailored to place and tailored to community," she said.

The Education Review Office (ERO) said it could not talk about the digital tools teachers used in the classroom or how effective they were, but it could could confirm that teachers were using them more following the disruptions caused by Covid-19.

There was a big uptake in the use of digital classroom tools during the first lockdown which was maintained to some extent, with the biggest relative increase in low decile schools, it said.

ERO said schools had told it they were planning to make more use of digital tools in the future.