As computers and tablets have become more and more integrated into schools, some educators and parents have raised concerns that the excessive use of technology can be harmful to students. Though there is validity to those concerns in some circumstances, I know from personal experience that the right balance and leveraging of technology enhances instruction. I’d go even further to argue that, far from harming children, the use of digital tools in school inherently teaches them several important character traits.
At first, most young students struggle to operate a computer. They have to learn to navigate a keyboard, know what icons to click, and figure out what all the words mean. As soon as something goes wrong and an error message pops up, they panic and call for help. We’ve all been there and we know that the learning curve can be steep. But as students gain more independence and more comfort with using technology over time, they begin to develop many soft skills that go beyond the academic-content knowledge or research skills that tech-enhanced lessons typically set out to teach.
For example, allowing students to use a computer or tablet teaches them responsibility. There’s nothing like slapping a huge price tag on an item to scare a kid into treating it with care. Students are used to being given kid-proof belongings, not getting the trust to handle more expensive items (often with good reason). But as soon as we trust them with an expensive tool, they feel the responsibility and trust, and know that they need to be careful. Often, they even take pride in the quality of their care.
Once students discover the immense bank of knowledge online, they are quick to figure out how to access it as well. Students become amazingly resourceful, knowing that they can find almost any fact through the Internet. Whether they’re doing research for a school assignment or searching for a how-to for repairing a faucet, they soon develop the ability to access and apply the information that’s at their fingertips.
As with all forms of independent work, students develop accountability as they work on their individual projects. With self-paced programs in which content is dictated by the progress of the individual user, for example, students aren’t forced to move on to new online lessons as they might be in a regular class lesson. So they get the choice to take their time and coast through lessons or work diligently to excel through. The learners have the ultimate control, and thus they develop self-awareness of their work and ownership of their learning.
Most of all, students learn how to problem-solve while using technology. Though tablets and computers are becoming more and more advanced, they are still, at the fundamental level, unintelligent systems programmed to do fancy things. They only do what they’re told to do, and they don’t typically have the capability to solve random issues on their own. Instead, they require users to identify a problem, find the root, and try different strategies to resolve the issue. This is where human intelligence and intuition come in—traits that take on new powers in combination with the storage and processing capabilities of computers.
Inevitably, when working on computers, students will also encounter technical errors and challenges. Whether it’s the software or the hardware, they need to learn how to navigate such issues. At first, students will immediately ask for help in addressing technical problems. But as they observe more and more issues get resolved, they figure out how the systems work and develop the courage to try problem solving themselves. They figure out that they can try some tricks (refreshing a page or restarting the system, to name a couple) and see if their hypotheses work. And best of all, students can take advantage of something computers are uniquely capable of—undoing steps. Nowhere else can someone decide take back a mistake and start again with a quick click of Ctrl + Z. That function can be an important life lesson in itself.
In the end, the character-building piece of using technology is not the main goal in most schools. As educators, we’re definitely more focused on the academic and instructional advantages these tools can offer. However, the secondary benefits of developing the skills of accountability and problem solving—both 21st-century skills—with our students is worth acknowledging.