Digital learning is refined so children stay on track rather than getting distracted

Online education helped Amber Patupis build an extraordinary life in country Australia.

The 17-year-old completed primary school through School of the Air at Eucla, where the morning lessons left her afternoons free to fall in love with horseriding.

She went on to spend three years at a mainstream high school in Esperance, but is now completing her year 12 ATAR through the School of Isolated and Distance Education because she prefers the more focused learning format.

It gives her the time for training to hopefully represent the nation in the equestrian sport of eventing one day, as well as running a farm stay at her Esperance home in Western Australia’s far south.

Her mother Rasa said Amber’s computer-based lessons, online lectures, and virtual whiteboards marked a stark difference in the tools she used as a girl.

In the early 1970s, Rasa’s primary school distance education at Eucla depended on rotary-dial telephones and an infrequent mail service to deliver worksheets.

“And my parents, their first language wasn’t English. They’re from Lithuania,” she said.

“So Mum found it quite difficult.”

Despite Amber’s enthusiasm for the current model, experts believe there is plenty of ground still to cover in helping children use digital technology to get an education.

Amber Patupis says the structure of her online education program gives her more time to train.(Supplied: Amber Patupis)

Can digital technology improve early education?

Small children with new technology have always fascinated Kim Maslin.

That sets the WA educator apart from many parents and teachers who view iPads and smartphones in the hands of primary schoolers with a pang of anxiety.

After all, the warnings about everything from screen time, to social media, to cyber safety come thick and fast.

She stands in a green jumper on the Esperance jetty on a rainy day
Kim Maslin is researching how technology can improve learning outcomes for small children.(ABC Esperance: Emily Smith)

But Ms Maslin believes, used in the right way, digital technology can fundamentally improve education for a whole range of children — from those doing distance education like Amber to others forced home by lockdowns or in disaster or war zones.

The question is — how?

Surprisingly, given the global angst on the subject, Ms Maslin said the area was largely neglected by researchers.

‘They have amazing potential’

Many believe the gold standard in raising children is to keep them away from technology as much as possible.

But Karen Murcia, an associate professor at Curtin University and a chief investigator with the National Center for the Digital Child, attributed that to a “dated” study that investigated the impacts of small children watching television.

She said it could not be applied to today’s interactive digital offerings.

She pointed to studies she had taken part in that showed children as young as three or four could understand coding and operate robotics.

Kim appears on a computer screen with painted galahs behind her
Kim Maslin testing out the backdrop for a virtual show based on a book she wrote.(Supplied: Kim Maslin)

A few years ago, Ms Maslin began publishing a series of children’s books called The Tweeting Galah that aimed to educate children about staying safe online and digital citizenship.

Recently she began working with an e-safety provider who transformed the stories into live performances delivered virtually to thousands of children across the country.

Now she is investigating the subject further with a research project of her own.

‘So many shades’

While the shift to online learning during the pandemic ignited a flurry of research into online learning, Ms Maslin said much of it lacked the detail that would make it useful to educators.

Rather than, for example, looking at the best ways to teach year 1 science or year 4 mathematics online, she said researchers often lumped all forms of “online learning” into one study.

Her research project will focus on fostering creativity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and will assess how children develop and demonstrate those skills differently online compared to other learning environments.

She aims to complete the project in 2025.

‘The more research, the better’

Rasa Patupis is keen to see research into online learning expand.

Although she believed distance education had been a huge benefit to her daughter, she said it did not suit every child — particularly ones who needed more social interaction and help.

She pointed out that a focus on “fun things” online may help children learn and engage socially.

And she said offering more creative subjects would help, noting that she had found it almost impossible to access music lessons.

“I think the more research, the better,” she said.

Amber also pointed out that improving online learning outcomes would require improved telecommunications, with connectivity issues causing problems for her in Esperance.

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