Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tech addiction 'harms learning' .....really??? $24.99 and I am no wiser

EDIT 11/12/09 This post has been nominated for an Edublog Award for "Most Influential Blog Post" You can vote here. Thank you to Sarah Stewart for her nomination.

Last night, I started noticing tweets about this BBC News Education story in my twitter stream. Researchers at Cranfield University had published a report "Techno Addicts: Young Person Addiction to Technology" about a study they had conducted where 267 secondary school pupils completed a written questionnaire about their mobile phone and internet use. Included in the BBC story is the statistic that 63% of respondents 'felt addicted' to the internet and 53% 'felt addicted' to their mobile phoneThe BBC headline ("Tech addiction 'harms learning'") suggests that the researchers have established a relationship between this feeling of addiction and poor learning. In fact, the headline suggests a causal relationship which a cross-sectional study could not establish, but the body of the text doesn't really support any relationship between addiction and learning.

I wanted to know more so I set out to find and read the report. Googling the full title pulled up a link to the Sigel Press site where the report could be purchased for $24.99. And a press release from Cranfield university confirmed that this was the only way to get my hands on it. It also was clear that none of the authors had an education background. The 2 main authors, Nadia and Andrew Kakabadse, have a blog showcasing their many interests but education doesn't feature amongst them. They descibe themselves as "experts in top team and board consulting, training and development". I bought the report.

I expected the report by university academics to follow a standard format but it doesn't. It is 24 pages long and contains no references and no appendices. The survey instrument is not included.

Mainly it consists of charts illustrating question responses. Unfortunately it contains some typos and poor grammar.

No response rate is given, although we are told that the single school contained 1277 students and that there were 267 respondents, so it may have been as low as 21%.

With regards to 'tech addiction' this seems to have been a self-assessment based on response to the question: How addicted are you to the internet or your mobile phone? The proportions given in the BBC report are those who stated they were 'quite' or 'very' addicted. Of course, we don't know what the students meant by 'addicted'.
With regards to this addiction harming learning, there is no analysis relating the perception of being addicted to outcomes in learning. In fact very few of the questions are related in any way to learning.
It is hard to understand several sections of the report because of lack of access to the questionnaire. For example, with regards to plagiarism the authors state that "A high proportion of students (84.3%) openly admitted that they inserted information from the Internet into their homework or projects on a number of occasions." The tone of this sentence reflects some of the bias which is found throughout the work. The authors don't seem to be aware that if referenced it is acceptable to insert information from the internet into work, so the students would have no reason to be ashamed and fear 'openly admitting' this. The finding that 59.2% of students have inserted information into work without reading it is more concerning. It is also reported that 28.5% of students "feel it acceptable to insert information from the Internet straight into schoolwork without editing or making adjustment, recognising that such behaviour is considered plagiarism." It would help a lot to see how that question was actually worded in the survey, as in the figure it is simply represented as "Ok to “insert” information from the Internet straight
into schoolwork- Yes/no". That's not quite the same!

But there is no analysis relating amount of time spent online (or perception of addiction) and likelihood to insert internet contents into work without reading it. It may be that those who spend less time online, have less skills in information literacy and are more likely to plagiarise.

In summary this report tells us very little about internet addiction or learning. Do you think that someone writing for the BBC website actually read the report? Many of those who tweeted about the BBC article thought there were no suprises in the findings, and that perhaps it suggested that teaching methods needed to change.

This evening Ben Goldacre and Lord Drayson were debating the state of science journalism in the UK. I wonder why do the BBC give space to research which is so poor? How did they manage to concoct such an alarming headline? And why do people believe it? Is it because as one person responded to me last night, there is the perception that "U may fault methodology, results true".
And the quotes from the authors are not even results, just their thoughts which may chime with readers. But it's definitely not science.

Image: "Playing with the new baby cell phone"

EDIT: You can read the BBC response to this blog post here.

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