Bikes, dinosaurs, and the emotional impact of edtech

It’s fair to say that technology has opened up a world of possibilities for educators and learners alike, and there is still ongoing conversation around just how much it impacts learning outcomes. Edtech caters for a wide range of different learning modalities and can offer an exciting and immersive experience. However, there’s an equally valid view that technology cannot replace the expertise of the teacher—that it should support and complement pedagogy, not replace it. No arguments here. But what about emotion? How does technology affect our feelings about learning?

Emotions play a significant role in perception, memory, attention span, and ability to problem solve. A 2015 study from the University of Haifa, showed that emotions ‘directly influence processes of learning and memory in the brain,’ and according to neurobiologist and neuropsychiatrist Jean-Didier Vincent, high stress levels can damage the neurons linked to learning and memory (The Biology of Emotions, 1990). So all the learning aptitude in the world won’t overcome a crippling shyness or a lack of self-belief.

When I was six years old, sitting in an infant school science lesson one afternoon (and yes it was infant school because sadly I pre-date the concept of primary school), I raised my hand to answer a question about dinosaurs. Never a fan of gender stereotypes even back then, dolls never did it for me—dinosaurs were my childhood passion. I could tell you everything about the horns of a Triceratops, the diet of a Brachiosaurus, and the venom of a Dilophosaurus. I was quite the budding paleontologist. But in my enthusiasm to show off my knowledge I had forgotten that I fell off my bike the weekend before, gaining a nasty scrape on my elbow which had since blossomed into an array of colours and textures that would impress even the hardiest of tough kids. As I waved my injured arm in front of the class, I began to hear sniggers and the occasional ‘eurgh’ from the room full of pointing children that surrounded me. At six years old, this felt as daunting as that dream where you realize you are naked in a public place. I immediately dropped my hand and for the duration of infant school, and a fair amount of junior school after that, I remained too embarrassed to raise my hand to contribute or ask a question. The emotional impression of that one relatively innocent moment resulted in me disengaging with the classroom process and regularly failing to ask for the help I needed. Sob story over, I survived.

Thanks to the advancement of technology, if there’s something you don’t understand today and you don’t want to ask, you can go away and Google it. But edtech offers so much more than that. It gives a shy child a virtual partner to engage with and ask questions of. It offers a nervous adult language learner a way to practice pronunciation without fear of judgement no matter how many times they get it wrong. It allows someone who learns at a slower pace, to repeat steps as many times as they need to while still having vital interaction along the way. Essentially, edtech can offer the interactivity of an intrapersonal learning experience, in a private environment.

I don’t think it stops there. Technology permeates the world around us now, and this will only increase as time moves on. It is logical that learners, particularly children, will associate technology with everyday life. Association can be both mental and emotional, and as technology is highly relevant in the modern world, learners will identify with its importance in the classroom, which in turn helps them to recognize their learning process as relevant. This association can work both ways too; regular use of educational apps and technologies will increase familiarity and comfort levels using technology in other contexts. Win-win.

Edtech is a bridge between traditional teaching and the modern world. I agree that it should not replace our inspiring and dedicated teachers—human interaction is important to development and wellbeing, and the skill of a teacher is unique and irreplaceable. But technology does provide a hugely useful and flexible extension to that face-to-face learning. And as the needs and circumstances of learners are vast and varied, flexibility can only be a good thing.

Author: Tracey Rimell
Group Communications Executive at Oxford University Press
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