Sweden recently announced that the country's schools will remove digital technology from classrooms because of poor student performance. Some ask how useful is digital learning. But it also poses the question: is "digital de-escalation" even possible?
Updated September 13, 2023 at 12:45 p.m.
Sweden is suddenly putting the brakes on the progressive digitalization of education.
Without going into details, Sweden's Minister of Education, Lotta Edholm, announced last spring that the government was alarmed at Sweden's poor results in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which found that over the past five years, Swedish children's reading comprehension skills had dropped from high to intermediate — not a catastrophic result, but worrying compared to their usual standards.
Conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), the PIRLS evaluates the reading comprehension of 9- to 10 year-olds. Meanwhile, the OECD's similar PISA test measures not only reading comprehension but also basic science and mathematics skills.
Since 2013, Sweden and its Nordic neighbors have registered increasingly worse results in the PISA, when at the beginning of the century they were considered the European benchmark. Indeed, in 2020, the Swedish daily Expressen even uncovered a fraud scandal: the education authorities had tried to falsify the Swedish results for 2018.
Swedish education at stake
Experts say that it is still too early to judge the potential effects of this Swedish reform — firstly, because the specific details of this "digital de-escalation" are unknown. Isabel Dans, professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela and researcher in Didactics and Digital Education, explains that "there is a growing trend in pedagogy when it comes to the need for handwriting and traditional reading. In Spanish schools, there is a demand for a return to paper. Children say: 'Teacher, it's better to study with paper.' This is a little-discussed reality, because it seems like it is backtracking on the large investment in digital tools made in recent years."
Dans is wary of the Swedish announcement and doubts that the Minister of Education's declarations will translate into a radical position. "We are in an in-between moment; it is not an all-or-nothing. This means admitting that despite the trust placed in digitalization, many educational problems have not improved – but that doesn't mean we can eliminate all technology from the classroom."
Technology is everywhere, and what is not taught in school will be learned outside.
Completely eliminating screens "would also have its problems," says Dans. "We need to teach people how to use screens, invest in ethics and digital safety, because technology is everywhere, and what is not taught in school will be learned outside. I am not in favor of removing technology from schools, but we must take into account that it may not be useful for learning traditional writing and reading," Dans says.
She recalls that there are no studies that directly link poor reading comprehension outcomes to screens, but none that say the opposite either. In 2015, the OECD published the Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection report. It concluded that countries that had invested the most in introducing digital technology in the education sector did not register clear improvements in student performance. Moreover, the research already recommended ensuring a basic level of literacy and mathematics in the traditional way to create equal opportunities in the digital environment – rather than introducing more technological tools in the classroom.
18 March 2019, Hamburg: Students of a fifth grade of a grammar school report in class. A Smartboard hangs in front of the classroom.
Is technology to blame?
Even within Sweden itself, these criticisms are not new. The most prominent expert to speak out against certain contemporary approaches is the pedagogue Inger Enkvist, author of two influential books: Education in Danger (Educación en peligro, 2001) and Rethinking Education (Repensar la Educación, 2006). For years, Enkvist was an advisor to the Swedish government and is known in Spain for having translated authors such as María Zambrano, Fernando Savater, Juan Goytisolo and Mario Vargas Llosa into Swedish.
More than technology in the classroom, which was much less common in 2001, the pedagogue criticized the educational models that quickly became associated with digital learning. She spoke against the emphasis on student autonomy over standardized learning objectives.
In 2017, Jonas Linderoth, a professor at the University of Gothenburg, also argued that Sweden's progressive slump in reports like PISA was due to the poor implementation of such policies. As he still says today, freedom of learning, through technological means, is useful for students who already have a knowledge base. It is not useful at the most basic levels, where more traditional methods are still necessary. Linderoth underlined how this model ends up increasing inequalities and lowering the general level of education instead.
"The problem is that the use of the screen is penalized and linked to the results of studies such as PIRLS or PISA without understanding that they are a tool, and their effectiveness depends on the use they are given," explains Julia Mañero. She is a professor of art education at the University of Seville and a specialist in post-digitality in the classroom, an approach that prefers "a hybrid classroom, in which the analog textbook continues to exist, but also a critical use of digital tools while being aware of their advantages and disadvantages" over Swedish "de-escalation".
Zhengzhou, China: Students learn different subjects with virtual reality technology at the first VR classroom.
What about other countries?
Sweden is not the only nation to be implementing technology bans in classrooms. In the Netherlands, plans to ban all mobile phones from schools are set to be put into place by January 1. According to Dutch news outlet NL Times, sources close to the cabinet confirmed that schools will have until October 1st to arrange and figure out how to do the restriction on their own. If this is not sufficient, national rules may have to be put into place to restrict the use of mobile phones in schools.
New Zealand is also considering banning mobile phones in their schools, however, according to a UNESCO report published on The Conversation, there are reports that many New Zealand parents and teachers have concerns about children' mobile phone use both in the classroom and at home.
They believe that technology may not be the only issue, and that children should rather learn how to use technology in moderation than to have a complete ban in schools. "We should be putting faith in our students," some say, as technology use is inevitable in this day and age.
Screens are a tool with many uses
"Technological tools in and of themselves are not innovative, but their use is. They can improve reading comprehension, or you can use a textbook and achieve the same result," she explains. Mañero also doubts that Sweden's intention is to "completely eliminate digital from the classroom, because in the times we live in. That would mean disconnecting education from our society, which is completely dominated by the media and focused on screens." Instead, if there is an evolution, "It will rather be towards giving (technology) a conscious use in hybrid education. The textbook, tablet and digital blackboard are not mutually exclusive, we need to harmonize their coexistence."
Screens are inevitable.
Dans adds that in the case of Spain, in many places "the tablet and the pad or the traditional book already coexist. Many teachers will tell you how drawing, touch, handwriting help development, memory and creativity. Digital tools are useful, but we must combine them with handwriting and traditional reading. Learning to ride an electric scooter is fine, but you have to know how to walk first."
Both experts agree that this does not take into account a lack of teacher training. “It is a cliché that is always used: the teacher who is in the classroom shouldn't be held responsible for general policies," Dans says. "The training given is usually on how to turn the tools on or off, technical issues, not about their pedagogical use. It makes no sense," Mañero says.
"Screens are inevitable. What is a mistake is to link them to more traditional learning without assessing their usefulness," concludes Dans.