Screen Time: Digital Technology and Schools

David Flower and Charles Wallendahl

Sub-Warden Academic and Head of Theology, Philosophy and Ethics - St Edward’s School, Oxford

Read the blog

The issue of how digital technology should be used in schools is very much an educational hot topic. Many educationalists argue that children need to be exposed to the technology that they will have to interact with in their adult lives and that the benefits of early exposure are self-evident in the digital literacy they acquire. Critics, however, rail against liberal mobile phone policies and the haphazard introduction of devices like iPads into classrooms before any educational benefit has been proved. Sophie Winkleman recently made a celebrated attack on technology in schools in The Daily Telegraph, putting forward four main arguments, each of which we will consider here.

Winkleman echoes the calls for a screen-free childhood, most famously advocated by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Anxious Generation. Here at St Edward’s School, Oxford (also known as Teddies) we introduced centrally managed Surface devices and banned mobile phones from classrooms until the Sixth Form in 2022, thus mitigating many of the risks that Winkleman and Haidt are rightly concerned by. Having kept abreast of the research, we have introduced further restrictions since, and our own survey data suggests that the school is an even happier place for it. A blanket ban, however, of the sort suggested in Winkleman’s article strikes us as rather dogmatic. Our Pathways and Perspectives and IB courses harness technology and encourage pupils to become skilled in ways of working that will be a feature of their future lives whether they might be a designer working in CAD or a solicitor redrafting a contract. It’s hard to hit a sweet spot, but at St Edward’s we think we have done just that.

Winkleman worries that Edtech products are unproven, have not been subjected to randomised controlled trials and have, in many cases, only been embraced for the sake of it, or for schools to appear ‘cool.’ We agree! Lots of Edtech products, like smartboards, attempt to solve a problem that did not exist. Daisy Christodoulou, a seasoned writer on educational topics, has pointed out in her excellent blog posts, that Edtech can be outright dangerous if it jeopardises memory and skill development, rather than enhancing them. At St Edward’s we always avoid a ‘Google it’ or ‘ask AI’ approach. Where tech has been most useful, it has been through the impact of the same apps that make most of our lives easier – our familiarity with Teams and OneNote allowed us to flip to online learning in the pandemic and eases the dissemination of notices and documents every day, just like they do in workplaces all over the world. Likewise, we make use of lots of testing and quizzing tools like Seneca, Carousel and Forms – the benefits of retrieval practice have been proved beyond doubt and these apps offer many stimulating ways for pupils to test their knowledge.

Winkleman cites a UCL study that found pupils did worse at PISA reading, maths and science assessments done on a computer rather than on paper. At Teddies, most assessments are still paper-based and whilst some exam boards such as AQA are trialling digital assessments, most assessments will probably continue to be handwritten. There are some benefits to digital assessments, and the Pathways and Perspectives courses make use of a digital portfolio approach to showcase music, jewellery, art and design. During the pandemic, many universities moved away from traditional exams, but with the rise of AI, many have returned to assessments under more tightly controlled conditions to increase fairness and validity.

Winkleman refers to a Valencian study that concluded reading from paper improves depth of understanding. Such studies are not isolated and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found a correlation between students who read books more often on paper, versus reading on devices, with higher reading performance and greater self-reported enjoyment of reading. Reading on a screen leads to more skimming and worse comprehension. Teddies introduced ‘Time To Read’ in 2022, a drop-everything-and-read initiative, which has succeeded in promoting reading for pleasure from paper books. Charles Davies, Jubilee HM, conducted research which found that ‘Time To Read’ led to pupils spending more time, on average, reading for pleasure both in term time and in the holidays, though it still lags behind social media scrolling.

Search engines such as Google Scholar have, however, made research more straightforward, so pupils are taught by the Library how to access these resources, check their reliability and cite them appropriately. At St Edward’s we still issue a paper textbook as a resource for pupils in most exam courses. There is good evidence that paper textbook use in the Far East is correlated with high performing education systems. Studies have shown that handwritten notes lead to better understanding and retention of knowledge than typed notes since there is no attempt to transcribe information verbatim. Most pupils in the school, without access arrangements, handwrite their academic work.

The Daily Telegraph article mentions how Sweden reversed their decision to make devices compulsory in pre-schools in 2023. Such U-turns have precedent; Los Angeles cancelled a $1.3 billion contract for 650,000 Apple iPads and internet network capabilities in 2015 after less than two years. Pupils bypassed safety features, internet was patchy, devices broke. Teddies’ pupils are issued with a Microsoft Surface. We have chosen these devices as they are age appropriate, updates can be centrally managed, it is easier to type long coursework assignments, security levels can be set, and safeguarding prioritised through filtering and monitoring software, Smoothwall.

Multitasking is really task-switching as the human brain can’t multitask on two tasks using the same channel (visual or auditory). Some devices really encourage this behaviour and diminish attention. Teddies employs software to help pupils monotask on an application. As part of a UCL Masters course, Charles conducted some research on multitasking and strategies Teddies pupils use to help them focus. A highly successful strategy was Lower Sixth pupils filming themselves studying using the time-lapse features of their smartphones because it enabled them to track their progress while also incapacitating their phone. Sometimes pupils need a computer for their studies but there are many lessons when teachers choose not to use devices at all in the classroom. We do, however, recognise that devices can have benefits beyond the classroom in terms of sharing resources, communicating with pupils, setting prep, submitting prep, recording marks and giving feedback via Teams.

The issue of screen time for young people is rightly the focus of much media and parental attention and we discuss it often in school. Winkleman is right to be a sceptic when it comes to EdTech – the false starts made elsewhere serve as a salient lesson whenever one is tempted to jump onto an Edtech bandwagon! Likewise, the flood of evidence that links poor adolescent mental health to unfettered access to the world of social media is something that advocates of online learning must confront. The problems are clear but, at the same time, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. At St Edward’s, we think it is possible to protect young minds from some of the dangers of the online world whilst ensuring we harness the power of technology to enhance our teaching and prepare our pupils for the world that awaits them when they leave Teddies.


David Flower

Sub-Warden Academic

St Edward’s School, Oxford

Charles Wallendahl

Head of Theology, Philosophy and Ethics

St Edward’s School, Oxford


1 July 2024