Screen time: villain or hero?

Screen time is a hot topic. Government studies, TV talk shows and newspaper columns are alight with debate: are we spending too much time in front of our phones, tablets, laptops and computers?

The list of arguments for and against screens is long. But one tenet that is probably the most difficult to contend and is at the centre of all this debate was articulated by Dr Russell Viner, president of the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), when he said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: ‘Screens are part of modern life… the genie is out of the bottle – we cannot put it back.’

New paradigm requires new behaviour

How should we feel about a freed genie? Learning and teaching is increasingly moving online, so for students and learning providers, it could be a wasted effort to fight such a pervasive trend.

‘It’s just the way it's going,’ said Grace Hodgetts, ACCA product manager at Kaplan Financial. 'Yes, health reports highlight bad screen habits and time spent online, but people are used to it. Being online and social media is now just a normal part of day-to-day life and you don't want your studies to become a tricky thing to fit around it.’

Alan Lynch, head of ACCA content at LearnSignal, believes that worries we have around the damaging affects of screen time stems more from our behaviour and personal discipline than screens themselves – a view shared by bodies such as the RCPCH, which has found no evidence of screen time being ‘toxic’.

‘It’s about using screens effectively; screens are not the root of all evil,’ said Lynch. ‘Behaviour online and in person is no different – people will still be distracted by their phone in a classroom setting or if the classroom is virtual. They'll send messages or flick between browser tabs when they should be doing an exam question or taking part in a lecture.’

Living in an age of instant gratification, we perhaps don’t understand how much discipline is required to make the most of our newfound flexibility and options.

‘Students don't understand that, to get something, you often need to give up something, which in a world in which we're instantly gratified isn't easily accepted,’ said Lynch.

‘You’re already on a computer all day at work, then you have to spend another hour or so at home studying in front of a screen, so it's about managing your screen time’

For Hoggets this extends to self-management: ‘You’re already on a computer all day at work, then you have to spend another hour or so at home studying in front of a screen, so it's about managing your screen time – take lots of breaks standing, move away from the computer, have a shut-off period before you want to relax, don’t take your phone to bed.’

Accountancy trainer Steve Willis limits his screen time in the evening to connect with his family and to set an example to his kids: ‘If they see me on a screen all day, in the evening I can't really tell them they can't use it. Also, I discipline myself to do things like play chess and read books with them, instead of just sitting around and looking at screens.’

The positives for educators and students

Not surprisingly, given how ACCA and learning providers are moving further into online learning, the negatives here are far outweighed by the positives.

Flexibility

‘You can study anywhere, anytime’ is an oft-heard mantra of the online learning advocate and, for good reason, this is ostensibly a revolutionary concept in education.

‘You can be on a train watching a lecture or practise a question on a phone, tablet or laptop,’ said Lynch. ‘You're not going to drag around books and a notepad just in case you find free time in your day somewhere, it’s not practical. But it is if you can access what you need on a screen – it maximises your time.’

Accessibility

A key element of this revolution is accessibility, with people who once had no, or restricted, access to education or with limited time now able to improve or change their lives.

‘People find it difficult to fit studies into their routines – they take annual leave for study days, they’re denied time off by their boss, they don’t make it in time after work to classes in our schools, or they need to pick the kids up after school; also no one wants to give up all of their weekends,’ said Hodgetts.

On demand

Taking flexibility and accessibility to a new level, learning providers are now offering ‘on demand’ resources and courses. For Kaplan this means fewer scheduled sessions and more videos.

‘You have to be quite disciplined, but it gives you the flexibility to fit it around your life,’ said Hodgetts.

Kaplan has created a YouTube-inspired database of accountancy videos to tap into the DIY spirit.

‘If you have something in the house you need to fix, in the old days you'd call a technician. Now, people are more likely to go on YouTube to find out how to fix something themselves. So we created our own version of this for accountancy, concise two to six minute videos, where you can review specific concepts searchable in a database with videos choosable by length and difficulty.’

Videos are a way to compete for people’s varying attention spans, said Lynch: ‘Very few of our videos are longer than 15 minutes and they're all on demand. It’s easier to compete for attention online –  the students are already on the screen. If they put their books in a bag and the bag in a cupboard at home, the bags don't pop up, give them a reminder or send emails when they need to study, which is what online can do.’

Engagement

‘I think telling people to turn off devices when they're not going to is pointless,’ said Lynch. ‘You have to accept what you're up against. People are going to use the technology the way they want to use it. We try to adapt to how they want to use it – they set the terms, we don’t. Online you can alter how you engage with each individual student, you can let them set their study paths within their own parameters. With books and classrooms, there's only one way of learning.’

And perhaps, counter-intuitively, online learning is even more personal than the classroom, face-to-face experience.

‘Using technology you have the potential of being more personal than you can with 30 people in a room,’ said Lynch. ‘Students can be more honest and more individual online as they’re not doing it in front of a room full of people. You can find out what they're weak at, then help them find a path to make it better.’

This is something Hodgetts has also experienced: ‘In the live online courses, because you can ask tutors questions in the chat panel, I've sometimes had better feedback in these than in my classroom lessons, where people don't know each other and are a bit shy. If I interact with them well online, they're very receptive and chatty.’