Technology and learning – Why teaching self-regulation is critical

“They agreed that computers had, so far, made surprisingly little impact on schools – far less than in other realms of society such as media and medicine and law.  For that to change, Gates said, computers and mobile devices would have to focus on delivering more personalized lessons and providing motivational feedback.” Conversation between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (Isaacson, 2011)
In America, youth consume an inordinate amount of media, over seven hours a day, seven days a week, outside of the classroom (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010).  As such, it may not be revolutionary to suggest an essential component of 21st century learning is to teach children how to use digital media safely and productively.  As America falls further behind on the world stage in education, those concerned with youth development opine on fundamental 21st century capabilities, usually with an emphasis on the use of technology.  For example, the partnership for 21st Century Skills, an advocacy group comprised of many top leaders in the field of education, suggests that learning and innovation skills must develop in combination with a deep knowledge of information, media and technology (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009).  This spotlight on technological skills is not isolated to the United States; in Europe the OECD directorate of education suggests the framework for learning should be information, communication, ethics and social impact (Ananiadou & Claro, 2009).  The OECD report further highlights the need for information competencies due to the world’s rapid advances in technology, suggesting that young people must gain expertise in digital environments.

A major reason that well-respected educators and academics propose providing young people with digital tools is the belief they will inspire and excite them about academic learning (Prensky, 2006; Gee, James Paul, 2004; Barab et al., 2007).  In research funded by the MacArthur Foundation, Ito and colleagues (2009) conducted an ethnographic study resulting in 23 case studies of youth’s engagement with digital tools and networks; their conclusions were that the learning opportunities are enormous (Ito et al., 2009).  Yet in an examination of over half a million students in North Carolina, Vigdor and Ladd (2010) found that students who obtained access to a home computer tended to score lower on subsequent reading and math tests. The authors suggest that children who gain access to digital media at home end up using them for recreation and may become distracted from learning; in addition, in households with less parental supervision, the negative effects of computer ownership were greater (Vigdor & Ladd, 2010).  Indeed, Ito et al.’s ethnographic work seems to confirm this interpretation; their finding was that only 20% used media for interest driven learning, the remaining 80% used media to socialize and “hang out.”

Nevertheless, the reality is that in today’s world, digital media are an essential tool, and children who become skilled in their use will likely gain a competitive advantage in the work force (Vockley, 2011).  And although some argue that digital media should not be integrated into learning environments (Richtel, 2011), the likelihood is that the majority of American schools will invest in a technological infrastructure in the coming decade (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009).  As Vigdor and Ladd’s data suggests, technology in and of itself is not the silver bullet for motivating children to love learning; handing a child a laptop or iPad will not guarantee they will use it for creative and innovative learning.  As such, it will be important to guide youth who access digital media to focus on scholarship; accordingly, we must develop children’s learning strategies in order to help them resist thousands of distractions available with these tools. Perhaps, therefore, the question should be framed not “if” but “how” best to introduce digital media as a tool for learning.

Once technology is fully integrated into our children’s learning environments, they will be expected to use initiative and attention to direct themselves to use it for scholarship, often without adult supervision. Self-regulated learners proactively direct their strategies to achieve self-set goals (Zimmerman, 2002). A good self-regulator will pay attention to task, persist when it becomes difficult, demonstrate flexibility and be confident that additional effort will lead to positive outcomes (Schunk, 2005).As such, self-regulation is an essential life skill that may need to go hand in hand with the introduction of digital media in a learning environment.  Guiding youth to develop strong self-regulation skills (SRS) may be more important than ever.

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