In Brief: Research News Spring 2024

The Faculty of Education has a proud tradition not only of producing great educators, psychologists and information studies professionals, but great research.

Faculty of Education - 23 May 2024

Study probes cell phone use among Grade 5 students

Does a Grade 5 student really need their own cell phone? It’s a question which education researcher David Chorney was surprised to find that no one was really asking. So he decided to start by asking the students themselves: how many of them have their own phones and how are they using them both in and outside of school? 

Chorney’s study, which surveyed 264 Grade 5 students across the Edmonton Catholic Schools division, found that 54 per cent of respondents had their own cell phone, with half of the remaining respondents saying they expected to get a cell phone within a year. Chorney says he was surprised to find out how many students said they’d gotten their first cell phones as early as Grade 2 or 3.

And while the ostensible reason for having a cell phone was keeping in contact with their parents, using the phone to take and make calls was not among the top reasons students gave for having a cell phone, which centred on playing games and participating in social media. Allowing these kinds of distractions into the classroom at a relatively young age sets the stage for problematic use down the road, Chorney says.

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AI art generators have a place in K-12 classrooms, say researchers

Making visual art with the help of artificial intelligence could be a great way to teach kids about the ethics of the ubiquitous technology, says an education professor at the University of Alberta.

Today’s K-12 students live in symbiosis with AI more than previous generations could have imagined. Algorithms permeate almost every facet of their lives, from Google searches to the algorithms that select their music, films and TikTok videos — influencing the choices they make and the way they see the world.

But creating art is one way to disrupt that invisible influence, or at least help students more fully understand what algorithms do “behind the scenes,” says Patti Pente, an artist and professor in the Faculty of Education.

“Canadian teachers and students today are AI-enhanced cyborgs — they just don’t realize it,” she and her co-authors Cathy Adams and Kenzie Gordon write in an article recently published in A Fine FACTA, the news journal of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Pente prompts her own student teachers to see humanity as a new breed of “posthuman” hybrid beings whose identities are partly constructed by AI. The idea of humanism — inherited from the European Enlightenment — assumes we have sole agency to act upon and manipulate the world. Posthumanism, however, sees that relationship as reciprocal, and humanity as “dynamically formed by the materials of our environment as we influence them,” write Pente and her co-authors.

“It helps avoid oversimplified, deterministic approaches to ethical quandaries.”

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Is history teaching stuck in the past?

A team of researchers led by University of Alberta education professor Carla Peck conducted the National Youth Survey — the first of its kind in more than 55 years — which saw more than 2,000 youth aged 10-18 respond to the online survey designed by members of the Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future research partnership and conducted by Leger Marketing.

The research team reported 75 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “It is important to learn about the past.” Students in secondary school rated the importance of learning about the past slightly higher than their younger peers did.

However, only 55 per cent of young people agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I like learning history in school.” Students in secondary school showed a slightly higher preference for learning history compared with elementary and junior high school students.

Of those who disagreed with the statement, “I like learning history in school” — 17 per cent of respondents — the most frequent explanation was that the subject is “boring.”

Of the learning activities students reported doing in class, the most common included listening to the teacher describe and explain past events (78 per cent), reading and answering questions from the textbook (58 per cent), discussing topics with the whole class (55 per cent), writing notes from the board or from slides (53 per cent), studying and practising for tests and exams (46 per cent), talking about how the past connects to current events (46 per cent) and discussing topics with their classmates in small groups (45 per cent).

“Looking at these results, it is not surprising that many students were not enthusiastic about learning history in school, despite the fact that they view learning about the past as important,” says Peck. “Most of these activities would fall into what are commonly referred to as traditional teaching practices, which are likely familiar to many adults who attended school long ago.”

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