Thursday, 24 September 2009

The BBC responds.

A week had gone by and there was no response from BBC Education News to my email informing them of my blog post "Tech addiction 'harms learning' .....really??? $24.99 and I am no wiser". I probably would have left it at that.

The post was about an alarmingly titled BBC online news story on a study set in an English secondary school, that could only be accessed by spending $24.99. I did buy it and I used this blog to inform others who were interested but didn't purchase it. My finding was that this was a piece of poor research, done by people without backgrounds in education, and presented in a way that suggested that any peer-review process it had been near was 'light touch' in approach. In short, this Sigel Press "Special Report" didn't live up to the publisher's claim that it would contain "groundbreaking information", be "written by global experts", and be an "indispensible resource[s] to keep you up to speed in your field." For the record, my field is not secondary school education. I am a doctor and a university teacher and researcher. I maintain this blog as a way of connecting with others in the wider education community. Several of my past posts have criticised the methodology of peer-reviewed research on the use of new media in medicine; research which has been more or less reported in a positive way. I make it clear on this blog that I don't support the use of technology "for the sake of it", to the extent that I have on occasion gained the moniker "web 2.0 skeptic". And if there was evidence that the use of the internet or other tech really did harm learning, I would want to know about it. I'm not a push-over.

I emailed BBC Education News because I thought that anyone who had the report in their hands would have reached the same conclusions as me. I emailed Cranfield University PR department as well, and they thanked me and said they would pass my comments to the authors immediately. I didn't really expect to get any responses.

But Paul Bradshaw wasn't happy. He is a senior lecturer in journalism at Birmingham City University. He had emailed the BBC Education department as well and today he started chasing for a response. On the off chance I emailed the BBC again and 30 minutes later there was a reply to the email sent a week earlier. This is from Gary Eason, the BBC News website education editor:

"Hi Anne Marie
Thank you for your thoughts. The author of the article did have the whole report in front of her and interviewed one of the authors. I do not agree that our headline is "sensationalist".
best wishes

OK, we can agree to disagree I suppose. But then I saw Paul's blog post about the matter. His interaction with Mr. Eason was considerably longer and contains the following quote:

"It seems to me the results don’t fit her world view so she sets about rubbishing them. Is she seriously arguing that ‘cut-and-paste plagiarism’ is not a problem?”

Spot the logical fallacies. This study was not good science and should not have been reported by the BBC. My worldview has nothing to do with it and is simply a red herring. In any case as I have pointed out above, I am not dogmatic about the place of technology in education. I look for evidence to inform me about what we should be doing.

Next , we have the straw-man attempt to rubbish my blog post. I made no comment at all on whether plagiarism is a problem. All of us working in education know that this can be an issue if assessments are designed badly. But my argument was that this research told us nothing about the relationship between learning and 'addiction to technology'. It possibly could have done as the researchers had data which could have been analysed to tell us something about this. But they didn't. Yes, it was a small study with a dubious response rate but they failed to make the best of the data they had.

Tom Morris comments on Paul Bradshaw's blog that this is a "perfect example of a glaring editorial problem". I think I agree. What do you think?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Email to BBC News Education Re: Tech Addiction "Harms Learning"

Dear BBC

I was disappointed when I read
this article as I
could immediately see that the research was likely not to be of good quality.
But I was more concerned that you had managed to construct a sensationalist
title to go along with it. A cross-sectional study could never establish the
kind of causative relationship that your title infers.

I paid $24.99 to download the full report and my suspicions of poor
standards in research were supported. Did the author of this article actually
read the report or simply base their story on a press release from Cranfield

Since this report is not freely available to the public, I think that the
BBC, a publicly funded body, has an even greater onus to ensue high
quality reporting of such 'research'.

Here is my

Yours faithfully,

Anne Marie Cunningham


So how do we go about starting a campaign for decent science journalism on the BBC?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Tech addiction 'harms learning' .....really??? $24.99 and I am no wiser

EDIT 11/12/09 This post has been nominated for an Edublog Award for "Most Influential Blog Post" You can vote here. Thank you to Sarah Stewart for her nomination.

Last night, I started noticing tweets about this BBC News Education story in my twitter stream. Researchers at Cranfield University had published a report "Techno Addicts: Young Person Addiction to Technology" about a study they had conducted where 267 secondary school pupils completed a written questionnaire about their mobile phone and internet use. Included in the BBC story is the statistic that 63% of respondents 'felt addicted' to the internet and 53% 'felt addicted' to their mobile phoneThe BBC headline ("Tech addiction 'harms learning'") suggests that the researchers have established a relationship between this feeling of addiction and poor learning. In fact, the headline suggests a causal relationship which a cross-sectional study could not establish, but the body of the text doesn't really support any relationship between addiction and learning.

I wanted to know more so I set out to find and read the report. Googling the full title pulled up a link to the Sigel Press site where the report could be purchased for $24.99. And a press release from Cranfield university confirmed that this was the only way to get my hands on it. It also was clear that none of the authors had an education background. The 2 main authors, Nadia and Andrew Kakabadse, have a blog showcasing their many interests but education doesn't feature amongst them. They descibe themselves as "experts in top team and board consulting, training and development". I bought the report.

I expected the report by university academics to follow a standard format but it doesn't. It is 24 pages long and contains no references and no appendices. The survey instrument is not included.

Mainly it consists of charts illustrating question responses. Unfortunately it contains some typos and poor grammar.

No response rate is given, although we are told that the single school contained 1277 students and that there were 267 respondents, so it may have been as low as 21%.

With regards to 'tech addiction' this seems to have been a self-assessment based on response to the question: How addicted are you to the internet or your mobile phone? The proportions given in the BBC report are those who stated they were 'quite' or 'very' addicted. Of course, we don't know what the students meant by 'addicted'.
With regards to this addiction harming learning, there is no analysis relating the perception of being addicted to outcomes in learning. In fact very few of the questions are related in any way to learning.
It is hard to understand several sections of the report because of lack of access to the questionnaire. For example, with regards to plagiarism the authors state that "A high proportion of students (84.3%) openly admitted that they inserted information from the Internet into their homework or projects on a number of occasions." The tone of this sentence reflects some of the bias which is found throughout the work. The authors don't seem to be aware that if referenced it is acceptable to insert information from the internet into work, so the students would have no reason to be ashamed and fear 'openly admitting' this. The finding that 59.2% of students have inserted information into work without reading it is more concerning. It is also reported that 28.5% of students "feel it acceptable to insert information from the Internet straight into schoolwork without editing or making adjustment, recognising that such behaviour is considered plagiarism." It would help a lot to see how that question was actually worded in the survey, as in the figure it is simply represented as "Ok to “insert” information from the Internet straight
into schoolwork- Yes/no". That's not quite the same!

But there is no analysis relating amount of time spent online (or perception of addiction) and likelihood to insert internet contents into work without reading it. It may be that those who spend less time online, have less skills in information literacy and are more likely to plagiarise.

In summary this report tells us very little about internet addiction or learning. Do you think that someone writing for the BBC website actually read the report? Many of those who tweeted about the BBC article thought there were no suprises in the findings, and that perhaps it suggested that teaching methods needed to change.

This evening Ben Goldacre and Lord Drayson were debating the state of science journalism in the UK. I wonder why do the BBC give space to research which is so poor? How did they manage to concoct such an alarming headline? And why do people believe it? Is it because as one person responded to me last night, there is the perception that "U may fault methodology, results true".
And the quotes from the authors are not even results, just their thoughts which may chime with readers. But it's definitely not science.

Image: "Playing with the new baby cell phone"

EDIT: You can read the BBC response to this blog post here.

Apologies for quietness

It's 2 months to the day since my last post. First there were holidays and then I broke my wrist. I was whirling round in a dance tent at the Green Man festival and then suddenly I wasn't. I was rushing backwards towards the ground and put my left hand out to save myself.
I think a broken wrist is a pretty good excuse for a blogging hiatus, though my story is not quite as dramatic as Stephen Fry's.