Are digital media useful for education?

Digital media in the classroom

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About the author

Christine Kammerer, political scientist M.A., alternative practitioner (psychotherapy), freelance journalist and trainer. Professional background: Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, Federal Agency for Political Education, German Child Protection Association.

by Christine Kammerer

© Robert Kneschke -
Digital media have become an indispensable part of our everyday lives. They influence how we think and act and are part of everyday life for children and adolescents from kindergarten age at the latest. So it makes sense in every respect to teach adolescents how to use the technology and the content presented there in a meaningful way. But how much digitality makes sense? It is said again and again that German schools are lagging behind when it comes to equipping them with digital media, just because not every child there already works with a tablet. It is assumed that German students are not equipped for the future and will therefore miss out on the international competition. But what is it really about such critical comments? Do German schools have some catching up to do here? This article primarily examines the question of whether digital media really have as positive an effect on learning success as is so often claimed.

Education in the digital world

Digital competence is undisputedly a central and necessary skill in the modern knowledge society. It almost goes without saying that children have to be informed about the opportunities and risks and the advantages and disadvantages of dealing with them. From the point at which you begin to take your first steps with digital media. Of course, this presupposes that not only the students themselves, but also the teachers in schools must have the appropriate media skills.

The Standing Conference therefore published a resolution in 2016 with corresponding consequences for teacher training and school development. Among other things, it propagates the expansion of the technical infrastructure: up to the year 2021, pupils should "be able to use a digital learning environment and access to the Internet at any time if it makes sense from an educational point of view in the course of the lesson". This requirement contains a small subordinate clause that makes the attentive reader sit up and take notice:

"... if it makes sense from a pedagogical point of view in the course of the lesson".

How effective is learning with digital media?

It is obvious that the use of digital media does not always make sense. The first studies, such as those by education researcher Bardo Herzig for the Bertelsmann Foundation, are now available that point the way for the use of virtual learning environments. Even if it raises more questions than it can answer. If only because the topic is still very young, although development is progressing rapidly overall. In general, this study found that the question of whether tablets are better in class than conventional methods of imparting knowledge is misleading. It simply depends on the objectives and framework conditions of the teaching unit whether the use of digital media has the desired effect. In the school context, this usually consists of measurable learning success, i.e.

  • an increase in knowledge or
  • an improvement in problem-solving skills or transferability.
It has been shown that information is better saved if it is not only shown in the text, but also combined with an image. The more senses are addressed, the greater the learning success: If the content is available as spoken text, what is heard is better memorized. This also applies to content that has been prepared visually, for example as animation.

Motivation high, impact low

The researchers found that on projects that allowed the use of laptops, notebooks or tablets, students achieved better results in several areas:

  • Motivation,
  • Cooperation,
  • Media literacy,
  • Self-control and
  • cognitive complexity.
However, the overall result of the study is sobering: the effects that were achieved through the use of digital media are not only marginal, but they could just as easily be achieved using other methods. It can be summed up like this: If the students already have good self-control and suitable learning strategies, then - and only then - the digital learning offers fall on fertile ground. However, the possession of a tablet and its use in class can in no way - as is so often falsely and abbreviatedly claimed - level out or even cancel out the differences in class.

Learning by doing is required

Digital media do not replace traditional learning methods. They are just another tool in the educator's case - like the hammer that is used to drive nails into the wall. So the use of tablets initially brings neither more nor less than working with conventional methods. Such a statement can only be made in the context of a very specific teaching situation. The basic requirement for this is a well-founded qualification of the educators who impart knowledge and skills in schools and who will certainly do this increasingly with digital support in the future. At the moment, openness and the willingness to experiment are what is most important here. Because in this area there are not yet any finished and scientifically approved concepts.

Lessons that work with digital media must first be developed and evaluated. However, there are already a number of projects that have been developed by the teachers themselves and tested in practice and are made available on various forums on the Internet.


Digital media in class are therefore not sensible per se. We can only advise against making a rash investment in which every student is equipped with a mobile device almost overnight, because such a purchase entails a long tail: the devices have to be serviced, their security has to be be guaranteed in every respect, questions of liability arise, etc. In addition, one cannot simply assume that there are enough teachers at every school who can or want to use digital media in a really meaningful way. And in the end, good teaching with traditional means and methods indisputably leads to the same learning successes according to previous scientific knowledge. The question should therefore be asked quite openly whether a new acquisition in the field of digital media actually creates real added value.


KMK: Strategy of the Standing Conference "Education in the Digital World"

Yearbook media pedagogy: The opening of (learning) spaces in schools and lessons through the use of digital media. The influence of computer attitudes, computer anxiety and teaching attitudes on the digital media use of teachers, Lukas Schulze-Vorberg et al.

How effective are digital media in the classroom? Bertelsmann Foundation, Prof. Dr. Bardo Herzig

PRO and CON: Digital media in schools

Do digital media make teaching better?

School projects with digital media

Teaching material: 55 ideas - digital media in primary school

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