Sixty-seven percent of parents in a recent survey agreed with this statement: "I don't mind my child spending more screen time if he or she is learning." And in another survey of parents, 67 percent said that "incorporating more technology in the classroom" is a "high priority." So where is the dilemma?
The conflict in perceptions arises over the one-third of the parents in one survey disagreeing with the statement: "I don't mind my child spending more screen time if he or she is learning." And a similar percentage in the other one responding that more classroom technology is a low, not a high, priority. Within that one-third of dissenters, is where the high value of students using devices for their lessons comes into play rubbing up against another prized value of children and youth employing non-screen devices during school to learn since those very same kids are on their varied screens once they leave school and come home. And it is this tension between these values that wracks the one-third of dissenters in these surveys.
In this post I want to go behind the survey numbers and listen to Yalda Uhls,* a parent who advocates sensible use of new technologies in classrooms given the available research.
Many parents are unsure about the best path to technological modernization. When my children were in elementary school, our parent association held many tense meetings about the best technology plan for the school. The parents argued for months. The many valid and important questions included:
1. Our children already spend too much time outside of school with media; is it really necessary for them to do their homework and school reading on these devices?
2. If educators focus too much on technology in the classroom, what other skills will be shortchanged?
3. On the other hand, shouldn’t children learn the basic skills for using technology productively and creatively, to help them be more effective in college and in the job market?
In order to begin to answer questions about what makes the most sense for a school, I emphasize that is important to consider carefully the current models for computer use in schools, as well as any data pointing to their effectiveness, or lack thereof. For example, is there evidence for the effectiveness of One-to-One Programs?
Is it really necessary to give each enrolled child her own device beginning in kindergarten? Certainly, putting devices into a classroom setting seems more organic to practical academic instruction than segregating computers in one area of the school. Moreover, in the real world, we don’t go to separate “computer labs” to do the parts of our job that require technology. However, most public schools are cash strapped; are one-to-one programs a good use of their budgets?
Some studies find benefits to these programs, but often the measures are limited to self-reports, with inherently subjective variables such as “student engagement.” In addition, it takes time for a program’s effects to emerge; in the first year, technological complications, such as adequate wireless bandwidth, must be resolved. More importantly, teachers need extensive training to get up to speed. In order to effectively examine this enormous investment, evidence from long-term one-to-one programs provide important information. In fact, the evidence about several of these programs, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative and One Laptop per Child, which were in place for more than ten years, suggest proceeding cautiously.
The research above reflect a pattern that researchers who study digital technology in the classroom witness repeatedly: a high level of enthusiasm for the new technology, anecdotal stories about the transformational learning that will occur, an introduction along with many unanticipated challenges, and finally an investigation of the facts and effects. Too often, the financial burden of the programs means drastic cutting in other arenas.
Convincing data does not back the claim that simply handing computers to kids will increase their engagement and achievement in academic subjects. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that without adequate infrastructure and trained teachers, digital devices cannot meet their promise. As the report on the One Laptop Per Child program concluded, “computers by themselves, at least as initially delivered by the program, do not increase achievement in curricular areas.”
Uhls understands the dilemma that parents face when their local school buys interactive whiteboards and laptops or tablets for each child. As a parent, she wants other Moms and Dads to look behind the hype over spanking new devices and ask principals and teachers the reasons why they are using computers, why, and what research there is about children learning from the new technologies. The dilemma parents face won't go away but it surely can be better managed when they and school principals and staff openly discuss the worth of children looking at screens at home and in school.
*Yalda T. Uhls received her PhD in developmental psychology from UCLA. She is the Regional Director of Common Sense Media, a national non-profit that focuses on helping children, families and educators living in a digital world. She is also senior researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, UCLA campus. Yalda’s research focuses on how older and newer media impacts the social behavior of preadolescents. Her new book is: Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact, Not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age (Bibliomotion, 2015)
President Obama struck just the right balance last week when he addressed the highly contentious issue of student testing. He urged state and local officials to do away with the many meaningless, make-work tests they give each year, while preserving essential, high-quality exams that allow them to tell whether students are making progress and, importantly, whether minority children are being fairly educated.
The president’s comments come at a time when school districts across the nation have angered parents by deluging children with trash exams that serve only to heighten classroom anxiety and eat up precious instructional time.
Congress made a reasonable decision a decade ago when it required the states to give annual math and reading tests in grades three through eight, and once in high school, in exchange for federal education aid. Schools that failed to meet performance targets for two years were labeled as needing improvement and subjected to sanctions.
But Congress could not have anticipated the reaction — more precisely, the overreaction — among school officials who, afraid of being tagged as low-performing, rolled out wave after wave of “diagnostic” exams that were actually practice rounds for the real thing. Worse still, districts often deployed primitive, fill-in-the-bubble exams that gave no sense at all of whether or not children were developing the writing and reasoning skills essential for jobs in the new economy. These junk exams are sometimes still used even after the curriculum they were based on has been abandoned.
The scope of the problem is outlined in a new study from the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the country’s large urban districts. It shows that the typical student in 66 of these districts takes about eight standardized tests a year, only two of which are required by the federal government. On average, students are required to take an astonishing 112 standardized tests between prekindergarten and 12th grade. The report found that more test time does not pay off in improved learning as measured by student performance on the rigorous, federally backed math and reading exam known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The Obama administration is rightly urging the states to give fewer tests and to choose exams that are clearly tied to student learning. To that end, Mr. Obama is asking Congress for a total of $403 million to be used by the states to put in place tests that are aligned with college- and career-ready learning standards. In addition, the Department of Education will give the states guidance in how to improve their testing programs.
The administration suggests further that states require students to spend no more than 2 percent of classroom time taking required statewide standardized tests. Professional organizations and think tanks are already resisting that idea. They worry that such a measure would be burdensome to administer and would limit their flexibility.
Congress can help to de-emphasize testing by changing how schools are evaluated under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Student test scores should continue to be an important factor, but modest weight should also be given to other indicators, like advanced courses, promotion rates and college matriculation. These common sense measures would help the country dial back the testing mania.