High-Tech Tools in Schools

3 07 2012

Too Much Tech at School?

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is a popular trend sweeping schools this year. Schools with BYOD policies will be asking students to bring an Internet-Connected Mobile Device (smartphones, tablets, laptops) to school each day. Many educators believe that in the very-near future most books for school (textbooks, novels, workbooks) will be stored on a digital device instead of stuffed in a locker or backpack. This new movement is being met with some excitement, some trepidation, and lots of questions.

As with all new high-tech devices, there is an awkward break-in period, in which developers rapidly create new applications and accessories, users experiment excitedly with various functions, and society struggles to manage the consequences. It takes at least a decade for the dust to settle. Just think of the cell phone. It’s been around for twenty years, and people are still struggling with how to use it in a productive but healthy way. We still lack a standard set of “rules of the road” for cell phones. Since BYOD is just beginning, I would like to offer my own set of questions and concerns.

I own a MacBook and an iPad, and they are tremendous tools for me as a teacher and a writer. I use them daily, and they serve me well. They are not evil inventions. Far from it. As with every bit of technology, they are not immoral. The devil is in the details of their usage.

Whether it’s an iPhone, iPod, or iPad, it is a multi-functional devices that is not a simple educational tool. It is a video camera, a Facebook device, a YouTube player, a video game console, an email station, a texting device, a music and video player, among countless other fun applications.

Michael Simon, in his new book titled The Approximate Parent, says “Digital media is ever-present and incredibly attractive to teen brains — especially teen brains that register novelty, risk-taking and the feeling of connection as highly pleasurable. The Internet, gaming, and use of social media are addicting.” We need to realize that these devices are not just another tool in a line of educational tools, the way the VHS followed the film strip projector.

There is an age-appropriate time and place for these digital devices, and I believe it is our task as parents and educators to make those decisions for the young people in our care. This is no small task. In fact, no other generation has ever had to make this decision. Our own parents and teachers had to make similar decisions about cable television and rental movies, but this is a much more complicated and consequential issue.

In order to make wise decisions, we must ask the right questions.

Some Essential Questions:

  • How much freedom and how many hours per day should a young person have with internet-connected mobile devices and other digital screens – at school, at home, and on their own?
  • What is a healthy amount of non-digital time for a young person, and when and where does that happen?
  • What does it mean to “move forward with technology?” Is buying a device the end or the beginning of moving forward?
  • Is the use of a digital device actually better than something more traditional? Are we losing anything essential physically or socially? Will it take an inordinate amount of instructional time?

Some thoughts to go with the Questions:

Classroom Distraction

This is the age of academic distraction. And many educators are concerned that MORE access to digital devices will bring more distraction from authentic learning experiences. For example: How many young adolescents can resist the temptation to check their email or text messages when faced with instant accessibility to it in class or in the hall? All it takes is a flick of a finger to check email or Facebook, and it takes less than a second to close it. The content of these messages often derail a student’s mindset from school to the latest social drama of their peers. Many students gauge their popularity and self-worth by the amount of messages they receive from others, and to receive a lot they have to write a lot. It’s a never-ending loop for many, and their minds are not improving in the process. This social distraction is a big concern for teachers.

Focus on Reading, Writing, and Thinking

21st century children will read and write more than at any time in human history. Gone are the days of getting by with rudimentary reading, writing, and thinking skills. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. According to Vicki Phillips, “The explosion of media and technology… has made it all the more important that students master the core skills of gathering and evaluating evidence. Reading and writing with confidence will remain master arts in the information age.”

Mike Schmoker, in his book Focus, discusses the ever-increasing need to teach young people how to read, write, calculate, and think. He refers to studies that show that the presence of high-tech teaching tools has not increased youth literacy; it has decreased across the board. His theory is that high-tech arts and crafts, has replaced authentic literacy activities. In other words, kids are now spending weeks of instructional time creating their own little movies with their laptops about books they are not reading. Or they are making colorful PowerPoint presentations by cutting and pasting Google Images pictures of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers instead of actually reading any historical documents.

Jim Collins writes, “Ironically, 30 years of school innovation have had the bizarre consequence of driving authentic literacy underground… Many schools are advancing a set of standards that supplant meaningful reading and writing activities with having students make websites, video movie trailers, clay animation figures, wikis, soundtracks, and posters – each reflecting students’ individual personalities. These are hugely seductive multi-day activities that sound so much more interesting to some teachers than the authentic literacy activities they replace.”

So, there are some excellent teachers who are not using any high-technology, and there are some ineffective teachers who are using the latest technology at every turn and are not actually teaching much. The existence of new technology in a school is not a litmus test of that school’s effectiveness.

Technology is not a Litmus Test of Good Teaching

I don’t think we need more or less technology. We should make the obvious upgrades technologically, and I suppose BYOD is the obvious next step. But the idea that kids will automatically benefit from more screen time is silly, in my opinion. My concern is that BYOD will mean even more screen time, if it’s not handled thoughtfully. So, let’s consider seriously when kids get time away from their screens. Where are the screen-free zones at school? When are the digital sabbaths in the school day?

I think we need to spend more and more time THINKING ABOUT and EXPERIMENTING WITH these devices, before we adopt them at every turn. For example, I am spending a big chunk of my summer with a colleague working on the details of teaching in a whole new way for me, using my MacBook video capabilities, YouTube, and a class set of iPads. It’s called the “flipped classroom,” and we will end up spending a lot of time THINKING ABOUT and EXPERIMENTING WITH it before we decide to adopt it. We think it will be a great use of high-technology, but we aren’t going to just swallow it whole and assume it’s healthy for the students. We may end up nixing it before we use it very much in the classroom because we know that student learning is paramount to simply using high-tech tools.

Whether we use the latest digital tools or not, we can teach well if we focus on improving our use of in-depth discussions, critical thinking, deep reading, creative writing, and collaborative, hands-on activities. THAT is how we should “move forward” in education.


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