The Problem Is Wasted Time, not Screen Time

Virtual-reality technology allows users wearing special goggles and headsets to experience a simulated environment, be it a rainforest, the mouth of a volcano, or a space station.

Are today’s students spending too much time in front of computer screens? The more important question is: are students engaged in powerful learning experiences and, whenever possible, given voice and choice in what, how, and when they learn? Digital technology can powerfully facilitate this process, if thoughtful adults deploy it wisely. Otherwise, it can be mind-numbing, or worse.

The emerging generation of educational technology has the power to accelerate learning productivity in ways we can scarcely imagine. If we can ensure that students are connected to it through the help of teachers, a natural balance between online and offline experiences will develop.

Unfortunately, the performance of digital technology in the classroom proved disappointing early on, because its rapid influx into schools coincided with another dominant trend in U.S. public education: the national push for standards and accountability. Over the past 25 years, K–12 education has been shaped by these two forces, and neither has succeeded as well as hoped.

To step back for a moment: Under the leadership of Secretary of Education Richard Riley in the 1990s and his successors, Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, and Arne Duncan, a bipartisan drive for better and more equitable student outcomes prevailed. Standards-based reform was fed by three factors: increased expectations for learning beyond high school, which led to a focus on college readiness for all; the availability of reliable and cheap measures of student proficiency in reading and math; and the push for teacher and school accountability.

The standards movement did reap some laudable results: higher expectations for students, a commitment to equity, more measurement of student learning, and educational practices informed by data. However, the movement also had unintended consequences. Most notably, it bred a narrow focus on testing and compliance, often driving out creativity and collaboration rather than encouraging them.

The mid-1990s also saw the rise of the Internet and the first generation of mobile technology, which quickly led to more (connected) computers in the classroom. People in and out of school—at least those with broadband access—entered the anyone-can-learn-anything era. However, the first quarter century of tech-enabled learning in the schools was dampened by standards-based reforms, which not only locked in teaching to grade-level cohorts of students but also valued seat time over learning, proficiency over growth, and consumption over production. We learned that good teaching matters but forgot how important it is to give students agency over their own learning. Instead of encouraging innovation with the newly available tech tools, accountability systems based on narrow and dated measures tended to clamp down on new approaches. Many teachers decried the idea of “teaching to the test,” the new standards, and in turn, what they saw as the depersonalization of schooling wrought by technology. “Standards” and “technology” were often painted with the same brush.

But we have entered a new era. Today’s ed-tech offers unprecedented opportunities to improve the ways in which we educate our young people. It’s time to lean into these opportunities rather than reject them, particularly in light of these five key innovations and trends:

Worldwide connectivity. As it grows more sophisticated by the month, your mobile device is a powerful hub of seamless, synced, and simple-to-use tools. According to the technology-research firm Gartner, 20 billion devices will be connected by 2020. Cheaper, faster devices and nearly limitless data storage are accelerating the pace of change in every aspect of life, including schooling.

Intimate computing. We’re moving from personal to “intimate” computing, in which you know the technology, and it knows you. Soon, nearly everyone will have a digital “personal assistant” that will manage priorities, prompt as well as respond, span the personal and the professional, and continuously learn about the user’s information needs.

For more than 20 years, we have used a screen and mouse to navigate our computing experience. That experience is quickly becoming an omni-channel one with multiple communication points, including voice, touch, movement, and (if Elon Musk is right) even the brain itself. With a proliferation of sensors in all aspects of life, a personal interface will move seamlessly between home, transport, school, and workplace. Human–machine symbiosis will drive the automation economy.

Experiential computing. In the next three to five years, students will be immersed in augmented and virtual reality all day, every day, asserts Seth Andrew, founder of the Democracy Prep charter schools in Harlem and White House adviser to President Barack Obama. With virtual-reality technology, users wear special goggles and headsets to experience a simulated environment, be it a rainforest, the mouth of a volcano, or a space station. Augmented reality (AR), in contrast, doesn’t block out the user’s environment but adds to it, for instance, by inserting an interactive hologram into the person’s field of vision. Andrew is bullish on the potential of these technologies to deliver content, especially in career education, world languages, and certain electives. While he may be overreaching in his prediction of “all day, every day,” both virtual and augmented reality have much to offer in the classroom—or wherever future learning takes place (see “Virtual Reality Disruption,” what next, Fall 2016).

Tech-facilitated personalized learning. Proprietary reading and math systems that automatically adjust to the learner’s performance are already in wide use in K–12 classrooms, while fully adaptive learning-management systems are gaining a foothold there and in career and technical education. New blended-learning models combine online and face-to-face activities to meet students where they are; help them move on when they’re ready; and expand access to electives, languages, and careers. Still in its early days, personalized learning shows great promise for K–12 education.

Competency and credentials. We live in an increasingly “show-what-you-know” world, where it matters less where you went to school and more what you know and can do. Micro-credentials are emerging as a new means of gauging content mastery (see “Competency-Based Learning for Teachers,” what next, Spring 2017). They are a digital form of certification that indicates when a person has demonstrated competency in a specific skill set. More and more, we will see such measures of competency replacing seat time as the indicator of academic progress.

With personalized and competency-based models, learning can happen (and be assessed or demonstrated) anytime, anywhere. For example, LRNG is an online, national network of community-based learning opportunities for young people, especially the underserved. Some states will extend portability of education funding to community organizations with the expansion of education savings accounts.

Getting Screen Time Right

Given these emergent forces in technology, how can educators, policy leaders, and parents best deploy ed-tech to advance student learning and growth? The key to getting screen time right, in my view, is to start by asking: What should young people know and be able to do? What kinds of experiences will help them develop important knowledge, skills,
and dispositions?

In addressing those questions, a new generation of schools is using models that combine the benefits of personalized learning—accurate diagnosis and individually paced content mastery—with the power of project-based learning—extended challenges that promote deeper-learning competencies such as critical thinking, working collaboratively, problem solving, and taking responsibility for one’s own learning. These new models blend learning activities—long and short, online and offline, individual and team, production and consumption, discipline-based and integrated—into a productive sequence of personalized learning experiences.

The nearly 200 schools in the nonprofit New Tech Network (90 percent of them district schools) use personalized learning to prepare students for extended and integrated projects that build student agency, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills (the four outcome areas assessed for every project). This thoughtful blend has resulted in high rates of high-school graduation, college enrollment, and college persistence.

Increasingly, schools are using online learning-management systems such as Brooklyn LAB Charter School’s Cortex and the Summit Learning platform (offered free to teacher teams that apply to Summit Public Schools) to deliver and organize custom playlists of activities for students and to allow educators to track students’ progress incrementally (see “Pacesetter in Personalized Learning,” features, Fall 2017). Such platforms often include comprehensive curricula, student project ideas, and assessments.

The most effective blended-learning models use the best available tools to create the most optimal learner experiences while keeping adult guidance and peer relationships foremost. “It’s not about the device, it’s about the access the device facilitates,” says David Haglund, school superintendent in Pleasanton, California. Haglund believes in purposeful interaction. Sometimes that takes place online, but often it happens face to face. He acknowledges that some learners prefer reading printed material and thinks schools should accommodate
that as well.

“What facilitates empowerment?” Haglund asks himself. “What provides access to resources on and off campus? Young people need tools to connect, collaborate, gather feedback, and engage with people,” including those working in fields of interest to students. When employed toward these ends, technology can make learning more social instead of less so.

For instance, when Haglund was superintendent in Santa Ana, his 4th graders visited Disney Studios in Burbank. They produced their own films, screened them at a downtown theater, and shared them with producers in Santa Monica. Haglund watched his students engage with the producers in a professional way and then stay in touch for a month.

With all the excitement around virtual-reality field trips such as Google Expeditions, the Pokémon Go craze points to an even larger opportunity for augmented-reality field trips. Researcher Christopher Dede of Harvard has been working for more than a decade on outdoor AR science; now, mobile technology and a new sensor-rich world are making this kind of experience widely accessible. AR field trips are just the beginning of learning with smart machines in ways that blend online with real-world learning: fitness sensors that prompt activity, digital tools that support more effective team collaboration, real-time translation that kindles cross-cultural dialogue, robotic toys that spur computational thinking, and mobile apps that promote and analyze print reading.

Parents and Teachers

Technology is an amplifier. It can make good parents, teachers, and experiences better—or it can have the opposite effect. Mobile devices, games, and social applications are potentially addictive and can lead to unproductive or even dangerous behaviors. Again, the effective use of ed-tech requires thoughtful management and oversight by teachers and parents. Caring adults also need to help young people develop positive self-regulation habits.

Appropriate limits are essential, too. For instance, very young children who are developing language and motor skills should have little or no access to screens. And of course, schools need to establish guidelines for cybersafety and -security. Students and parents should be required to sign an acceptable-use form, teachers should create a culture of acceptable use, and schools should offer classes to parents on how to supervise device use and be alert to possible problem behavior online.

Parents wrestle with countless decisions about their children’s education and learning. In choosing and advocating for the most powerful learning experiences for their kids, they might keep in mind the Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s definition of student-centered learning: that which is personalized and competency-based; that happens anytime, anywhere; and that encourages students to take ownership of their own learning. All of these features require productive access to digital learning tools—and thoughtful advice from teachers and parents.

Leaders can create cultures where it’s safe for teachers (and students) to iterate and learn. Schools can work with like-minded schools in networks to leverage learning models and tools. Professional learning can model the same blend of online and offline practices we want for students.

Lean In

It’s never been easier to code an app, start a business, wrangle a big data set, and apply powerful tools to address global challenges. Young people deserve learning experiences that will help them develop an innovation mindset and design-thinking skills that will enable them to flourish in the automation economy where they will work with smart machines. Today’s students are tomorrow’s inventors, engineers, teachers, artists, and leaders. They need more from their schools.

A 2015 survey by Marc Brackett of Yale University asked 22,000 high-school students how they felt when they were in school. Their top responses were “tired,” “stressed,” and “bored.” Without active engagement on the part of the student, learning stalls out. Rather than focusing on grades and test scores, students need opportunities to take on big issues, work with diverse teams, and produce innovations that will make their communities proud. Technology can help motivate and accelerate learning. It can help young people create and invent, launch social movements, and even contribute to solving global problems. That requires schools where young people are producers more than consumers, collaborators more than observers, game makers more than game players.

It’s time for us as teachers and parents to lean in rather than push back. More than ever, we need to be intentional about how and when young people use technology and make it productive time, not a waste of time.

This is part of a forum on screen time in school. For an alternate take, see “Putting Dialogue over Devices Shapes Mind and Character,” by Daniel Scoggin.

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Scoggin, D., and Vander Ark, T. (2018). Should We Limit “Screen Time” in School? Education Next, 18(1), 54-63.

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