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Technology in schools: Too much of a good thing?

Recently my school’s counseling department organized a showing of the documentary Screenagers to all 450 of our middle school students. The film explores the negative impacts of children spending more and more time staring at the screen of a phone or computer, playing video games for hours on end and texting with friends late into the night.

When the movie ended, students went back to class, opened their Chromebooks, and began working on online review activities in preparation for their end of year standardized tests, all of which will be administered online. I was struck by the irony of preaching to our students about cutting down on their screen time while at the same time we have exponentially increased the hours they spend staring at electronic devices while they are in school.

There’s no question that technology has transformed education, making it possible for students and teachers to learn in ways we couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago. Increasingly, schools are moving to a one-to-one model where every student is provided with a tablet or computer, reducing the digital divide that has traditionally favored those of higher socioeconomic status. Students can research any subject without leaving their seats and peer edit documents with no need for pencil or paper.  The possibilities for classroom instruction are truly endless.

At the same time, the move toward a mostly digital educational experience has dramatically reduced the amount of class time students spend physically interacting and speaking with each other–at an age where they need to be developing crucial social skills. As Sherry Turkle, a psychology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in Screenagers, when you are staring at a screen, “you can’t have the conversations that would lead to the development of empathy and a sense of self.” It should come as no surprise that, as screens have taken over our lives, cyberbullying is on the rise among students who lack ample opportunities to practice positive social interactions in a safe space.  

While the digital divide has come down in many school buildings, there are still lingering equity issues on the homefront. Students with no internet at home can have trouble keeping up with online assignments that they are unable to finish in class or completing projects that require the use of a device. Initiatives such as E2D have begun to provide those in need with low-cost computers and hotspots for home use, but there is much progress to be made in ensuring that all of our students have an equal chance at success when it comes to technology-based instruction.

Digital devices have reshaped the way we assess our students’ learning as well. This year for the first time, middle school students in North Carolina are taking all of their final tests on computers. While some students may do well demonstrating their knowledge this way, others are not so sure the change benefits them. Students I surveyed recently said they were unhappy that nobody had asked for their input on the transition to computer testing. Others complained that the useful annotation strategies they’ve learned in class do not transfer well to a computer, and that transitioning ideas from screen to scratch paper and back again increases likelihood of careless errors.  Still others said that too much computer time makes them sleepy, gives them a migraine or hurts their eyes.  Finally, students told me that some of their computers don’t work well after being used all year and that glitches or defects can impede their progress and distract them. All of these drawbacks can negatively impact results on crucial tests that are supposed to yield accurate measures of student learning and teacher and school effectiveness.

Too often, changes are made in education without sufficient consideration of consequences–just look at the harmful effect No Child Left Behind had on instructional practices that continues to this day. As we continue to embrace technology as a useful classroom tool, we must be thoughtful and balanced in our approach. We must provide teachers with professional development that enables them to use digital devices to enhance students’ communication skills rather than turning them into screen zombies.  We must teach and assess our students in ways that are healthy for them mentally and physically and that give them the best opportunity to succeed. Such balance and intentionality will help us toward our goal of producing well-rounded, empathetic students who are ready to compete in the global marketplace.

Note: This post appeared in The Charlotte Observer.

Justin Parmenter

Justin Parmenter is an English teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina.