As a teacher who’s been around to witness schools “go 1:1”—meaning one laptop, iPad or Chromebook per student—I can attest to the dystopian sight of classrooms full of young children with their eyes glued to glowing screens.
Those first weeks of the transition to technology are harrowing. I watch every moment that used to be spent with math manipulatives like dice, playing cards or actual books now replaced with interactive Google slides and electronic books that read aloud to students.
At the end of the day, the kids blink their dried-out eyes, rub their faces and stretch their necks just like 40-year-old “knowledge economy” cube dwellers at any tech company.
I’m in awe of how technology has changed our lives for the better in countless abstract and concrete ways, but it hurts to see kids who can barely read, write or do simple math—this almost always describes my low-income students—skip over foundational skills because “Google Docs has a spell checker” or you can type in simple math equations into a search bar and get an instant answer.
I’m not saying that the sky is falling, but when the rich—especially elite tech workers—are opting out of smartphones and tablets for their children and are organizing to ban screens in their schools, we need to pay attention.
They are the vanguard of a class of highly educated people who recognize the dangers of allowing developing young minds to learn primarily, if not exclusively, digitally. This is happening just as middle- and low-income schools across the nation finally are able to access funds to outfit each student with a digital device. Some call this easing the so-called digital divide; some call it a form of social justice to create digital-first future citizens.
But do the ends actually justify the means? And if the “ends” are literacy, numeracy and civic involvement, do digital devices actually help get kids there?
As ever: It depends.
“When teachers use computers or tablets to teach, we don’t find that there’s a gain in knowledge or an actual impact on standardized test scores,” said Helen Lee Bouygues, the co-founder and president of the Reboot Foundation, a Paris-based organization advocating for developing critical thinking skills in children and others. “And what our analysis shows is that in younger ages, in third and fourth grade, in all subject matters, there was no benefit to using technology to learn. And in reading we found a negative benefit.”
The Reboot Foundation’s new report is titled “Does Educational Technology Help Students Learn? An analysis of the connection between digital devices and learning.” It answered this question by using data from the 2017 U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” as well as from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which evaluates student achievement in more than 90 countries.
On average, the study found that the “students who reported low-to-moderate use of school technology tended to score higher on PISA than non-users, but students who reported a high use of technology tended to score lower than their peers who reported low or no use of technology.”
The analysis also found evidence that, even after controlling for students’ wealth and prior performance, the results were consistent across the international math, reading, and science assessments.
The U.S. numbers were mixed.
The NAEP data analysis found that “using computers to conduct research for reading projects was positively associated with reading performance.” But using computers for general practice of such skills as spelling or grammar produced little evidence that the technology helped.
Plus, even where learning technology did boost scores, low to moderate usage showed better results in performance, whereas high usage had a negative effect on scores.
“We found that when you’re using the technology for very specific purposes, it can have a benefit,” Bouygues said.
Unfortunately, this is not how I’ve seen technology rolled out at elementary and high schools. I’ve seen kids become experts at finding games and music while struggling to learn how to use the basic functions of word processing.
And I hear a lot of teachers bellowing: “I can see what you’re looking at on the internet! Yes, even at home!”
The data aren’t fantastic, but I choose to remain hopeful.
Educators will eventually work out the bugs because they want the best for their students.
With a little training they’ll turn the tide, because they understand that the 1% might be able to give up their children’s electronics, but everyone else’s kids still need to access pictures of the Taj Mahal—because they won’t be visiting it over spring break.