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)