The Parents’ Dilemma: What Should My School Do about New Technologies

Sixty-seven percent of parents in a recent survey agreed with this statement: “I don’t mind my child spending more screen time if he or she is learning.”  And in another survey of parents, 67 percent said that “incorporating more technology in the classroom” is  a “high priority.” So where is the dilemma?
The conflict in perceptions arises over the one-third of the parents in one survey disagreeing with the statement: “I don’t mind my child spending more screen time if he or she is learning.” And a similar percentage in the other one responding that more classroom technology is a low, not a high, priority.  Within that one-third of dissenters, is where the high value of students using devices for their lessons comes into play rubbing up against another prized value of children and youth employing non-screen devices during school to learn since those very same kids are on their varied screens once they leave school and come home. And it is this tension between these values that wracks the one-third of dissenters in these surveys.
In this post I want to go behind the survey numbers and listen to Yalda Uhls,* a parent who advocates sensible use of new technologies in classrooms given the available research.

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)



Filed under technology use

23 responses to “The Parents’ Dilemma: What Should My School Do about New Technologies

  1. Thanks Larry for this post.
    All of the research suggests that the technology is a delivery device that takes great pedagogy and poor pedagogy and delivers it FASTER to each and every student.
    Rather than focus on the technology, focus on educationally innovative pedagogy (research proven, best practices,instructional methodologies), seamlessly integrated into software, delivered over technology.
    This will differentiate learning; provide formative (beginning) and summative (end) assessments; professional, ongoing, individual coaching and reinforcement; spaced reinforcement; distributed practice and measurably advance individual learning outcomes, that lead to individual performance improvement

  2. JoeN

    I wonder if the 67% would be so enthusiastic if they had also seen these figures? According to the Kaiser Foundation’s 2010 report, Generation M2 Media in the Lives of 8 to18 Year-Olds…”on a typical day, 8 to 18 years… spend more than 7.5 hours (7:38) using media – almost the equivalent of a full work day, except that they are using media seven days a week instead of five.” Their figures specifically excluded time spent using media for learning and education.

    • There will be a new updated study coming out this week from Common Sense, that builds on the Kaiser results. It’s filled with amazing data!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Joe. The figures are stunning. Yalda mentioned a new report coming out on student use of media.

      • hi larry and joe, it’s on informal use of media, outside of the classroom. will be released tomorrow by common sense media. it’s built on the backs of the kaiser studies, the last one was in 2009. they couldn’t compare apples ot apples since so much has changed, but the depth of the data and the intricies of the media consumption is fascinating.

      • larrycuban

        THanks, Yalda, for staying abreast of comments by various viewers. Glad your book is doing well.

  3. Pingback: 21st Century Teaching and Learning | From Inquiry to Results

  4. David

    Two thoughts about some things I have recently read that relate to this. First, this article highlights how educational institutions are often influenced by an “uncritical mass” of pressure from a variety of groups leading to moe spending on ed tech: Alireza Sayadmansour and Medhi Nassaji, “Educational Technology along with the Uncritical Mass versus Ethics,” British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 61:3 (September 2013), pp. 289-300 (

    Second, I recently read Neil Postman’s Technopoly and William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep. Both seem to point in the same direction–in the messiness that is education in the US, we seem to be still stuck in the old muddle of teaching job skills vs. helping develop good citizens. We’ve tried to do both, but in the end we seem not to do either very well. The reasons behind much of the technology brought into the classroom just seems to add to the muddle at great expense.

  5. David it’s true, the recent OECD report highlights this messiness on a global level. It’s disappointing, because so many are filled with good intentions. Our “race to the top” mentality hurts us I think. You’d think we’d know at least for education, one size fits all doesn’t work.

  6. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    An interesting approach to a relevant debate! One thing I do recognise when talking with parents – who don’t work in IT – “Many parents are unsure about the best path to technological modernization.”

    • yes pedro! that’s why i wrote this book.. parents are confused, worried and don’t know the facts. the media (and even some “experts”) makes it seem like everything is dire OR that media can save everything. neither is backed by the research that i studied and conducted.

      • Eugene Morozov has a great word for “media can save everything”, solutionism. Did you see our book on myths about learning and education? We have a separate part only discussing myths about technology and education….

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the reminder of Evgeny Morozov’s take on tech in education. And for e-blogging post on parents and school tech.

  7. no i would love to see it – what is it called?! and i hope you will take a look at mine, media moms and digital dads it’s number 1 in hot new releases in amazon right now.

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