The small upside, large downside of digital learning - Albuquerque Journal

The small upside, large downside of digital learning

CHICAGO – As a teacher who’s been around to witness schools “go 1:1” – one laptop, iPad or Chromebook per student – I can attest to the dystopian sight of classes full of young children with 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, kids blink dried-out eyes, rub faces and stretch necks just like 40-year-old “knowledge economy” cube dwellers.

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 the sky is falling, but when the rich … 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. …

Do the ends actually justify the means? If the “ends” are literacy, numeracy and civic involvement, do digital devices 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), aka “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 “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 “using computers to conduct research for reading projects was positively associated with reading performance.” But using computers for general practice of spelling or grammar produced little evidence the technology helped. Plus, even where learning technology did boost scores, low to moderate usage showed better results; 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 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. …

The data aren’t fantastic, but I remain hopeful. Educators will work out bugs because they want the best for students. With a little training they’ll turn the tide, because they understand 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.

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