Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Technology in school? How much is too much

When a parent visits a daycare, top of their minds is what kind of activities their children will be doing. A typical visit includes a description of the day, from play time, to nap time, to out door time. Most day cares proudly announce that they have no or very little screen time - be it television or computers.

But suddenly, the "critical thinkers" in the education policy world think we should be infusing and transforming our schools, including our primary classrooms, with endless numbers of screens and gadgets. Class sets of iPads, BYOD (bring your own device), blended learning...there is a never ending push for more technology in teaching.

Just today I had a look at a slideshow from Brian Kuhn, an IT Manager of School District 43. The show is entitled Brittania Elementary Education Technology Ideas (http://www.slideshare.net/bkuhn/britannia-elementary-educational-technology-ideas-nov2012) and displays the so-called wonders of using digital cameras, smart phones, ipads and laptops in elementary school. While no doubt many of the activities presented are fun, engaging, and involve some learning, nowhere was there a critical look at a most basic question: how much technology is appropriate for children? what are the downsides? at what age? and critically, how much is too much?

Or, to put it visually, do we want schools with more of this:


or with more of this:


Far away from the education policy makers, other fields of study - notably pediatrics and child psychology - are making some very relevant critiques of the dangers of screen time, particularly for children and teenagers.

Dr. Larry Rosen, writing for Psychology Today, describes a recent study of students:

"Recently my research team observed nearly 300 middle school, high school and university students studying something important for a mere 15 minutes in their natural environments. We were interested in whether they could maintain focus and, if not, what might be distracting them. Every minute we noted exactly what they were doing, whether they were studying, if they were texting or listening to music or watching television in the background, and if they had a computer screen in front of them and what websites were being visited.

The results were startling. First, these students were only able to focus and stay on task for an average of three minutes at a time and nearly all of their distractions came from technology. [By the way, other researchers have found similar attention spans with computer programmers and medical students.] The major culprit: their smartphone and their laptop were providing constant interruptions. We also looked at whether these distractors might predict who was a better student. Not surprisingly those who stayed on task longer and had study strategies were better students. The worst students were those who consumed more media each day and had a preference for working on several tasks at the same time and switching back and forth between them. One additional result stunned us: If they checked Facebook just once during the 15-minute study period they were worse students. It didn’t matter how many times they looked at Facebook; once was enough." (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rewired-the-psychology-technology/201204/attention-alert-study-distraction-reveals-some-surpris)

Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a developmental psychologist, writes on her web site about the effects on children of over stimulation from television:

"In 1970, the average age at which children watched television was four years old. Today, the average age is four months. The typical child before the age of five is watching 4 ½ hours of television per day, 40% of their waking hours! Recent studies have linked television to the over-stimulation of an infant’s brain, leading to the development of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in young children."

She is referring to studies by Dr. Dimitri Christakis, MD, on the effect of television viewing on children. Dr. Christakis has produced a TED talk on the topic of media and children, and suggests parents need to ensure their children are on a "media diet".

Interestingly, school is one place where children currently escape from their gadgets and screens. But this could be set to change, without much public discussion.

This theme is also taken up by Dr. Stuart Shankar, a Canadian researcher involved in the study of self-regulation, who talks about the effects of stress and over stimulation:

"What we're seeing is a generation of children whose nervous system is essentially being overstimulated."

Reasons included emotional and physiological stressors such as changing marital patterns, parental stress, changes in extended family involvement, increased use of the television, video games and the internet, and exposure to damaging themes via marketing and the media.

"We're concerned about the dramatic increase in television viewing, which is a physiological stressor because so much of the brain's energy is used on visual processing," Dr Shanker says.

The corporations who stand to make substantial profits from technology in education have spent a decade promoting the "edtech" business. They are single minded - they want as much technology in schools as possible. And they are on the cusp of getting what they want in growing numbers of jurisdictions all over the world. Layers of education policy makers and bureaucrats now mindlessly push technology without any discussion about potential drawbacks or health concerns, but rather just the "more is better" mantra.


  1. Dr Larry Rosen also says that, "Social networking can provide tools for teaching in compelling ways that engage young students."

    1. True. I don't think Larry Rosen quite gets how much the edtech business is trying to push technology in schools. He's not an educator.

  2. I understand your concern. That said, when you pose your visual question of whether we want more of this [child on tablet] or this [teacher reading to students], I would answer:

    I want both at the pedagogically appropriate times.

    I doesn't need to be one or the other. Furthermore, whether we like it or not, our children and society is changing. I think it's more important for educators to teach children to appropriate use/apply/evaluate/critique technology and media rather than abstain from it.

    1. You know, I am happy I had my own child 13 years ago, because I look around today and I see little toddlers in restaurants with iphones to keep them busy. I would have done the same thing I bet, but iphones didn't exist then, so we had toys we brought. It is the very engagement of gagdets, and the gamification of educational apps and software, that make them good baby sitters at home and appealing in schools where large classes lead to behaviour issues. Why is it pedagogically appropriate to use iPads in Kindergarden? Why should we begin schooling with the most addictive tools? What does this do to young children who are learning to focus and concentrate?

      I agree it is not one or the other - I support some technology use in upper grades. But that is not what is going on...right now edu-policy-wonks and edtech businesses would have us believe ALL technology is better.

    2. "Why is it pedagogically appropriate to us iPads in Kindergarten?"

      You should ask a K teacher who IS using them. And furthermore, why not? You can ask a Kindergarten student to draw you a picture of a farm and they will give you something that barely resembles anything (which DEFINITELY has it's own merits) or you can give them an iPad and they can construct an environment with drop and drag pictures with environments rich in context.

      " Why should we begin schooling with the most addictive tools?"

      "Addictive?" That's a pretty biased way to look at it. Proponents of iPads would use the word "engaging."

      All in all, the problem I have in with your position is the lack of balance. I concede that there are some issues with technology in the classroom. But they are the same issues that technology is bringing to society as a whole. And to completely ignore the positive that they bring is unjust. Your article simply dissuades those teachers who are on the fence with using technology away from trying to implement them into their teaching. Which in the end does them and their students a disservice.

    3. If we want to allow young children to explore and learn creatively, there is a good argument that pre-defined drawing and painting programs do just the opposite. Moreover, children are already using these apps and programs at home...why would we replicate that in school? Why not use school for social, natural, interactive play based activities? If our goal is to stuff young children with mass amounts of information, there is evidence that technology such as iPad apps can do that (e.g. increase vocabulary), but it is not clear to me that should be our goal for Kindergarten. Perhaps in limited circumstances with children who have particular deficits coming into school.

      Addictive - yes. The DSM - V is already considering internet addiction as a diagnosis and there is plenty of evidence from the medical community about addictive behaviours and electronic devices. The programmers who make educational apps know and use addictive techniques on purpose, such as randomly placed rewards that trigger dopamine responses. Read more here: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/features/timestopics/series/your_brain_on_computers/

  3. Tara,

    "nowhere was there a critical look at a most basic question: how much technology is appropriate for children? what are the downsides? at what age? and critically, how much is too much?"

    Do we ask how much pencil time is appropriate? How much worksheet time is too much?

    The choice of photos was interesting. I want neither situation suggested. A single student reading text is not why I want iPads in classrooms. Children sitting in rows listening to a teacher read a story where they can barely see the photos is also not what I want.

    This one with an expert showing a student where they can find more information while in the field doing research is a better use that both of the others. http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennstatelive/5815275683/

    or even better 3 students having a conversation working on a project together. It is not about the technology. It is about learning. http://www.flickr.com/photos/56155476@N08/6660073135/in/photostream/

    I think the issue of primary, intermediate, secondary is a red herring in terms of technology use. We would think it criminal to not teach a student to read until grade 4. Reading is a skill that is integral to learning for their entire life. If we say that primary don't do technology, I would argue that is just as criminal. Students need to be learners and literate citizens for today. iPads are a tool, just like plasticene, just like video cameras, just like paper and pencil that can be used for reading, writing, creating and communicating. No one is used at the exclusion of others.

    The IRPs were changed years ago now to recognize that reading and writing were to include digital or media.

    Saying all of that, my personal belief is using the right tool at the right time. If students don't have access to tools, they can't be empowered to make those choices, instead the teacher stays as the one in charge of their learning.

    We also don't need to accept research of others on related topics and try to draw connections to our work. In Surrey, we are doing more than 70 inquiry based projects investigating teaching and learning with technology. These are teacher directed projects shaped around their inquiry questions. Feedback from K - 12 has been impressive with positive impacts on teachers, students, and student learning.


    1. Hi Kevin,

      Yes - we do ask how many worksheets are appropriate, as we should! And being read to as a group should not disappear...it should simply be done in small enough classes that seeing the book is not an issue.

      As to early reading, some Montessori advocates think we teach reading much too early, and there is certainly a debate over early learning. Finland begins school at age 7. Here we are trending towards earlier and earlier starting ages. At competitive private schools it is even worse - reading begins at age 3. All of this earlier seems to be driven by some notion that kids need to get further faster. They don't. Childhood should be enjoyed.

      The question I pose is not whether or not technology can be helpful in teaching (I agree that it can in some circumstances, and that is a pedagogical question), but rather whether those benefits have to be weighed against other considerations, such as health. The evidence from other fields suggest there are considerable health implications including sedentary behaviour and attention disorders.

      However, even from a learning perspective, there is plenty of evidence that the instant feedback and the hyper engagement of many technologies impacts the degree to which students are able to focus and concentrate. Not all learning is "fun" and not all education should be "edutainment".

      I am not arguing for zero technology in schools, but right now the ed-tech movement wants us to embrace all the technology without considering either the health or pedagogical questions. That is just wrong.

  4. I heard about a story, where a school district provided their entire staff with new IPADS because the staff are falling behind the kids in their knowledge of technology. So now we are sending our kids to school to teach the teachers.
    There needs to be some balance...like previously said, our world is changing so there needs to be some ability to keep up with our technological progress but we need to remember that there was no issues with the way that Learning and Teaching took place to begin with so the old saying "Don't fix whats not broken" applies to this.
    BALANCE is key...we see it for diets and for excercise and we should be seeing it for learning as well.