Opinion | Screens are everywhere in schools. Do they actually help children learn?

A few weeks ago, a parent who lives in Texas asked me how often my children use screens to do schoolwork in their classrooms. She didn’t talk about personal devices. (Smartwatches and smartphones are banned in my children’s schools during the school day, which I’m very happy about; I find any argument for allowing these devices in the classroom ridiculous.) No, this parent was talking about screens in school are sanctioned, such as: B. iPads and Chromebooks, which are provided individually to children for educational activities.

I’m embarrassed to say that I couldn’t answer your question because I never asked it or even thought about asking it. Partly because the Covid-19 era made screens inevitable in an instant—as one education and technology executive told my colleague Natasha Singer in 2021, “the pandemic accelerated the adoption of technology in education by easily five to five ten years.” When my older daughter started using a Chromebook to do second and third grade assignments in the early Covid years, I was mostly just relieved that she had great teachers and seemed to be learning what they know had to. When she was in fifth grade and the world was mostly back to normal, I knew she took her laptop to school for homework, but I never asked for details about how the devices were used. I trusted her teachers and her school implicitly.

Educational technology is often talked about in New York State as a justice problem – and for good reason: At home, less privileged children may not have access to personal devices and high-speed internet to complete digital tasks. But in our learning-to-code society, where computer skills are seen as a meal ticket and humanities as a ticket to unemployment, there seems to be less discussion about whether this is the case Lots of screens in our children’s daily educational environment, going beyond the courses specifically focused on technology. I have rarely heard details about how these screens contribute to our children’s reading, writing, math, science or history skills.

And screens are literally everywhere. For example, according to 2022 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about 8 percent of eighth graders in public schools said their math teachers “never or hardly ever” used computers or digital devices to teach math, while 37 percent said their math teachers “Never or hardly ever” used computers or digital devices to teach math, used the technology half or more than half of the time, and 44 percent said their math teachers used the technology all or most of the time.

As is often the case with rapid change, “the speed at which new technologies and intervention models come to market far exceeds the ability of policy researchers to keep up with their assessment,” says a stunningly thorough study review the research on educational technology by Maya Escueta, Andre Joshua Nickow, Philip Oreopoulos and Vincent Quan published in the Journal of Economic Literature in 2020.

Despite the relative lack of research, particularly on the use of technology in education, Escueta and her co-authors have “compiled a comprehensive list of all publicly available studies of technology-based educational interventions that report results from studies that follow one of two research designs.” randomized controlled trials or regression discontinuity designs.”

They found that increased access to devices did not always lead to positive academic outcomes. In some cases, this simply increased the amount of time children spent playing on devices. They wrote, “We have found that simply providing students with access to technology produces largely mixed results.” At the K-12 level, many experimental findings suggest that providing a child with a computer may have limited benefits impacts learning outcomes, but generally improves computer skills and other cognitive outcomes.”

Among the most promising research is computer-assisted learning, which the researchers defined as “computer programs and other software applications designed to improve academic skills.” They cited a random study from 2016 study of 2,850 seventh-grade math students in Maine who used an online homework tool. The authors of this study “found that the program improved math scores for treatment students by 0.18 standard deviations. This impact is particularly notable considering that treatment students used the program on average for less than 10 minutes per night, three to four nights per week,” said Escueta and her co-authors.

They also explained that computer programs can help teachers in the classroom to meet the needs of students of different levels, as “teachers, when confronted with the different abilities of students, often switch to teaching the core curriculum and the lessons on to tailor the middle school to the class.” They found that a good program can help provide individual attention and skill development to both the lower and upper classes of children. There are computer programs for reading comprehension which have shown similarly positive results in research. Anecdotal: My older daughter practices her Spanish using an app and handwrites Spanish vocabulary on index cards. The combination seems to work well for her.

Although their review was published in 2020, before the data on our large distance learning experiment was released, Escueta and her co-authors found that fully online distance learning did not work as well as hybrid or in-person learning. I called Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, who said that given previous studies “and what we understand about the long-term impact of the pandemic on learning, it underscores to me that there is.” There is a social dimension to learning that we ignore at our peril. And I think technology can often eliminate that.”

However, Dee summed up the whole topic of educational technology for me this way: “I don’t want to talk about it in black and white. I think there are really positive things that technology brings.” But he said it was “meaningful support on the sidelines, not fundamental changes in the way people learn.”

I would like to add that the implementation of a technology is also very important. Any teaching tool can be great or terrible depending on how it is used.

I am neither a technology evangelist nor a Luddite. (Though I haven’t even touched on the potential impact of teaching in the classroom with artificial intelligence, a technology that has so much destructive potential in other contexts.) What I want is the most effective educational experience for all children.

Because there are such large lags in data and a lack of granularity in the information we have, I want to hear from my readers: If you are a teacher or parent of a current K-12 student, I want to know how you and they use technology – the good and the bad. Please fill out the following questionnaire and let me know. I may contact you for another conversation.

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