I’m one of the “digital immigrants” who came to the use of computers late in life, that is, as a New Jersey high school history teacher back in the digital “dark ages” of the 1980s. Perhaps you remember the Apple IIE? The first Apple Macintosh? Oregon Trail software? During these long-ago years, a fellow history teacher (Neale McGoldrick) and I collaborated on using “desk-top publishing” software to produce historical newspapers with our students and created an historical monograph on women's suffrage that was distributed to schools and libraries in the state (Reclaiming Lost Ground: The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage in New Jersey, New Jersey Historical Commission, 1993). We were enthusiastic about what educational technology was making possible in our classrooms.
Thus, when the federal government provided funding to teacher education institutions over a decade later, under the auspices of its Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology grant program, I signed up to explore the possibilities, what we call today the “affordances,” of teaching with technology for our master’s degree students in the Program in Social Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. In 2000, the USDOE provided $48 million for close to 100 grants “to address the challenge of developing technology proficient future educators,” according to archived materials at the PT3 website (http://www.ed.gov/teachtech/). This investment in moving technology into schools rapidly became only a drop in the bucket of what has been spent since 2000 in promoting educational technology by both public agencies and private vendors.
Lots of us got onboard the technology train, hoping to find some “value added” in using technology to teach our subject matter. To be sure, we have found quite a few benefits. For example, anyone who remembers hunting in libraries for primary sources, the ability today to construct a “document-based question” by using an online database from the Library of Congress or National Archives is nothing short of miraculous. The educational research accumulated in the CITE Journal (www.citejournal.org) is only a fraction of the work that has been done chronicling the impact of technology use on the teaching of school subject matter and on teacher education.
So, let’s be clear that neither I nor the authors of the book I want to call to your attention are Luddites. Nevertheless, claims such as the opening line in a USDOE “Dear Colleague” letter dated January 18, 2017 that asserts: “Technology can help transform learning when used with innovative instructional approaches” leaves a lot unsaid and more unsubstantiated. Even if one thinks that the use of educational technology might be a powerful lever for enacting student-centered, inquiry-oriented pedagogy (something that remains in short supply in many social studies classrooms), the promise of ed-tech in improving student learning is increasingly looking like a lot of hype. Moreover, we are coming to see that the cumulative effects of so much screen time on today’s youth may be jeopardizing the health and well-being of the “iGen” ”— that is, kids born after 1995— (Twenge, 2017), both inside and outside the classroom.
In a fascinating – and troubling – new book, Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber, Joe Clement and Matt Miles (Chicago Review Press, 2018) perform a public service in calling teachers’ and parents’ attention to the hype of the ed-tech industry (and, I would add, their cheerleaders in policy circles) and its promotion of ever more technology use in schools. Assembling extensive research on the effects of screen-time on young people’s brains and drawing upon their own insights from years of teaching, the book serves as an indictment of the notion that the best way to teach “digital natives” is to infuse more educational technology into schools.
Here are just a few examples of the alarming research they present:
- A study that found that children who have more than “one to two hours per day of screen time show a 50 percent increase in psychological disorders” (p. 149);
- A study showing that “a person’s ability to develop friendships is biologically diminished the more he or she replaces face-to-face human interaction with screen interaction” (p. 150);
- A study that showed that “the heavy use of screens causes young people to lose the ability to understand the emotions of other people” (p. 151);
- A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics that “found that people who spend more time playing video games have more attention problems” (p. 178);
- A study that showed that computer technology is associated with “statistically significant and persistently negative impacts on student math and reading test scores” (p. 184).
As teachers who have seen their students’ ability to interact with others, contribute to classroom discussion, and focus on learning, Clement and Miles call educators’ and parents’ attention to the Trojan Horse nature of what they refer to in their second-to-last chapter as the “education-industrial complex” (p. 187), along with its sly inducements such as the pitch for “personalization of learning”. The authors echo the concerns raised by writers such as Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who documents in her book that the “the iGen are “super-connected” but “less happy,” and the findings of researchers such as Kirschner and DeBryckere (2017), who title their recent piece in Teaching and Teacher Education, “The myths of the digital native and the multitasker”.
In the introduction to Screen Schooled, Clement and Miles start out by offering their “street cred” in authoring this book. As they write: “While we are teachers, we are neither curmudgeonly, angry, or anti-technology…. As far as our comfort with technology, I (Joe) was a UNIX system administrator before becoming a teacher. Matt was an IT major in college before a last-minute switch to education” (p. viii). Nevertheless, they’ve watched schooling change over the last couple of decades to the point where “teachers are encouraged to use laptops and iPads in every class. Instead of introducing education through educational software, teachers are now struggling to cram education into the technology.” They rightly ask: “Is this what is best for students?” “Should we do this? Ed tech-firms, with their large marketing budgets, have convinced parents and educators alike that their products are necessary for future student success” (p. ix). The book aims to question this assumption, and to argue instead that the push for technology use in schools is undermining not supporting the aims of high quality education.
Of course, what’s fueling the push to infuse technology into schools is the huge opportunity for making money. Whether it’s Amazon, Google, Microsoft or one of the hundreds of other lesser known companies seeking a share of this market, the opportunities are legion. The authors confirm their love for capitalism and profit, but return again and again to their basic message—that is, the negative impact of the seductive hype and aggressive promotion of ed-tech in schools. They write: “we need to think hard about profits earned by selling schools products that make it harder to learn” (p. 192). They insist that the lack of scientific evidence behind either the notion that the way students learn is changing or that learning via digital technology is superior to non-technology assisted ways (p. 193) needs to inform future decision-making about spending public dollars on education.
In 10 highly readable chapters, the authors take a sober look at “kids today” and the “myth of the technology-enhanced superkid”, the impact of social media in raising anxiety, the need for parental support in setting limits on technology, and the contribution of technology to the achievement gap. Throughout the book, the authors address the effects of technology on social-emotional functioning as well as cognition and intellectual development. Children, even toddlers, who spend hours staring at screens lose capacity for using the imagination or problem solving, which are key to critical thinking.
At the end of each chapter, the authors provide “takeaways” for parents, teachers, and students with practical suggestions for addressing the issues raised in each chapter. For example, at the end of the chapter entitled “The Education-Industrial Complex,” they cite the recommendation for a "screen fast" of Dr. Victoria Dunckley, whose book Reset Your Child’s Brain encourages a time-out from technology in order to let children “get their brains back on track” (p. 205). They advocate alliances with parent-teacher organizations to push for sensible policies regarding the use – and over-use – of ed-tech tools in classrooms. The authors cite lots of research along the way, such as the well-known contributions of Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age and Alone Together), who have been sounding alarms for years, but write in a way that knits together personal experience with this research to make a highly readable case for the need to bring a more critical perspective to the place of ed-tech in schools.
Finally, let’s be clear that powerful inducements exist for schools to jump onboard the technology train. The ed-tech industry has numerous inducements (free iPads, anyone?), which are especially attractive to school districts burdened with shrinking budgets. The marketing firepower of the ed-tech industry is masterful in creating a sense of “needs” in place of “wants” that, like all advertising, drive parental anxieties about getting that toddler into an Ivy League school down the road. In several places, the authors use phrases such as “tech addiction” to focus the reader’s attention on how ed-tech products are engineered to create dependencies. Thus, it’s no surprise at the end of the book that the authors compare the marketing by ed-tech companies to that of tobacco companies.
One can only hope that books such as Screen Schooled and efforts such as #Show the Evidence (https://www.the74million.org/article/showtheevidence-building-a-movement-around-research-impact-in-edtech/) will eventually result in raising many more hard questions about the impact of digital technology on today’s youth. The authors are on the right track in providing answers that rest on the accumulation of solid, scientific research and teachers’ own classroom experiences, rather than from the companies eager to sell these products to schools and parents. This effort won't derail the train, but it might slow it down so that it navigates the curves ahead more safely for all concerned.