The drive to transition in K-12 school technology from isolated computer labs, with students learning at dedicated workstations, to one-to-one computing, with every student having their own device, took a big jump during the pandemic and seems to be continuing at breakneck speed.
According to a survey conducted by Education Week in 2020, when most schools were still shuttered due to the pandemic, “Just 59 percent of teachers in early May said they had at least one device for every student, up only two percentage points from February before U.S. schools began to close.” When the news outlet conducted the survey again a year later, it found, “90 percent of educators said there was at least one device for every middle and high schooler by March of 2021. An additional 84 percent said the same about elementary school students.”
Demands for more edtech in schools rose even higher after significant downturns in scores in the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) report heightened concerns about how to “address pandemic learning losses” that students may have suffered. As a result of all of this hollering about “learning loss” and increased demand for more technology in schools, projections show the edtech market is set to continue to soar well into the future with most of the demand coming from the United States.
I have worked in a one-to-one device district my entire teaching career, and I fear that what began as a novel and innovative idea is metamorphosing into a potentially dangerous practice. In a typical classroom, you can expect digital textbooks, paperless curricula, and digitized lessons, followed by a task to complete on a digital device that requires electronic submission. While I acknowledge this may not be a daily rhythm, this practice dominates the school day for students whenever devices are introduced into the classroom.
When school districts decide that the only pathway to innovative education is through more technology, these innovations often usurp important student learning goals; soak up precious instructional time; increase distraction; and impose upon teachers’ professional practice, rather than support it. Once technology has taken center stage in the classroom, it runs counter to educators’ philosophical mission and motivation to directly engage with children, which in my experience demoralizes teachers and leaves their professional desires unfulfilled.
The benefits of using technology in the classroom are far from definitive. “Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely,” according to a 2015 study conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “But students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics,” the OECD study found.
Among countries that invested heavily in computer technology for schools, the study highlighted, “The results also show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics, or science, [and] technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.”
An analysis conducted by McKinsey and Company in 2020 noted that the benefits of using classroom technologies are reliant on a multiplicity of factors, including which devices are used, the geographic location of the school, who is using the technology, how intensely that tech is being relied on, and the overall academic performance of the school.
Edtech was initially introduced as a tool that teachers could incorporate into their instruction in novel, creative ways, yet somehow, schools now depend on it for the entire school day and beyond. This can have negative consequences for student learning.
When uncharged iPads are a problem during a school year, big money is spent on portable chargers in the following year, rather than allowing students to understand that actions like forgetting to charge one’s device overnight can have consequences. When cell phones run rampant on campus, “pocket charts” can be found in each classroom for students to submit their personal cell phones upon entry to class, rather than teaching students that having a phone comes with responsibilities that require self-control and responsible use (lessons that arguably will serve them well throughout the course of their lives).
And what was once considered innovative, has now become mundane. In 2022, there is nothing impressive about digital submissions that were mindblowing in 2008. In the time it takes for a student to fill out the Google Form needed to walk out of the classroom door, they could have returned from their errand using analog methods built upon trust and established relationships.
Edtech was initially introduced as a tool that teachers could incorporate into their instruction in novel, creative ways, yet somehow, schools now depend on it for the entire school day and beyond.
What decision-makers also failed to consider when they made edtech ubiquitous was the time that these technologies soak up. Instructional time is being taken from students and given to devices. Instead of teaching responsible use and practice, each year, we double down on technological bad habits by purchasing more technology to run our existing technology, so our students do not go a day without their device, or sometimes multiple devices in hand, all under the guise of equity, opportunity, and promise.
One-to-one devices bring a slew of issues, demands, and interruptions into a lesson. Throughout the day, teachers find they have to deal with dead devices; students needing to move seats to sit by an outlet (but having to get creative about which outlet to choose because personal student relationships can be messy); no Internet connection; cracked screens; websites that are down; failure to hit submit on an assignment that is due; needing to go to the office for an external charger (but must fill out a digital Google form to leave the classroom first and again upon return); needing to go to the library for tech help (but must fill out a digital tech form first and wait to get called); students who cannot find the link; students who need help resetting their device; glitches; and other technological mishaps.
All of this takes time, time that could be better spent on building relationships or improving conceptual knowledge.
As I walk around the room serving out my improvisational role as an IT professional, I am also witnessing pinging, nudging, reminding, and notifying by the device to those attempting to get their work done. Regardless of whether the device is integral to the lesson plan, students often play games, watch YouTube, or email students in another class. Despite my pleas to put the device away or facedown, impulse in the minds and hands of even the most disciplined child often wins. The classroom has morphed into a distraction from real learning and the real purpose of education.
Research supports the notions I witness each day. An observational study of 263 middle, high school, and university students found that it took less than six minutes for an individual to become distracted. After each distraction, even if only for a moment, it takes time to refocus one’s mind back to the original task.
Further, edtech is creating programs that perpetuate deficit narratives around teachers, teaching, and classrooms. In other words, edtech is promising to “fix” education implying that the educators on their own are not good enough, and technology is the only thing that can save the state of our schools. This comes at a time when teacher morale is at an all time low.
Yet, thus far edtech has only made empty promises. Referring back to the McKinsey and Company analysis, the opening line states, “The promise of technology in the classroom is great” yet the data presented within the article tells a different narrative. Are we going to build our education systems upon promises by people and companies with little or no intimate knowledge of the classroom?
As a teacher, I am still mourning a loss. The loss of what was: a classroom that belonged to me, not the invisible hand of the edtech market.