The post first appeared on Edutopia. However, they have a 1,000 word count, and I had a lot to say. If you would rather read the abridged version (978 words instead of the 1,700+ here), then check it out.
“Television rots your brain.” I remember hearing that frequently as a child. In a similar vein, video games turn your mind to mush and staring at a screen for too long potentially makes you a zombie. In 1999 – yes, over a decade ago – the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a report suggesting that children under two should NOT have any screen time – no television, no computers, no iPads, no smart phones – regardless of content. Since the release of that report, numerous studies, articles, and books have emerged to address this issue of screen time – from the 2012 report, Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young children, technology and early education, to Lisa Guernsey’s Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child.
Particularly when working with elementary teachers, I frequently hear concerns about bringing technology into the classroom. These educators worry that students already spend too much time with a screen at home and need to learn to play, create, explore and communicate in the physical world. They are not wrong. Students should learn to interact in a face-to-face setting. Children do need to experience the physical world and go outside. However, much like we cannot say that all television rots our brains, we need to look beyond saying that all screen time is bad for our students. In fact, even Lisa Guersney recommends “focusing on the three C’s: Content, Context, and the individual Child.” So, building off of her recommendations, I would ask these three questions when approaching the issue of screen time:
- Is it Appropriate?
- Is it Meaningful?
- Is it Empowering?
Jim Henson is my hero, and while I love all things involving Kermit’s clan, when contemplating the issue of screen time, I always come back to this iconic Grover sketch from Sesame Street.
In a pre-school setting, would showing this clip, rather than experiencing the concept of near and far in person, be appropriate? What about over and under or inside and out? Students do need to experience the physical world in order to make sense of what is around them. In this instance, projecting a YouTube video as the sole means for teaching the concept is certainly not be the most appropriate use of a screen.
However, what if students explored in the physical world through play or experimentation, watched Grover, and then created their own videos to demonstrate their understanding of these abstract concepts? What if they could design their own sets, create their own puppets, and then record their productions? What if they published these videos to a class website or blog to interact with a broader audience and extend the learning context beyond the classroom? While a screen may be involved in this activity, it would be enhancing the physical experience rather than replacing it. When the integration of technology is appropriate, it can also become meaningful.
Two summers ago, during an EdTechTeacher iPad workshop, one of our participants said that she knew her program had to change when she saw “iPad Time” included on the daily schedule. Though her teachers had found educational apps to reinforce math and reading concepts, the students used these tools to passively interact with content. Rather than constructing understanding, creating meaning, or demonstrating knowledge, the interaction consisted of students just tapping on a screen.
Lisa Guersney described a very different scenario after visiting a school in Zurich that had deployed over 600 iPads to elementary students.
The school has an unconventional take on the iPad’s purpose. The devices are not really valued as portable screens or mobile gaming devices. Teachers I talked to seemed uninterested, almost dismissive, of animations and gamelike apps. Instead, the tablets were intended to be used as video cameras, audio recorders, and multimedia notebooks of individual students’ creations. The teachers cared most about how the devices could capture moments that told stories about their students’ experiences in school. Instead of focusing on what was coming out of the iPad, they were focused on what was going into it. – The Smart Way to Use iPads in the Classroom, April 15, 2013
What “screen time” looks like can differ from person to person and within various contexts. As Suzy Brooks (@SimplySuzy), a 3rd grade teacher in a BYOD environment, points out:
90 minutes of Candy Crush is very different than 90 minutes of online research or writing. 90 minutes of watching MTV is very different from watching the History Channel for 90 minutes… Our screens can be valuable learning sources and can provide opportunities to reach out and become involved as citizens in the community.
Consider the image below created by a second grader at Trinity School in Atlanta on his first day of school. While a similar activity could have been undertaken with pen and paper, by incorporating a screen, the student not only had the opportunity to articulate his thoughts, but also become connected to a global audience when the teacher published his creation to her class Twitter account.
When students engage with technology in appropriate and meaningful ways, they can then become empowered as learners and creators.
As a middle school advisor, at each reporting period, I found myself in at least one parent conference discussing the need for their child to “speak up”, to “contribute more to class discussion”, to “participate.” Oftentimes, these were bright, well-prepared students who had wonderful insights but not the inclination to speak over the din of their peers. At the time, we did not have student devices in the classroom, so strategies ranged from set a goal to raise your hand one-time per class to write your thoughts down before class so that you feel better prepared. Some of my colleagues would even reach out to these students before class time to “warn” them of impending questions so that they had more time to prepare a response.
Last January, Shawn McCusker (@ShawnMcCusker) wrote Voices for Introverts: A 1:1 Success. By incorporating a backchannel through TodaysMeet, he gave all of his students a voice by incorporating their screens. Those students who felt more comfortable contributing to class discussion orally could do so, and those who preferred to see their thoughts in writing first suddenly became empowered to speak up.
“Today, if I were to lose the devices (iPads) that that my students have,” writes Shawn, “I would mourn the loss not of the technology but of the voices that my students have gained through having them.”
In a recent workshop, however, when teaching about using a backchannel in this manner, a participant raised an interesting question: what happens when a student has to speak up without the aid of being able to type a response? In other words, by allowing the screen time, are we enabling a student or empowering her? I posed this question to Ben Schersten (@benschersten), instructional technology specialist in Burlington, MA.
It’s not that introverts can’t speak up in a group. We can, it just isn’t our preferred method; it takes a lot of energy for us. Providing a backchannel creates a place where we can contribute in a thoughtful way that isn’t exhausting… The screen isn’t a crutch. It’s a way to make minor adaptations to make the interaction one that creates energy, rather than expends it.
Technology doesn’t empower only the introverts. Incorporating a device provides all students with an opportunity to make deeper connections with the content as well as their learning. In Using TodaysMeet During Literacy, Kristen Wideen shares how she empowers her students to connect, question, and infer as she reads to them. In a traditional setting, students would have to wait to share their comments until she finished reading, or risk “interrupting” or “disrupting” the class. However, as younger students, by the time they wait until the end of the story, the immediate connection could be lost. Through an appropriate and meaningful use of technology, she provides her students with a vehicle to think, collaborate, and construct their own meaning, turning a teacher-directed activity into a student empowered one.
Finding the Balance
Regardless of the amazing affordances of technology, we do have to be mindful of when it’s a good thing to unplug. Taking time away from the constant glare of a screen, as well as the pressure of always-on connectivity, can reduce stress, relieve eye strain, and support a healthier lifestyle. Perhaps, even more important, is the need to balance screen time with the learning experiences that students gain from the peers and adults around them.
My first classroom was a 50 foot sailboat with ActionQuest - an adventure program for teens. At the time, mobile technology did not exist. This summer, however, I noticed that I could follow the program via Facebook and Twitter, as well as the ship’s blogs. Curious about the impact of screen time on the program, I called Travis Yates, longtime friend and ActionQuest Director of Operations.
He explained that shipmates only have access to cell phones while on shore, and that many of them don’t even ask for them after the first few days. The program is mindful of the fact that teens may have their music, cameras, and books on mobile devices, and therefore encourages them to bring an mp3 player, a camera, or a paperback instead. The ship’s blogs are written each day, on paper, and then typed up by an instructor. In reading through these entries, I noticed there are no mentions of wanting for Facebook, email, or even calls home – though plenty of excitement about hamburgers, ice cream and real showers! It’s nice to know that some things don’t change.
“Innovation shouldn’t look like a tablet or a laptop. It should look like a learning environment where students—with teachers at their side— choose their learning targets and aim to hit them.” writes Grant Lichtman (@GrantLichtman) to begin his ISTE article, Learning and Leading With Technology. With the growing numbers of screens being introduced into classrooms, the challenge for teachers is to maintain a balance between the physical and virtual worlds as well as to ensure that screens are being used for innovation in appropriate, meaningful, and empowering ways.