The Dualistic Nature of Technology in Schools

Wi-Fi-enabled school bus in Bath County. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

by James A. Bacon

In Bath County Google has wired school buses, turning them into “rolling study halls for students with long commutes and sometimes patchy or nonexistent Wi-Fi at home,” reports the Wall Street Journal. The pilot program, being funded in 15 school districts in 13 states, will last at least through the end of the school year.

Clearly, technology can do wonderful things to help children learn. Accessing the Internet can open up a world of knowledge. Students can watch taped lectures outside classroom so teachers can use their face time applying and discussing the content. Technology can enable personalized learning, adapted to children’s individual learning styles and pace of learning. Distance learning can deliver specialized courses, such as Latin or Japanese, to rural school districts where the courses would otherwise be unavailable. 

Responding to this siren call, many Virginia school districts have invested heavily in providing laptops and computers to their students. More recently, Virginia became the first state in the country to mandate the teaching of computer science and coding. Standards of Learning for Computer Science, finalized in 2017, will be taught starting in the 2019-20 academic year.

It would seem to be common sense to teach computer literacy in an increasingly wired world. But skepticism is growing in many quarters about the benefits of computers and digital technology. “Schools Pushed for Tech in Every Classroom. Now Parents are Pushing Back,” runs the headline of a recent Wall Street Journal article. In effect, many parents are asking, “Where’s the beef?” Show us the evidence that digital technology improves academic results.

For all the indisputable benefits that technology offers, there may be a downside. Computers, some argue, affect how the brains of young children are wired. Digital devices undermine children’s ability to focus and concentrate, perhaps contributing to the rise in attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity. Social media contribute to social isolation and create new platforms for bullying. 

Writes the WSJ:

“Put screens in front of children and they aren’t thinking ‘I can’t wait to do research,’ they’re thinking, ‘Let’s play Candy Crush,’” says Melanie Hempe, a Charlotte, N.C., mother and author of a book for parents who want to limit computer use called “Screen Strong.”

Meaghan Edwards, an Austin-area mother, volunteered to read to her son’s third-grade class last year. After 15 minutes, she says the teacher announced: “It’s free time, you can pull out your iPads until lunch,” she recalls. Ms. Edwards watched while her child played a math game on his school-issued iPad. This year, she’s going to home-school her two sons to avoid the iPads.

Bacon’s bottom line: Almost every advance in technology throughout human history has had an upside and a downside. Splitting the atom created nuclear power… and nuclear weapons. The Internet created communities of interest in which people collaborated for the common good…. and dark corners where racists, jihadists and anyone else who was angry at the world could connect and feed their demons. The dualistic nature of technology likely applies to learning as well.

Technology can be extremely beneficial in ways that are immediately obvious, such as creating rolling study halls for bus-confined Bath County pupils. But it also can be deleterious if it creates a nation of kids with attention deficit disorder and poor impulse control. Unfortunately, negative effects will take time to manifest themselves, and even longer before the relationships between technology, brain development, and behavior are clear enough to develop a consensus about what is happening.

By all means, Virginia should forge ahead integrating technology into the classroom. But we need to do so with eyes wide open, sensitive to potential downsides, and we must continually monitor the results. The General Assembly, in all its wisdom, mandated the teaching of computer skills statewide. Following the law, the Virginia Department of Education is saying, in effect, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

I prefer an evolutionary approach based upon decentralized experimentation, tinkering, feedback, adjustment, and accumulated wisdom. I’m always fearful when the social engineers are in charge. In my observation, top-down mandates rarely deliver the results we hope for.

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8 responses to “The Dualistic Nature of Technology in Schools

  1. 1. I am not sure why the students in Bath County couldn’t take out their textbooks and study during long bus rides.

    2. Whatever happened to the teary eyed calls for rural broadband? How can these buses in Bath County stay connected to the internet at speeds adequate for study while driving along the bucolic highways and byways of Bath County? I thought the lack of high bandwidth connections in rural Virginia precluded such activities.

    3. Computers are not the same thing as the internet and the internet is not the same thing as social media. Give the kids a locked down computer and restricted internet connection? Fine. Let high schoolers browse porn sites from the school bus? Not fine. This really isn’t all that hard and commingling things doesn’t help.

    4. “Ms. Edwards watched while her child played a math game on his school-issued iPad. This year, she’s going to home-school her two sons to avoid the iPads.” I give up … what possibly could be wrong with playing math games on iPads?

  2. We’ve opened Pandora’s Box. Now our society is coming apart, rich, poor and in between, very smart and not so much at all, we are all coming apart. How do we fall and where? In how many parts, in a disassembled heap, chaotic?

  3. The never-ending laments of luddites as far as I am concerned.

    Whether you are a sailor on a ship or a police officer in a car or a nurse at a hospital or a real estate agent – you use computers and the internet.
    And, oh by the way so do thiefs and robbers and child predators.

    The bad guys also use cars, cell phones, GPS, drones, in fact, the full array of available technology.

    It’s the world we all live in – now – it’s up to us to decide how to use it and just saying “no” would be not unlike some folks who say the modern car is evil incarnate and they won’t use them – they use horse-drawn buggies.

    To each his own – if you want to teach your kid that technology is evil – go for it, some day, they WON’T thank you!

  4. Do you at least understand, Larry, that a child who has been given a calculator in early elementary, and has never done a page of homework or a problem set without it, might not actually grasp math? Even the basic functions? Might not be able to fathom even the basic daily computations? I guess your expectation is doing it in the brain with no device is a useless skill……the cash register will make the change for them. No point in worrying about being ripped off….

    • Yes, I agree. Plus too much time on these devices rewires kid’s brains, their instincts, their emotions, and their abilities to cope with real world. To much time on these devices destroys kids abilities to relate, cope, appreciate and deal with other kids in real world. Kids living in virtual worlds become helpless, emotional cripples. We see the damage and horrible results increasingly around us now, the horrors on daily news. It’s spreading rapidly and pervasively.

      • Thus high tech digital screens for urban kids are morphing kids into modern day versions of tobacco addicts along with their rural cousins becoming vaping and opioid addicts, many to become emotionally crippled as adults. And the rest are hooked on cannabis. What a civilization!

  5. Electronics exposure aside, I wonder how many of those computers on the bus are being used for homework, as opposed to Facebook, Snapchat or other forms of digital porn? Plus DJR’s question deserves an answer: “How can these buses in Bath County stay connected to the internet at speeds adequate for study while driving along the bucolic highways and byways of Bath County?” Because if the network is robust enough to support those buses, it should also support a very large fraction of the same students while studying in their homes.

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