Chromebooks and Kids

When my kids were little and had too much time on their hands – and knew that I was busy with work at home – they could come up with some creative ways to spend their time. My youngest daughter wrote a long essay entitled “Why I Need a Cat.” Where is she now?: Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature

My son wrote out a long list of grievances against my husband and me, and then created an official-looking contract for us to sign off on at the bottom. I don’t remember the details of the contract, but I’m sure it involved supplying him with his own snack drawer, dinners that involved chicken with no bones and probably something about how he needed to be an only child. Oh, and he always wanted an Easy Bake Oven so he could make his own brownies in his room. Where is he now?: working for a large software firm in Dallas

My middle daughter just wanted to have long conversations with me – or whoever would talk to her. And, if I ever got angry with her, she told me it was my fault “because I raised her that way.” Where is she now?: producer of an NPR show

Working from home is not easy. Your kids, for certain amounts of time, will have to be left to their own devices. I know I felt guilty about it, but you can only do so much. And, really, is it our job to make sure our kids are happy and occupied every minute of the day? No. In fact, kids really can be quite responsible, creative and resourceful without adults hovering over them every second of their lives (assuming that they are not being entertained by screens).

So, despite what ed-tech companies and their pricey PR firms would have you believe, your children really can learn without being plugged in to a computer. It’s helpful to remember this in the uncertain coronavirus quarantine time when pretty much everyone is learning remotely.

Technology is great. Technology is a tool. It can be used to greatly enhance learning. It can be used for those who need flexibility in their world due to illness, disability or even work issues.

Since the coronavirus quarantining, my inbox has been slammed with products touting the amazingness of digital learning. If you believe the PR hype, you can place your kids in front of a computer, plug them in and voila! – little geniuses!

While distance learning, online learning or digital learning or whatever you want to call it, has been forced upon us by the coronavirus pandemic, it doesn’t measure up to a real teacher in a real classroom.

Sure, it’s easy to see why a preschool teacher singing songs via Zoom with her tiny students is a poor excuse for the real thing, but it may not be as obvious on up the academic ladder. But what is lost with digital teaching, even in college classes? My grad assistant daughter, who is teaching her three classes remotely, misses the personal interaction with her students. The discussions lack energy.

Screens don’t motivate students. It’s kind of like visiting a replica of the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas rather than seeing the real thing in Paris. You miss the context, the nuance, the sensory experience that can’t be replicated.

What communities have noticed more than anything during the quarantine are the inequities, especially surrounding access to technology, in public schools. Students must have access to technology and know how to use it, but there’s another, equally important piece to consider: thoughtful vision and planning about how to best use that technology.

While it is certainly helpful for all students to have access to technology (citywide wifi would be nice), let’s not jump to assume that this techno delivery system is superior to students in a classroom with a teacher. If students are sitting in front of screens reading truncated pieces of literature or answering questions with no real-world or cultural context, then it is no better than a worksheet. I think parents, and I hope the community, can see how important their children’s teachers are and how important public schools are.

(sidebar – can we please put a stake in the heart of the vouchers, which are merely tax breaks for the wealthy that drain even more money from public education? Bad idea, Gov. Stitt, especially in this precarious financial time.)

My hope is that this national crisis will not be used to push forth an efficiency based model of schools, putting more students in front of screens, creating more inequality between those who can afford a real teacher and those who can’t. Saving money shouldn’t be on the backs of our most vulnerable children. Screen learning is a poor substitute for a professional teacher in a classroom, yet those who support business practices in the classroom will see it as an efficient and economical way to teach large numbers of students. While students in a wealthy suburban district might be using technology to enrich classroom learning — for example, making documentary films — a few miles away in a poor urban district, students might be sitting in overcrowded classrooms in front of a screen doing “outcomes”-based lessons stripped of creativity or critical thinking where a “teacher” is merely a trained classroom monitor.

David Deming, director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, wrote an interesting article about the economic disparity of online learning in the New York Times.

He writes, “…economics tells us that technology will make in-person education more valuable than ever.”

He goes on to say,

At the moment, teachers from kindergarten through graduate school are struggling to take their classes online, and the initial results are, understandably, spotty. But the longer this mass experiment continues, the more familiar remote learning will become. And, has been predicted for many years, online performances by superstars are increasingly likely to replace more pedestrian in-person lectures.

This can go only so far, because other important aspects of education are best done by teachers in more intimate settings. Educators will increasingly be tutors, mentors and role models, and economics also tells us that these features of a great education will not scale up.

Therefore, I worry not about the future of teachers but of students. I fear that on-campus learning will become an increasingly important quality differentiator, a luxury good that only students with means can afford.

While Deming’s article is about online college classes, his point is valid for public school in general. Public schools in high socio-economic areas will most likely return to classrooms where technology is used to enhance learning. The wealthier districts will have the in-person student/teacher experience, while students in low-income areas may return to more “blended” learning and more screen time.

Not only will on-campus learning become a luxury, but as has already been demonstrated in schools before the coronavirus hit, students who live in wealthier areas use technology differently – as a tool for personalized enhancement of learning — while those in high-poverty areas are subjected to more screen time and more experimental, one-size-fits-all programs created by edu-tech companies (with great PR companies) and supported by philanthropists.

A Chromebook and wifi alone will not educate a child.


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Categories: Editor’s Blog