Tablets: Tools for learning or distracting toys?
Friday, June 03, 2016
Classrooms have come a long way since the days of pencils, paper and textbooks. Now many school districts are trading those tools in for new ones — the latest tablets and laptops, to be exact.
So what kind of impact is all this technology having on students, for better or for worse?
Proponents of these one-to-one device initiatives, as they're known, say the technology aids learning and helps tailor lessons to each child. The U.S. Department of Education says technology in classrooms helps build 21st-century skills, increases student engagement and motivation and accelerates learning.
Teacher Launa Hall saw some of these benefits when she distributed district-provided iPads to her third-grade students in northern Virginia last year. But she said the devices also brought some clear downsides.
In addition to technical glitches like bandwidth issues and password problems, Hall also found the devices were decreasing students' opportunities to learn social interaction, language abilities and other lessons such as sharing and waiting one's turn.
"Any introduction of tech needs to be done really judiciously with that idea of the whole child in mind," Hall said. "Are there educational benefits? Yes. Do they outweigh other ways to educate a child? No."
The American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines currently recommend no more than two hours of screen time per day for children and teens. It also recommends parents establish "screen-free" zones at home.
A 2012 report, "Facing the Screen Dilemma," found that too much screen time can be harmful to children, taking away from hands-on creative play as well as their interaction with caring adults.
For Hall's students, the iPads' reach extended beyond the school day, as the kids took their devices home each night.
"We were influencing the way their family communicates, what leisure time these children were choosing, introducing this piece of technology that has the stamp of the school district on it," she said.
The Auburn School Department in Maine has also acknowledged some of the downsides of tablets in classrooms. The district is switching back to laptops after a recent survey found that 88.5 percent of teachers and 74 percent of students preferred laptops for school instruction.
Some of the district's teachers had complained that students were off task when they were on their iPads, said Mike Muir, director of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, the state-funded program that provides devices to students.
"We had to keep reminding them kids were doing the same things on their laptops, but they didn't notice,” he said. "When you're playing on your iPad you're picking it up and doing things that don't look like you're reading or writing."
In 2013, Maine school districts could choose between iPads, MacBook Airs or HP laptops. About 65 percent of schools chose iPads at that time.
The state normally "refreshes" the devices after four years, but is doing so this year after three years, Muir said. As part of the refresh, districts have the option to switch to a different device if they feel better fits their needs, as was the case with Auburn.
Muir says the research is clear that a device alone does not improve learning or engage students — rather, it's how it's used.
"That's the same with a laptop, a desktop or a tablet," he said. "If teachers don't know how to use it to engage kids, it's on us to teach them how."
Still, Hall argues most of the lessons students did via iPads could have been done just as well or better in the real world — and be more engaging to students.
"When you're buying one for every single child, it's going to start overwhelming the environment," she said. "There are just so many great ways to learn and interact that have nothing to do with a screen, and the younger you are, the more important it is to touch and smell in the real world."
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