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Opinion | Screens Are Everywhere in Schools. Do They Actually Help Kids Learn?

A few weeks ago, a parent who lives in Texas asked me how much my kids were using screens to do schoolwork in their classrooms. She wasn’t talking about personal devices. (Smartwatches and smartphones are banned in my children’s schools during the school day, which I’m very happy about; I find any argument for allowing these devices in the classroom to be risible.) No, this parent was talking about screens that are school sanctioned, like iPads and Chromebooks issued to children individually for educational activities.

I’m embarrassed to say that I couldn’t answer her question because I had never asked or even thought about asking. Partly because the Covid-19 era made screens imperative in an instant — as one ed-tech executive told my colleague Natasha Singer in 2021, the pandemic “sped the adoption of technology in education by easily five to 10 years.” In the early Covid years, when my older daughter started using a Chromebook to do assignments for second and third grade, I was mostly just relieved that she had great teachers and seemed to be learning what she needed to know. By the time she was in fifth grade and the world was mostly back to normal, I knew she took her laptop to school for in-class assignments, but I never asked for specifics about how devices were being used. I trusted her teachers and her school implicitly.

In New York State, ed tech is often discussed as an equity problem — with good reason: At home, less privileged children might not have access to personal devices and high-speed internet that would allow them to complete digital assignments. But in our learn-to-code society, in which computer skills are seen as a meal ticket and the humanities as a ticket to the unemployment line, there seems to be less chatter about whether there are too many screens in our kids’ day-to-day educational environment beyond the classes that are specifically tech focused. I rarely heard details about what these screens are adding to our children’s literacy, math, science or history skills.

And screens truly are everywhere. For example, according to 2022 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about 8 percent of eighth graders in public schools said their math teachers “never or hardly ever” used computers or digital devices to teach math, 37 percent said their math teachers used this technology half or more than half the time, and 44 percent said their math teachers used this technology all or most of the time.

As is often the case with rapid change, “the speed at which new technologies and intervention models are reaching the market has far outpaced the ability of policy researchers to keep up with evaluating them,” according to a dazzlingly thorough review of the research on education technology by Maya Escueta, Andre Joshua Nickow, Philip Oreopoulos and Vincent Quan published in The Journal of Economic Literature in 2020.

Despite the relative paucity of research, particularly on in-class use of tech, Escueta and her co-authors put together “a comprehensive list of all publicly available studies on technology-based education interventions that report findings from studies following either of two research designs, randomized controlled trials or regression discontinuity designs.”

They found that increasing access to devices didn’t always lead to positive academic outcomes. In a couple of cases, it just increased the amount of time kids were spending on devices playing games. They wrote, “We found that simply providing students with access to technology yields largely mixed results. At the K-12 level, much of the experimental evidence suggests that giving a child a computer may have limited impacts on learning outcomes but generally improves computer proficiency and other cognitive outcomes.”

Some of the most promising research is around computer-assisted learning, which the researchers defined as “computer programs and other software applications designed to improve academic skills.” They cited a 2016 randomized study of 2,850 seventh-grade math students in Maine who used an online homework tool. The authors of that study “found that the program improved math scores for treatment students by 0.18 standard deviations. This impact is particularly noteworthy, given that treatment students used the program, on average, for less than 10 minutes per night, three to four nights per week,” according to Escueta and her co-authors.

They also explained that in the classroom, computer programs may help teachers meet the needs of students who are at different levels, since “when confronted with a wide range of student ability, teachers often end up teaching the core curriculum and tailoring instruction to the middle of the class.” A good program, they found, could help provide individual attention and skill building for kids at the bottom and the top, as well. There are computer programs for reading comprehension that have shown similar positive results in the research. Anecdotally: My older daughter practices her Spanish language skills using an app, and she hand-writes Spanish vocabulary words on index cards. The combination seems to be working well for her.

Though their review was published in 2020, before the data was out on our grand remote-learning experiment, Escueta and her co-authors found that fully online remote learning did not work as well as hybrid or in-person school. I called Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, who said that in light of earlier studies “and what we’re coming to understand about the long-lived effects of the pandemic on learning, it underscores for me that there’s a social dimension to learning that we ignore at our peril. And I think technology can often strip that away.”

Still, Dee summarized the entire topic of ed tech to me this way: “I don’t want to be black and white about this. I think there are really positive things coming from technology.” But he said that they are “meaningful supports on the margins, not fundamental changes in the modality of how people learn.”

I’d add that the implementation of any technology also matters a great deal; any educational tool can be great or awful, depending on how it’s used.

I’m neither a tech evangelist nor a Luddite. (Though I haven’t even touched on the potential implications of classroom teaching with artificial intelligence, a technology that, in other contexts, has so much destructive potential.) What I do want is the most effective educational experience for all kids.

Because there’s such a lag in the data and a lack of granularity to the information we do have, I want to hear from my readers: If you’re a teacher or a parent of a current K-12 student, I want to know how you and they are using technology — the good and the bad. Please complete the questionnaire below and let me know. I may reach out to you for further conversation.

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