Tech Companies Are Buying Their Own Education Research. That's a Problem
A teacher's take on screentime addiction, 1:1 technology, and other ed-tech dilemmas
Last month, a pair of Apple shareholders demanded in an open letter that the company address growing concerns about children's addiction to their products. In light of research on the detrimental effects of electronic-media use, investment firm JANA Partners and the California State Teachers' Retirement System argued, parents need better resources to make sure children are using devices "in an optimal manner." While Apple defended its parental controls and protections for children, the letter was proof that more people are starting to realize what many in the scientific community have been saying for years: Overuse of screen-based technology is bad for children's health.
Modern technology is powerfully addictive, especially for the young, developing mind. With teenagers ages 13-18 averaging almost nine hours of entertainment media use a day—that doesn't include homework or other media use in school—it's no wonder many parents are starting to notice. (Even two of technology's most prominent creators, Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs, famously admitted in interviews that they limited their own children's screen use.) Psychologists and neuroscientists have shown correlations (and in many cases, causation) between overusing technology and lower grades, trouble sleeping, inability to focus, poor self image, and depression and anxiety. Some research even shows a decrease in gray matter—the brain tissue responsible for sensory perception, memory, emotion, and self-control—in a technology addict's cerebral cortex.
Many of technology's classroom advantages are logistical: access to resources, portability, and more avenues for communication and information. But the bigger question schools should be asking: Does it actually help kids learn?
Principals and superintendents across the country continue to increase screen time in the classroom, in part because of pressure to do so at the national level. As a teacher, I know that my colleagues' "professional development" literature is filled with topics on how to incorporate Twitter in the classroom, how to teach with Minecraft, and how to use Google's suite of programs.
Skeptical teachers like myself, who question the notion of adding more screen time to a child's day, have been labeled "resisters." I once asked a pro-tech presenter about technology's harmful effects on growing brains, quickly rattling off some of the supporting research from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and the London School of Economics. "The evidence by Project RED refutes all your claims," she replied.
Project RED (short for Revolutionizing Education) is the research arm of the K-12 technology implementation nonprofit One-to-One Institute. It claims to be the most influential research institute behind the fast-growing 1:1 student-computer movement taking over education. In a 2010 study to identify what makes some K-12 technology implementations more successful than others, Project RED surveyed almost 1,000 schools nationwide and found that "successful" schools shared the following characteristics:
• Technology is integrated into every class period;
• Students use technology daily for online collaboration, such as games, simulations, and social media;
• The student-to-computer ratio is low; and
• Principals are trained to encourage teacher buy-in.
Yet, Project RED's findings—and the entire premise of 1:1—is built on unsubstantiated, often refuted, claims. The idea that technology initiatives improve student achievement is "specious," according to a 2012 review of dozens of 1:1 technology studies by Missouri State University researchers. The review specifically dismissed Project RED's research because it was "based on the self-reported perceptions of a self-selected sample of educators" and offered those perceptions of increased test scores as evidence for improved academic achievement.
What's more, Project RED proudly claims on its website that its work is funded by Intel (its founding sponsor), Hewlett-Packard, the Pearson Foundation, and SMART Technologies. In other words, the researchers who found that school systems need to purchase devices for all students—and that students need to be on screens every day in order to learn best—are paid by some of the biggest sellers of education technology. That makes their findings about as scientific as Big Tobacco's findings that cigarettes aren't addictive.
One of the key benefits of 1:1, according to its proponents, is that it allows for student-centered, or personalized, learning. The teacher takes a backseat and becomes a guide on the side while students explore at their own pace and choosing learning methods that best fit their unique learning styles. There's a fundamental problem with this approach: Children often confuse "best" with "ease." The unsubstantiated concept of "unique learning styles" has been referred to by many in the scientific community as the "learning styles myth" for at least the last decade. Not to mention, the decision-making power when using technology is essentially in the hands of those looking at the screen—the 6- to 18-year-olds.
It's troubling to think that large tech companies have become our country's most influential education policymakers. Overuse of anything, by its very definition, is not helpful. While many policymakers choose to ignore the well-documented claims that technology overuse is having a negative effect on the well-being of children, they are more than willing to invest billions of taxpayer dollars in the snake oil that is education technology—with no real evidence to its effectiveness for the learners basking in its glow.
Vol. 37, Issue 19, Pages 24-25Published in Print: February 7, 2018, as Schooling Students on Screentime