Special Report

Student Tech Use at Home Is Tricky Balancing Act

By Michelle R. Davis — June 10, 2015 7 min read
Cameron Davis, 12, left, and Larenz Davis, 15, rely on their laptop, iPad, and iPhones to complete their homework assignments and collaborate with classmates. Their mother, LaToya C. Staten, checks her email in between helping and monitoring their progress.
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High school sophomore Larenz Davis is a fully wired student. He’s got his own iPad, an iPhone he’s permitted to use at school, and he shares a laptop with his younger brother at home.

He uses his devices for school assignments, to teach himself skills related to education and hobbies, and to connect with friends. In many ways, his technology use is typical of today’s digitally-oriented teenagers. And much like his connected peers, finding the right mix of educational and social uses for all those devices can be tricky for Mr. Davis, who attends Old Mill High School in the 79,500-student Anne Arundel County schools in Maryland.

“I’m trying to teach them time management and balance,” said LaToya C. Staten of her sons Larenz and middle schooler Cameron Davis. “It’s a struggle, but we’re working it out.”

Schools also find themselves in a difficult balancing act, considering the line between assigning projects and homework that require after-school Internet and tech access with the knowledge that students will likely run into technical glitches, some will master the technological skills needed for digital assignments faster than others, and other students will have limited access to good technological resources.

Mr. Davis’ school is pretty typical when it comes to technology. He uses some devices at school—classrooms have digital whiteboards, laptops on carts enter his classrooms a couple times a week, and he visits the computer lab occasionally. Some of his teachers are more comfortable than others using digital tools and resources. It is not a school that is pushing the envelope in the digital-education world, but like many schools, has incorporated some technology into the day.

Socializing or Learning?

On a recent afternoon, following his daily after-school nap, Mr. Davis sits at the dining room table in his mother’s townhouse using paper and pencil to prepare for his upcoming Advanced Placement Government exam. He stops to use his iPhone to check for homework posted online. On his iPhone, Mr. Davis opens his digital education folder to show off his apps: He’s got a Spanish/English dictionary, a homework app that reminds him of assignments and sends him alerts, an Edmodo app for checking school assignments from his chemistry teacher, and he’s bookmarked the website displaying his grades.

Between bites of the two turkey and cheese sandwiches that are his afternoon snack, he says he mostly uses his iPhone for schoolwork when technology is needed, occasionally using the iPad or the laptop to write papers. But under pressure from his mother, he admits that the phone, and the social community it represents, can also be a distraction.

Audio Slideshow: Teens, Tech, and Homework Habits

“Half the time he’s not focused, and I have to force him to get off the phone,” said Ms. Staten, a single mother who works on cybersecurity issues for the state of Maryland. She has given up the home phone in favor of family iPhones, and she organizes the family schedule using color-coded entries on her Google calendar. But she also imposes a technology embargo at dinner time.

For today’s students, it isn’t always clear where online socialization and distractions end and education begins, said Karen Cator, the president and chief executive officer of Digital Promise, a Washington-based nonprofit working to accelerate innovation in education. “There’s a new blurring of the lines between formal and informal learning,” she said.

Mr. Davis pushes back a bit on his mother’s concerns about digitally-driven social time, arguing that such time can also generate a network of academic support. He mentions a group-text-message thread on his phone he calls “the survivor group chat,” akin to an electronic study group. Though it’s partially social, “they’ve saved my grades a few times, telling me about things I didn’t know were due.” He also uses the iPhone FaceTime option with friends, particularly for math so they can see his work and point out where he may have gone wrong.

Students are using technology in ways that, on the surface, may seem to some adults like it is not focused on learning, said Julie Evans, the chief executive officer of the Irvine, Calif.-based Project Tomorrow, which conducts an annual survey of students and educators around technology use. But she said today’s students place a high priority on using technology to collaborate, explore topics they’re interested in, and teach themselves new skills. “Increasingly, what we have seen is that despite the advances in the use of technology in school, students are still outpacing their schools in terms of their sophistication in using technology to pursue their interests,” Ms. Evans said.

Mr. Davis, for example, taught himself how to do stop-motion animation—a technique that makes it appear as if objects are moving of their own accord— on his own time using his iPad.

Cameron Davis, 12, works on a homework assignment on his iPhone while his mother, LaToya C. Staten, looks on at their Pasadena, Md., home.

But sometimes there’s a gap between the technology students are using at home and what goes on in school. Mr. Davis’ brother, Cameron, 12, for instance, was recently working on a homework assignment, researching stocks he likes—Nike and Sony—for math class. He was using his mother’s laptop for the research and PowerPoint to make slides on hypothetical investments. But he had to print the slides out on paper and glue them to a posterboard for his presentation.

Expecting ‘Educational Grit’

Just to the south of the Anne Arundel district, at Buck Lodge Middle School in the 127,500-student Prince George’s County, Md. district, the digital atmosphere is a bit different. Buck Lodge is in its fourth year of a 1-to-1 computing program using iPads, and it has digitized the vast majority of its curricula, including textbooks.

The school’s 1,100 students use iPads during the day and about 400 take the devices home at night, said Principal James T. Richardson. Students whose teachers are using a flipped-classroom model—in which students view videos or work through lessons independently at home and discuss them and do related projects in class—take their devices home in the evening.

Eighth grader Alexia Guevara says she has Wi-Fi and her own iPad at home and “gets really creative with it.” She rattles off a list of tasks she routinely does using her iPad: math homework and practice, creating presentation slides with Keynote, completing history assignments in Google Classroom, checking homework and grades, browsing the Internet to go deeper into topics she’s studying.

Student Use of Technology at Home

Students are using technology at home in a variety of ways to help explore new and difficult concepts, do their homework, and connect with teachers and their peers.


SOURCE: Project Tomorrow, 2015

“I like to go beyond the limits” of what’s assigned by teachers, Alexia said. “I don’t like to stay in one place.” The iPad is her vehicle for traveling beyond those boundaries, she said.

Much of her schoolwork can be done in class, Alexia said, but not all. She realizes having an iPad and Internet access at home makes it significantly easier to excel.

“I have a classmate who doesn’t have an iPad or Internet at home and I feel bad because he comes to school with incomplete work,” she said. “It makes it hard for him to learn.”

Schools that place a heavy emphasis on digital learning do need to think hard about what that means for students outside of school, Mr. Richardson conceded. But, in the same breath, he said that shouldn’t stop schools from holding students to high standards and requiring commitments to excellence, even if that means expecting them to master the use of technology.

At the beginning of the school year, Mr. Richardson polled students to find out who didn’t have devices at home or Internet access in order to make teachers aware of the gaps. He instructs them to take that into account when crafting assignments and projects. However, part of what he wants to teach students is to be more resilient problem solvers. “We’re not accepting the excuse of, ‘Oh, my Internet was not working so I can’t do my homework, or my device broke,’ ” he said. “They have to find multiple ways to get assignments done.”

Ms. Staten troubleshoots a wireless Internet connection so her boys can start doing their homework.

That could mean staying after school or getting there early. Also, the school is located in a distinctly urban area, where free Wi-Fi can be found at restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, community centers, and friends’ homes. And despite the fact that 95 percent of students at his school qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, nearly every family has a smartphone, which can be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot, he said.

“These are poor kids, and I’m not being insensitive to that,” he said, “but we want them to learn that educational grit students need to solve problems and get things done.”

Coverage of more and better learning time is supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation at www.fordfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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