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12 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Pandemic School Experience 

By Jenifer Joy Madden

[Abridged version. Original article posted on Durable Human, August 20, 2020.] 

Last spring’s quick switch to online learning was largely deemed a failure. Luckily, much was learned from those early mistakes. Based on the hard won experience of boots-on-the ground parents and education experts, here are a dozen ways to do school better this time around: 

Get back to basics.

Besides the health of body and mind, keep an eye on digital well-being. Look for your school to be “tech intentional” — a term borrowed from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Use digital teaching tools only to enhance curiosity and love of learning.  

Accept school-issued devices.  

Lisa Cline — of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Council of PTAs Safe Technology Committee — says school systems use data protection on school-issued devices and set strong boundaries. She advises, “accept a school computer if one is offered.” When a child uses her own device, Cline adds, “there will be distractions. So, get the district’s device. Restrictions are built in.” 

One device at a time.  

Kids, like all of us, are distracted by cell phones. “Multi-tasking is a myth, especially for the developing brain,” says education researcher Criscillia Benford. “Kids will be on Zoom but… phones will be out. There will be 3, 5, or 20 other things they will be doing.” For that reason, collect non-essential devices before the school day. This also hones a 21st-century skill kids all need: focus.  

Take breaks.  

By moving regularly, kids avoid health problems associated with being sedentary. Optometrists also recommend practicing the 20-20-20 rule: for every 20 minutes on a screen, look away for at least 20 seconds at something at least 20 feet away. A whopping 94% of eyecare professionals worry about kids’ exposure to the blue light emitted by screens. For those reasons, Cline’s committee advocates for no more than 15 minutes per class and offline assignments and homework.  

Keep school “public.”  

“It’s best,” Cline says, “to set up in a public area of the house, like the kitchen table.” That way, you can view on-screen activities. Keeping screens out of the bedroom, also improves sleep quality. A tech-free bedroom can be a sanctuary where kids can relax, be alone with their thoughts, and mentally digest the day. 

Use a Google alternative.  

There are many search engines. In How To Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design, I recommend DuckDuckGo, which bypasses the companies that mine your data, as in Google searches. DuckDuckGo’s “Bang feature is also a time-saving research tool. Want information on beetles? Simply type “!W beetles” in the search box to be whisked to the “Beetles” page on Wikipedia.  

All tech is not created equal.  

Algorithm-driven, data-collecting digital learning platforms threaten to “extinguish the love of learning,” claims Benford. Gamification can also insidiously shift students from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation, training kids to perform only for a reward. Open-ended programs, on the other hand, can enhance critical thinking and better protect privacy. Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy touts Seesaw as a platform that doesn’t sell or rent student data.  

Ask for school privacy policies.  

So-called “personalized learning” claims to “meet your child where they live,” but has spurred protests by students who feel forced into stultifying patterns of computer-based learning. Such platforms can only operate by collecting student performance and other data. Where that data ends up is not clear. Najimy suggests asking questions about school-based digital devices or programs, such as how student data is collected, stored, and shared with third parties.  

Guard your child’s digital identity.  

When digital products collect data on students, they can become “personal profit centers” if the data is rented or sold, warns Faith Bonninger of the National Education Policy Center. If your child is just starting school, ask that your child not be given a Gmail address. If your child already has a unique student identifier, ask that non-essential data be scrubbed at the end of every school year.  

Speak up when you need to.  

Cline shares a story of a third-grader doing a science project. When he Googled keywords “save the land,” instead of learning about the environment, he was taken to images of the Ku Klux Klan. The parent insisted her school delete his search. “Parents and teachers can work together to demand the education kids need and use EdTech tools very intentionally, sparingly and carefully,” says Bonninger. 

Use the Screens in Schools Action Kit.  

The idea of approaching schools on tricky digital topics can seem daunting. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has a free Screens in Schools Action Kit full of petitions and questions parents can use to begin discussions with school decision-makers, politicians and, and “anyone else you believe needs to be educated on this issue.”  

Talk to your kids. 

Your kids need to know you’re there for them, no matter what. Don’t wait for them to tell you how they feel about online learning — ask. Benford suggests explaining the difference between teachers and algorithm-driven programs. Explain that a computer “is not interested in you. It can’t care about you. It will try to seem like it does, but it can’t.” 


About the Author

Jenifer Joy Madden is an adjunct professor of broadcast and digital media at Syracuse University, is a certified Digital Wellness instructor, and founder of DurableHuman.com.

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This blog series is produced by our Screens in Schools work group.

Screens in Schools is a work group of CCFC’s Children’s Screen Time Action Network, which brings together experts, parents, and caregivers to talk about critical issues around kids and technology. Learn more about joining the Network, or sign up for our email list to be notified about upcoming events at www.screentimenetwork.org