Back to School: The Case for Limiting EdTech

What our experts have to say about EdTech in the age of COVID.

Back to school is normally a fun time full of excitement and anticipation, but this year it means something different. As schools across the nation scramble to find solutions for reopening, most plans inevitably involve education technology (EdTech). On August 11 and 13, our Action Network Live! webinars invited six experts to break down the corporate influence behind EdTech and to offer solutions for parents and educators to advocate for less of it. Our presenters included: Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy; Dr. Faith Boninger of the National Education Policy Center; Joe Clement, co- author of Screen Schooled and veteran teacher; researcher and Action Network advisor Dr. Criscillia Benford; writer and advocate Lisa Cline; and The Screentime Consultant Emily Cherkin.

If you missed our webinars, watch the recording for educators here and our recording for parents and caregivers here. Plus, we’ve captured the advice and inspiration from our webinars for you, below.

There is no replacement for a high quality educator. As many parents discovered while managing distance learning, teachers do so much more than teach. Lisa Cline joked, “As a parent during COVID, I’ve been promoted to principal, teacher, counselor, building maintenance, tech support…Congratulations on all of the promotions you’ve received as well!”

And now, with EdTech encroaching on our children’s schooling both during and after the pandemic, parents and educators have also been promoted to Chief Security Officers, sometimes without knowing it. As Dr. Faith Boninger encouraged, “Teachers and parents can work together to articulate and demand what we want from education. We can work to use EdTech tools very intentionally and as absolutely sparingly as carefully as possible.”

Where EdTech misses the mark

At first glance, EdTech can appear to be the solution. EdTech products are marketed as ways to “meet students where they are” and to support teachers by saving them time so they can work more closely with individual students. The pitch is compelling even outside of a pandemic, given that our schools are continuously underfunded and teaching staff are overworked. Now that students are learning at home, EdTech has been marketed as the solution to teach students without a teacher present.

The thing is, investing in EdTech has proved to be a problem more than a solution — that’s because these products are designed to replace teachers, not to actually support student learning. EdTech’s personalized learning offerings, for example, can only show whether a student gets an answer right or wrong, not whether a student actually has learned a concept. Dr. Boninger noted that because they are proprietary, outside folks only have a glimpse at how potentially manipulative they are. “We don’t know what the algorithms are. The teacher doesn’t know what the algorithms are doing. They can’t know.” 

“This technology is not interested in you [or the student], it’s interested in subject 24601,” Dr. Criscillia Benford told us. “It will try to seem as if it’s interested in you, but instead they are gathering data to optimize their product, not to care for humans.” 

MTA President Merrie Najimy also pointed out EdTech’s limitations when it comes to supporting students’ identities. “Only real teachers can elevate and affirm the multiple identities that children bring to our classroom,” Merrie said. “Technology doesn’t know how to do that. Computer algorithms can’t do that. A teacher knows what a child knows and how a child comes to that conclusion.”

So, as EdTech looks to replace the teacher, it is imperative both educators and parents consider what’s happening to their child’s learning process. Unlike caring teachers, algorithms do not know our children’s hearts, backgrounds, and needs.

Educators and families must come together for a solution

It can be easy to forget that remote learning doesn’t have to mean an online-only education for our students. “Remote learning simply means that you’re learning from a distance,” Merrie said. “Remote learning should be as hands on, arts-based, project-based as if it were in the classroom. Computers should just be the tool by which we stay connected and communicate.”

And that should be the case for all students and school. So many of the problems associated with EdTech are exacerbated in low-income communities of color. In fact, EdTech companies notoriously prey on low-income communities of color, where the financial incentives offered by EdTech are more persuasive. In turn, EdTech perpetuates a deep history of racism and oppression in our school systems. Community-oriented solutions like pods that work in privileged communities must also be extended to lift up the needs of all communities.

Veteran teacher Joe Clement expressed his frustration at the focus on screens as a solution to the educational problems caused by COVID-19. “There was never a discussion about anything other than computers. Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have said, ‘No schools!’ We would have figured it out. Communities would have become part of the solution. Instead, we automatically jumped on the screen as the solution,” he told us.

Use tech to produce, not consume

Advice for educators

Joe recommends that “using tech has to be about creation or observation that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get. And, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking tech or not, whatever we’re doing in class, it should be the best way to do it.” 

When teachers use tech as a tool for access and production, students are more likely to be engaged and inspired. Tech can be used to help children access science opportunities where access to the outdoors is difficult. Merrie’s kindergarten class, for example, used the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird cams to connect her students to otherwise inaccessible species. Printers, scanners, cameras, and arts programs offer new media with which students can explore a subject. Here, they produce; they are in control and can offer inspiring, new learning for children of all ages.

Advice for caregivers

Families have more options to opt out of inappropriate technology than they realize. Lisa advises doing a gut check; if the technology is not suiting your child, work with the school to find out what is. For example, she says, “Voice your concerns if you don’t want your child spending 4 hours on the computer without touching a book. Request paper resources if you think that might work better for your child.”

For many, screen-based learning can also appear to support families with child care and entertainment. However, trust that your child can be just as engaged with a screen-free project and work with your child’s educator to find ways to sustain your child’s attention with distance learning. Distance learning cannot be put entirely on the teacher nor the parent; teamwork is necessary.

Address the screen time dilemma

Part of the issue with many EdTech products (and many websites, games, and other computer-based programs!) is that they use persuasive design, which works to keep users on the programs longer than they need to be. Coupled with endless opportunities for “multi-tasking,” kids are being overloaded when their schooling keeps them on the computer for hours at a time.

Advice for educators

Any work that keeps students on a screen is likely to be challenged by other things that are open at the same time. “Every minute we’re asking a kid to be on a screen, it’s almost like 5 minutes because they are doing so many things. What they are training their brain to do is to go from one thing to another. That means no deep thoughts, no critical thinking,” said Joe. As educators think about how they will leverage EdTech in the fall, it’s critical to make sure that assignments require students to be offline to complete them. Project-based assignments, for example, can be described on an app, but offer students a chance to interview members of their family, create using hands-on tools, and write with pen and paper. Joe suggests, “Use it for targeted, intentional purposes. Then have them put the device away.” This will also help students to thrive at home because they won’t be “marinating” in video lessons and digital worksheets.

If you are using long periods of class online, build in breaks for movement and self-care for you and your students every 20 minutes when possible. If the day is structured, be sure to require recess, meal times, and to offer social opportunities via video platforms. This may require a little more planning (such as a prompt to encourage students to go outside or look out the window), but will be worth it for the balance it provides.

Advice for caregivers

Many parents are seeing multitasking come up as they witness their children’s distance learning as well. Emily said, “One of the issues- even before the pandemic- is that when things are online, the work is taking students hours and hours to complete assignments because they have 4 or 5 other programs open.” Emily reminded us of the importance of modelling tech use as parents, part of what she calls “living your life out loud.” Labelling these tendencies by saying, “Ugh, I didn’t do this as well as I would have liked because I had a movie playing in the background and I kept checking my Instagram account.” Being open and honest with one another will help decrease the screen arguments and normalize the struggle, which is real for so many of us!

In your home, create a break schedule that works for your children. Take two minutes every twenty minutes, for example, to stretch and stand up. Another helpful tool is to designate an area of a room that is “school,” where phones are switched off and school work is prioritized. Something as simple as a changeable poster on the wall that designates when it’s school time can be useful in a small space. Lisa suggests having screens be in a public space if possible to be sure that adults can have eyes on children and help them navigate any temptations like video games or social media.

Prioritize connection and recognize learning as more than school

With increasing pressures around attendance, assessment, and curriculum, educators and families are feeling the fire underneath their feet to have their students perform in a certain way — a way that has traditionally been driven by standardized tests. Dr. Benford noted that “there is a big difference between learning and doing school.” During the pandemic, children need a lot more space and grace to learn. Rushing academics- which are often put out of context during distance learning- can in fact encourage children just to “do school,” instead of stay curious and learn.

Advice for educators

Joe said, “If a kid knows that they are encouraged, supported, listened to, they are going to do better.  I’m gonna give up a week of content to try and make some connections with the kids. Kids who are connected are more likely to do their best on their own. Some people are worried about cheating. I’m not. Deeper and closer relationships will combat that.” 

It can be difficult to create a class community online, or in classes that are doing hybrid learning, or even classes that are IRL but six feet apart. Building in space for the uncertainty and the trauma that surrounds this pandemic could take up a whole semester of learning. Start small and construct your curriculum iteratively as much as you can.

Gamified EdTech products aim to make learning always fun, but much of learning involves the full range of human emotions, said Dr. Benford. Let your students know that it is okay to feel their feelings, and sometimes get frustrated with learning. And create a space to check in, especially with those who might need an additional 5 minutes 1:1 once a week.

Advice for caregivers

Some families are concerned that children are falling behind during the pandemic, but the path of learning is currently defined by standardized tests and EdTech, not by our children. The pandemic is an opportunity for us to let children take the lead.

“Everything is educational, especially off the screen,” said Emily Cherkin. “There are all these problems in the world as we go through day to day life. Ask your children about them. Work with them on the problems. It’s very low stakes, and it is deeply meaningful,” offered Lisa.

For all of us, perhaps this is an opportunity to push back on how school institutions and EdTech have defined learning. In addition to books and classroom activities, learning also happens when children do chores, tinker with tools, get angry, read before bed, make their own dinner, take care of their siblings… the list goes on! When parents recognize the value of everyday tasks for learning, it becomes a beautiful opportunity to see just how capable their children are and that they are going to be just fine.

Ask the questions

“If all schools had the luxury of a technology integration specialist, they would carefully vet each and every single vendor,” Merrie told us. “The schools would understand, read, and commit to that technology in terms of relinquishing rights to data. They would fully understand privacy and security agreements. They would specifically weed out of the ones that put our children at risk.” 

Unfortunately, that’s just not the case for many schools right now. In fact, sometimes it even falls upon our students to decipher many of these privacy policies as they are asked to accept terms and conditions upon setting up their accounts! ““I’m kind of blown away. These things are just put in the classroom without testing effectiveness,” Lisa said.“I don’t want to bubble wrap my child, but fair is fair. I feel like having a kindergartener click through terms and conditions is not fair.”

So, right now, we adults have to ask the questions. Educators and parents alike can ask for the agreements and privacy policies of the EdTech we’re using. The contracts should be transparent. Ask whether the apps sell children’s data to third parties. Ask who those third parties are and what they will do with the data. Get together and divide and conquer!

Dr. Boninger suggested also asking questions about how these products support teachers and parents:  Who is the curriculum being developed by? For whom? How is the teacher going to know what they are learning? How will they be assessed? Does the teacher see how they answer questions? Are there ways for parents to see and know this information?

“We can be advocates for your children in ways that don’t require a lot,” Emily encouraged. “Try it. Stand up.” Many times when educators and families start to ask questions, they can find a community in their curiosity and concern, especially around EdTech.

Stand up

“It’s going to take instistence and demands from educators and families for the government to do its job” said Merrie Najimy. Our presenters all had one common message- keep talking to each other, and then stand up. Ask questions. Ask what we all need as educators, parents, and caregivers. If you don’t ask for yourself, ask for your marginalized neighbors. Ask what our children need. Ask our children what they need and how we could build schools for them.

As Joe said, “This is our moment. This is the time when we have to make sure people see what’s going on.”

Action Network Live! is a project of CCFC’s Children’s Screen Time Action Network, and 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!