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How much screen time in a school is too much? Or is that the wrong question to ask?

Two friends of CultureFeed debate the issue at EdNext.

Tom Vander Ark believes the real question is not whether students are spending too much time in front of screens, but whether “students [are] engaged in powerful learning experiences and, whenever possible, given voice and choice in what, how, and when they learn? Digital technology can powerfully facilitate this process, if thoughtful adults deploy it wisely. Otherwise, it can be mind-numbing, or worse.”

Co-founder of and Learn Capital, Vander Ark argues that while “the performance of digital technology in the classroom proved disappointing early on . . .”, “ . . . the emerging generation of educational technology has the power to accelerate learning productivity in ways we can scarcely imagine. If we can ensure that students are connected to it through the help of teachers, a natural balance between online and offline experiences will develop.”

He does acknowledge that there must be some “appropriate limits.” “Technology,” he observes, “is an amplifier.” It can make good things better, or bad things worse. “The effective use of ed-tech requires thoughtful management and oversight by teachers and parents. Caring adults also need to help young people develop positive self-regulation habits.”

Daniel Scoggin, of the Great Hearts Academies, takes a very different perspective. Co-founder of a system of charter schools dedicated to teaching the classical liberal arts, Scoggin is skeptical of those educators who view “ed-tech as a ‘silver bullet’,” and therefore “indiscriminately toss it in front of today’s so-called digital natives, assuming that more gadgets equal more learning. The opposite may be true. According to a recent Education Week analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the shares of 4th- and 8th-grade students using computers for math instruction grew rapidly from 2009 to 2015. But the increased access has not led to ‘better’ use . . . Instead, rote activities such as math drills and practice now occur more frequently, and ‘the gap between active and passive use has grown over time.’”

“As we sober up from the tech-infused party of the past 20 years,” he continues, “we should think about what should come first in our schools: shaping not just our students’ ability to persevere and solve difficult problems but also their character—their empathic connection with others, their capacity to see our shared humanity, and their ability to problem solve with others for a common good. I believe this is the ultimate project of schooling in our democracy, and the misapplication of ed-tech will put it at risk. In a time of increasing political and economic polarization, we need conversation, empathy, and character woven into our public life.”

Parents are most worried about managing, overseeing, or the effects of technology, according to "The Culture of American Families" report from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Specifically, the study found that “parents believe media technologies’ effects on children are not good—manners, treatment of others, stilted imaginations, relaxed norms, virtual realities—but they are not sure if they can control it.” This is because “there is no inherited body of knowledge upon which they can draw. Although parents attempt to find ways to monitor and control these influences, the general feeling is one of defeat. Parents, importantly, seem resigned to these changes and somewhat hopeless in the face of them. The extensive reach of media technologies limits parental influence, and parents feel their ability to impose limits on media technologies is beyond their reach.”

As we consider the extraordinarily important issue of technology in the classroom, we must remember the use of technology in homes. In effect, children are now being exposed every day not only to the cultures of their family and their school (as well as others), but also to an all pervasive, largely unseen, technologically mediated third culture. The intersection of those cultures is one of the crucibles where the content of our children’s character is forged.

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