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Gambling on technology in the classroom

Dallas Dance's $205 million plan to distribute tablet/laptops to all Baltimore County school children is an ill-conceived idea more likely to produce digital drones than smart problem-solvers ready to compete in the global economy.

Mr. Dance is a big thinker, but his Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT) plan is a dangerous gamble with our children's future. Here's why:

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First, it's tempting to think of technology as a silver bullet for America's education problems. A "fully digital learning environment" sounds forward thinking, but the evidence shows it can do more harm than good.

In September, the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a report on technology and education in 65 countries. It found that students (including the economically disadvantaged) "who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes." Some of the highest performing schools like those in Korea and Shanghai had low rates of digital access. Lead author Andreas Schleicher bluntly told The Washington Post, "We're at a point where computers are actually hurting learning." And, in a 2010 study involving North Carolina public school students, two Duke University researchers concluded that, "students who gain access to a home computer between 5th and 8th grade tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math test scores."

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No doubt Mr. Dance can point to a few positive studies, but BCPS is also promoting and relying on the dubious "2015 Speak Up Survey." The online survey is underwritten by tech and education companies like Blackboard, Qualcomm and Rosetta Stone, which have clear profit motives. No surprise: The survey is blatantly biased toward answers that endorse expanded technology.

There's an old tech bromide that applies here: GIGO — garbage in, garbage out.

Second, kids already spend enough time on digital devices. Children 8 to18 stare at screens for seven-plus hours per day, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report. It's likely increased since then, and it's not good for them. "Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. We just don't need more screen-addled kids.

Third, consider the opportunity cost. There are smarter ways to spend $205 million, like directing it to smaller class sizes, air conditioning for the 48 schools that lack it, better teacher training and salaries, or maintenance for aging schools — as well as upgraded technology.

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Fourth, the rush to digital during the Common Core curriculum adaptations will create further classroom chaos. Here's what I and other parents saw last month during American Education Week: Teachers told classes to go online and play math games. After wasting time logging on, navigating to the site and launching the game, many only completed a few math problems during class. They could have accomplished more with pencil and paper. I've heard from other parents horrified by the time wasted by clunky software. Let teachers teach.

Fifth, tech companies see schools as an emerging market. Mr. Dance is making a name for himself as a "visionary leader" with his digital ambitions. His BCPS bio lists honors from organizations like Digital Promise (funded by Apple, Microsoft and HP, among others). He also touts his membership on the board of the International Society for Technology in Education (sponsored by Microsoft and Samsung). Thanks in large part to the technology-educational complex, his career is zooming to the stratosphere — but whether he's taking our children with him or submitting them to a failed experiment remains to be seen.

Mr. Dance's emphasis on digital immersion misses the point. We all want our children to succeed at home and in the global marketplace, but digital devices alone aren't going to get us there. While online learning can be effective for adults working on advanced degrees, our kids just don't need more hours locked to a screen.

If we want to make our children competitive, the best advantage we can give them is the ability to concentrate and to become deep-thinking problem-solvers. We need children steeped in experiential learning, Socratic dialogue, group discussion, essay writing, reading (yes, of books!), artistic endeavors, inspiring lectures and other effective teaching methods.

We need to help them develop the patience, knowledge and out-of-the-box creativity that are essential for tackling the Digital Age's complex challenges. And we need schools that utilize technology as part of the curriculum — not its focus.

Brian Simpson is an editor and has two children in Baltimore County schools. His email is briansimpson99@gmail.com.

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