xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Baltimore County schools must think outside the screen

Every sixth-grader at Ridgely Middle School was given a laptop this fall as part of a test group in Baltimore County. The children seem to approve of the technology, but the district believes middle-school teachers need more time to change their curriculum as the technology requires. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)

If Baltimore County Public Schools wants to know how to spend $272 million — the amount allotted to its student laptop program — it should ask its teachers.

I taught English in a BCPS high school until last spring. Even though the 1-to-1 laptop program had yet to reach my 10th graders, we were already experiencing the negative impact of its cost to the school system. The book budget was slashed; special education assistants were split across multiple classrooms during a single class period.

Advertisement

Computers can be valuable educational tools. When my students needed to conduct research through academic databases or download my recorded voice comments on their drafts, the school’s three computer labs were excellent resources, when not closed for months at time to accommodate PARCC testing. Laptop carts — featuring HP EliteBook Revolves like those that BCPS elementary school students received — were sometimes available, but the laptops were less reliable than the labs’ desktops, and the constant trouble-shooting they required wasted valuable class time.

Baltimore County schools set to purchase new laptops despite issues with the initiative

I would have loved to see BCPS provide additional laptop carts dedicated to testing, thus releasing the computer labs to be places of learning. But I never for a second wished that my students each had a laptop at all times. We know more than ever before about how the brain learns and works best, and it is clear that use of laptops adversely affects learning outcomes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

In a 2013 experiment conducted by Norwegian researcher Anne Magnen, participants who were given critical reading tasks to complete on a computer were found be at a significant disadvantage compared to those completing identical tasks on paper. In a similar experiment conducted in Sweden by Erik Wästlund in 2005, the screen-reading participants experienced greater “stress and tiredness” than the paper-readers. Other studies show that, when reading on a screen, students are less likely to perform metacognitive strategies such as re-reading, checking for understanding and setting goals, leading to an overall decrease in attention to and memory of what they read. Such findings help explain the troubling body of research showing that students who are encouraged to use laptops in class perform worse academically than those who are not.

Baltimore County school board members and parents testified before the state school board seeking an audit of technology contracts.

Further, what we know about the long-term effects of screen time on brains and bodies (especially growing ones) is alarming. In numerous studies, prolonged daily screen time has been shown to compromise parts of the brain related to executive functioning, impulse control, empathy, and cognitive functioning. There is simply no research to support that it is beneficial for young students to be looking at computer screens for several hours a day at school; rather, the evidence strongly suggests it causes long-term harm.

Thomas Linn’s op-ed “Anything you can do, A.I. can do better,” published in the Sun on Nov. 24, points out that computerization threatens about 47 percent of U.S. jobs. The only hope, his well-supported argument concludes, is for our students is to cultivate “critical thinking manifested in good writing.” Why, then, is BCPS investing so much in something shown to be detrimental to the development of both critical thinking and writing skills?

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, not digital drones.

If we want to revolutionize education, we must move beyond overly simplistic and counterproductive solutions like handing out a laptop to every child. Rather than continuing down this well-intentioned but inherently damaging and costly path, we should consider a more balanced approach that includes investments in solutions educational research does support. Let us widen the availability of co-taught classes, in which general and special educators partner to meet student needs. Let us give our educators increased time to plan, replacing the top-down, fragmented curriculum with teacher-created lessons that fit each class. Let us implement school-based mindfulness training — a proven method of improving working memory, impulse control, focus and resilience.

Advertisement

The future is here, and I applaud BCPS’s desire to prepare students for it. But research shows and teachers know: We can do much better than the 1-to-1 program.

Rebecca Schiavone (rsimone@jhu.edu) works with the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. The views expressed here are here own and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement