An elementary explanation for how ed tech widens, rather than narrows, the achievement gap

Are the Lords of MOOC Creation listening?  I doubt it, but let’s review this article at Slate by Annie Murphy Paul anyway:

Why would improved access to the Internet harm the academic performance of poor students in particular? Vigdor and his colleagues speculate that “this may occur because student computer use is more effectively monitored and channeled toward productive ends in more affluent homes.” This is, in fact, exactly the dynamic Susan Neuman and Donna Celano saw playing out in the libraries they monitored. At the [affluent neighborhood] Chestnut Hill library, they found, young visitors to the computer area were almost always accompanied by a parent or grandparent. Adults positioned themselves close to the children and close to the screen, offering a stream of questions and suggestions. Kids were steered away from games and toward educational programs emphasizing letters, numbers, and shapes. When the children became confused or frustrated, the grown-ups guided them to a solution.

The [impoverished neighborhood] Badlands library boasted computers and software identical to Chestnut Hill’s, but here, children manipulated the computers on their own, while accompanying adults watched silently or remained in other areas of the library altogether. Lacking the “scaffolding” provided by the Chestnut Hill parents, the Badlands kids clicked around frenetically, rarely staying with one program for long. Older children figured out how to use the programs as games; younger children became discouraged and banged on the keyboard or wandered away.

(I’m glad to hear that Chestnut Hill adults were so engaged with their young charges.  I see and heard of computers and tablets used as digital babysitters even in middle-class homes these days.  I suppose it’s to be expected that children’s use of the library’s computers was monitored and guided more closely than their use of technology at home, but I’m betting that there’s a $hit-ton of games and timewasting uses of computers in affluent homes; it’s just not the only uses that middling and affluent families have for their computers.)

Isn’t this what the old-school computer programmers called “GIGO,” or Garbage In, Garbage Out?  That is to say that one’s use of technology is highly dependent on the non-digital skills and information one brings to the technology.  Why can’t we acknowledge that loads of human guidance and interaction are still absolutely central to top-notch education?  Oh, yeah:  because teachers and professors are more expensive than laptops and software.

Slogans like “one laptop per child” and “one-to-one computing” evoke an appealingly egalitarian vision: If every child has a computer, every child is starting off on equal footing. But though the sameness of the hardware may feel satisfyingly fair, it is superficial. A computer in the hands of a disadvantaged child is in an important sense not the same thing as a computer in the hands of a child of privilege.

The focus of educators, politicians, and philanthropists on differences in access to technology has obscured another problem: what some call “the second digital divide,” or differences in the use of technology. Access to adequate equipment and reliable high-speed connections remains a concern, of course. But improving the way that technology is employed in learning is an even bigger and more important issue. Addressing it would require a focus on people: training teachers, librarians, parents and children themselves to use computers effectively. It would require a focus on practices: what one researcher has called the dynamic “social envelope” that surrounds the hunks of plastic and silicon on our desks. And it would require a focus on knowledge: background knowledge that is both broad and deep.

And, please:  for the love of Dog, think before you give a tablet or computer to a child.  I think the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours per day of screen time on any and all TVs and digital devices.  That seems to me to be a ridiculous amount of time staring dumbly and a screen rather than running, jumping, swimming, tree-climbing, etc.  Instead, give them books, paper, crayons, and other children to play with.  Encourage play that develops both gross and fine motor skills, as well as social and emotional development and growth.  Your children will likely spend enough of their lives interacting with screens and working with computers.  Make them figure out how to play and work with real, live humans, who are so much less predictable than swiping a screen.

Where will their creativity and problem-solving skills come from if we never let children get bored?



19 thoughts on “An elementary explanation for how ed tech widens, rather than narrows, the achievement gap

  1. Meh, I’m pretty sure my highly privileged daughter will turn out *just fine*. In fact, she’ll turn out far better than fine, screen time or not.

    I’m seriously sick of the maternal guilt industry.


  2. I’m totally with the running, jumping… tree-climbing approach. Of course, I can’t fly my new friends from the February Hawai’i Consultancy Workshop in to do tree-climbing, so they can fly me in to do running, jumping, so the macro-economics of this model looks a bit problematic. The vendocrat-stakeholder reps on the U. Senate would go crazy. Maybe as a compromise, we could have the kids in the university daycare center download an *app* that would climb trees, jump rocks, swing from ropes, etc., in ways that would alternately model democratic and less-democratic juvenile play initiative behaviors. Then they could write collaborative essays on their toy “devices.” The checks would fly out like confetti, even if the balances were somewhat missing.


  3. The danger of articles such the Slate one mentioned above is the potential suppression of high tech for education. Technology is not the only discriminant between poor and the non-poor. Food, reading, health care are some other and they all hold the poor back. Extending Slate’s article, a little maliciously, do we all stop eating breakfast?

    As a parent, You the best you can and hope for good. My kids watching TV didn’t cause them any discernible damage (an understatement). My grandkids don’t have a TV or tablets. My kids do well and are better parents than I was.


  4. I’m not a parent, so I come at this from the perspective of an adult who was once a child. I’m old enough that we didn’t have a computer in our home until I was twelve, and internet a few years later. I didn’t get an email address until college in 1997. For me, that was a HUGE revelation, since it allowed me to communicate in the medium I was most comfortable in (writing; I’d had pen pals since I was three) rather than telephone people, which was effing scary. I still prefer textual and in-person communication to audio-only.

    It seems problematic to me that adults treat young peoples’ use of technology in shaming ways while we ourselves (I’m now in my thirties) use our tech to do things for both work and leisure. What’s wrong with gaming? How is gaming less valuable than drawing or reading a book? Why are the two activities mutually exclusive? I read books on my laptop now (sometimes); I know people who sketch out RPG scenarios on paper. I mean, how many ADULTS do you know who can want to or are able to limit their screen time to two hours per day? That wouldn’t get me through my work-related email, let alone remain in touch with my parents in Michigan, write my book review due that’s next Tuesday, or watch an episode of “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” after dinner. All of which are varied, enriching, and socially-engaged activities.

    We are all seeking a balance of activities that will allow us to achieve our goals and optimal quality of life. But all of us, adults and children alike, will be doing so in ways that involve “screen time” in various ways. Why artificially restrict children’s access to the “electricity of the twenty-first century” because of their age?

    On the other hand, I really like the way the article frames the challenge this way: “A computer in the hands of a disadvantaged child is in an important sense not the same thing as a computer in the hands of a child of privilege.” I like that because it points out that tech is a tool, not a magic spell. We can use tools well or we can use them poorly — and usually, the only way we become skillful tool-users is through learning what they do, how they function, and practice, practice, practice.


  5. I offered advice from the perspective of someone who has seen recently and has spoken with friends lately about the poor uses & judgment evident in young people’s uses of technology. This goes for children on up to people in their 20s. It’s based on my experience with a generation of college students, my observations of children who spend too much time in the instant-gratification world of touch screens, and on reports I hear from friends who struggle to understand their students and young colleagues.

    Old fart alert: I spent all day Monday and Wednesday visiting with old friends and academic & blog buddies, and in each of four different visits the subject of “kids these days” came up. Our consensus so-called “digital natives” are surprisingly foolish in how, why, and to what ends they use different digital and web-based technologies. I have real concerns about the kind of students and future workers this nation is producing. But when parents expect nothing of their children and children would rather interact with games and screens than real people, what else can we expect?

    People can do whatever they want. It’s a free country, this blog offers free advice, and you might say you get what you pay for. But I think we should give due consideration to developing the offline, meatspace, real world skills and the ability to delay gratification in their children & other young charges. That’s a big part of what I assume sets the Chestnut Hill crowd apart from the Kensington neighborhood. I get it that playing with a tablet is more fun than practicing piano, and that playing Minecraft usually seems easier and more appealing than reading a book or taking a walk, but which are the activities that will eventually build skills, patience, resilience, and achievement?


  6. Meh. Pretty sure you’re working for the patriarchy here, even though you don’t realize you’re doing it. There’s no real evidence that computers hurt kids today, video games hurt my generation, tv hurt my parents’ generation or radio my grandparents’. However there are plenty of people telling parents that they’re doing it wrong no matter what they’re doing. An entire industry based on parental guilt. And you are feeding it. Just like most people do.


  7. But the original article is not about “screen time: yes or no,” it’s about seeing that children from different class backgrounds were using the same technology differently, with the wealthier children benefiting more not because of the technology itself, but because they had more adult guidance, support, perhaps even nagging (“don’t play Minecraft, play this educational game!” and so on). The point is that the technology all by itself didn’t level the playing field the way it was hoped — the technology “benefited” the students who had human support and encouragement along with the technology. Enmeshed in that is, yes, some judgment about parents “doing it wrong,” but another way to read it is that the parents of the less privileged kids (or even adults in general? I’m thinking of watching nontraditional students berate themselves for being “stupid” about technology) might themselves benefit from human instruction or guidance on technology.

    My takeaway from the article was that technology without accompanying human instruction/guidance does not provide a level playing field for kids (and possibly even adults, too). I was reading Historiann as arguing in favor of cultivating those human interactions/relationships.


  8. I’m not surprised that technology doesn’t level the field much.

    That said: It seems like you are setting up a bit of a straw figure here: technology OR interaction; “skills, patience, resilience, and achievement” OR dumb immediate-gratification game playing. Example: My daughter just spent 3 hours playing elaborate fantasy and world building games on the computer with a far away friend, chatting nonstop. That’s 3 hours of human interaction — with plenty of skills, patience, resilience and achievement — that was made possible via technology. When she follows youtube videos that explain how to reconfigure her computer settings, or figures out how to achieve a new level in a game, those all seem like reasonable play/learning experiences to me.

    Like you, I’m tired of the idea that technology can magically solve problems, rather than being a tool that tends to reproduce what we already do. Still, I wonder if your conversations are more reflective of our age: is it a declension fantasy about “kids today” v. the running-free-in-the-neighborhood memories we indulge in? Child/teen decision-making didn’t seem better in my childhood. I remember a lot of summer days with neighbors torturing bugs and frogs. Not sure about the creativity and socialization value in that…

    All this is to say: if technology doesn’t automatically solve the worlds problems, then maybe screentime is less of a detriment to human development than you may fear.


  9. I think the key thing from the article is that the Chestnut Hill kids were seeing the computer or ipad as a toy–that is, something they could manipulate–rather than seeing it as simply a screen, something they were supposed to watch.

    The genuinely upsetting thing, for me, is to see all the mothers wandering around with a cell phone clapped to their ear, ignoring the toddlers in the stroller who are trying to show them something or get their attention. You see the babies trying to make eye contact and the mothers paying no attention to them. If I’m out walking, I usually smile at the babies anyway and make eye contact, not that the mothers notice. I want to tell them (but I don’t), “You ignore the baby like that for two years, and why should he listen to what you say after that? ” (rant over)


  10. True story: I was complimented in an airport restaurant yesterday because I and my family were having an intelligent conversation with each other instead of all of us swiping on screens & staring at phones or tablets, ignoring each other.

    As Undine suggests: the bar is set far, far too low not just for children, but for adults as well.

    As for “working for the patriarchy:” HA-ha. The tech industry seems to me to have a very rigid patriarchal libertarian culture, one that is completely opposed to my humanist and feminist values. If refusing to spend thousands of dollars and productive hours on consumer electronics is your definition of “working for the patriarchy,” then you’re welcome to it.


  11. Jonathan Rees points us to an interesting post on the vision the tech world has for its role in family life:

    Google’s Android guru, Sundar Pichai, provides a peak into the company’s conception of our automated future:

    “Today, computing mainly automates things for you, but when we connect all these things, you can truly start assisting people in a more meaningful way,” Mr. Pichai said. He suggested a way for Android on people’s smartphones to interact with Android in their cars. “If I go and pick up my kids, it would be good for my car to be aware that my kids have entered the car and change the music to something that’s appropriate for them,” Mr. Pichai said.

    What’s illuminating is not the triviality of Pichai’s scenario — that billions of dollars might be invested in developing a system that senses when your kids get in your car and then seamlessly cues up “Baby Beluga” — but what the urge to automate small, human interactions reveals about Pichai and his colleagues. With this offhand example, Pichai gives voice to Silicon Valley’s reigning assumption, which can be boiled down to this: Anything that can be automated should be automated. If it’s possible to program a computer to do something a person can do, then the computer should do it. That way, the person will be “freed up” to do something “more valuable.” Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being.


  12. I’m with SophieLou and Shaz on this. My kids get tons of compliments on their behavior and they are all screen junkies. But they are active screen junkies with purpose. My take on the article is that it’s the whole upper class vs. lower class parenting thing again.

    FWIW, with my third I gave up on trying to limit screen time and he’s the earliest reader of the bunch (at four). He’s learned to read mostly from screen prompts, watching youtube videos that have words on the screen etc. His daycare has been doing much more reading and writing with the older Pre-K kids which the other two never got and I think it’s because we all let our kids do screens at home. (No screens at daycare, plenty of outside stuff, etc. etc.).

    And Minecraft is freaking awesome. So much better than the endless D and D maps I drew back in the day.


  13. I’m with Historiann on this, and have been ranting about the cognitive destructive nature of certain types of screen activities for years. But the key point–as Historiann’s post points out clearly–is what you do with screen time. Reading a book or long-form blogge post is a lot different than feverishly refreshing fucken faceshitte to see if anyone likes you. Many of these Web apps are scientifically designed to be both addictive and destructive to your ability to focus your attention in a sustained way on anything other than the app. That is how these fuckers like Pichai make their money: by keeping you dickeing around on their pointless apps all fucken day long instead of doing something useful, creative, and/or cognitively enriching. And it’s exactly the same for apps targeted at children.


  14. I would sign on to undine’s opinion, and Historiann’s concurrence at 6:41 a.m. People who would rather interact with their device than their kids are amazing enough, to say nothing of adults who would rather finish a reply to a text standing at an intersection than realize that the bus is coming so close to the curb that its mirror is extending into the sidewalk space. I don’t see any historical comparison between the post-WWII rollout of consumer television, which I experienced, and the “app in every nursery” notion that seems to prevail today. (Or any irony in holding such a view as a habituated reader of a blog).


  15. Doesn’t a lot of this boil down to relatively affluent and educated people saying “I think what I do is the right thing to do?”

    My own notion is that what matters, apart from privilege, are balance and self-evaluation. The ski bums I teach are outdoors all the time but that does not make them well adjusted or ready for university. Ditto the social media junkies.

    My own household is divided. Were it up to me, we would have no tee vee and limited content online. My children’s father, who is a long time gamer, sees these things differently. But we do all talk together about all kinds of activities, about setting goals and knowing limits, about evaluating content and its purposes, etc.. These children are not actually very good at regulating time (screen time or print reading time) but they are good at regulating content and are more savvy about media than I would have been at their age.


  16. I’m kind of conflicted about this, because I think both sides have good points. I am pretty sure, though, that Historiann didn’t mean to guilt-trip mothers or parents in general with this post, but rather to comment on issues affecting both children and adults.

    Having said that, though, I am somewhat skeptical about the idea that new technology is really causing more harm than good. As others have pointed out, every new communications technology at least since radio has inspired fears that it would undermine people’s creativity, ability to communicate face to face, etc., and generally make people less human and society less humane. As far as I can tell, most of these fears have turned out to be exaggerated. While there are always some people who use new technologies excessively and in ways that have a negative impact on their quality of life, most people, both adults and children, seem to be able to integrate new technologies into their lives without becoming addicted to them. If anything, their lives are enriched by having more options and a wider variety of possible activities.


  17. I think a number of the comments here, as much as I appreciate them, are missing the point of this story: that technology is not going to replace time being taught by adults any time soon. What middle and upper class children often have is either a parent, or a paid helper replacing those parents, who can spend time with the child. It’s not the technology itself,or the practices associated with the technology, that are the issue: the issue is, to what extent do children engage in real social life, and to what extent are they left to repetitive behaviors that might — or might not — be educating/socializing them at a time in their lives when it is most important?

    The thing to pay close attention to here is when the product itself is most closely associated with benefit or harm, outside of its social context. Second, how is the social context itself produced through economic inequality? When parents are using a library as a baby sitter, or as a space where they themselves can get a breather while the children are physically safe, that will have an impact on whether kids benefit from their play in bigger ways.


  18. From the AAP website:

    Today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices. To help kids make wise media choices, parents should monitor their media diet. Parents can make use of established ratings systems for shows, movies and games to avoid inappropriate content, such as violence, explicit sexual content or glorified tobacco and alcohol use.

    Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.

    By limiting screen time and offering educational media and non-electronic formats such as books, newspapers and board games, and watching television with their children, parents can help guide their children’s media experience. Putting questionable content into context and teaching kids about advertising contributes to their media literacy.

    The AAP recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children’s bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.

    Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

    Seven hours on average, meaning that some children are consuming significantly more than SEVEN HOURS of screen time a day, and others less. How do children even have SEVEN discretionary waking hours outside of school, let alone homework or time to pursue sports, music, or other non-screen oriented pasttimes?

    The answer is of course that they don’t, hence the ADD, problems with school, obesity, and eating disorders.


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