Districts spent millions on laptops, apps and devices; parents worry it’s not helping.
When Baltimore County, Md., public schools began going digital five years ago, textbooks disappeared from classrooms and paper and pencils were no longer encouraged. All students from kindergarten to 12th grade would eventually get a laptop, helping the district reach the “one-to-one” ratio of one for each child that has become coveted around the country. Teaching apps and digital courses took the place of flashcards and notebooks.
Despite the investment, academic results have mostly slipped in the district of about 115,000 students.
Over the last decade, American schools embraced technology, spending millions of dollars on devices and apps, believing its disruptive power would help many children learn faster, stay in school and be more prepared for a competitive economy. Now many parents and teachers are starting to wonder if all the disruption was a good idea.
Technology has made it easier for students and teachers to communicate and collaborate. It engages many students and allows them to learn at their own pace. But early indications are that tech isn’t a panacea for education.
Researchers at Rand Corp. and elsewhere say there is no clear evidence showing which new tech-related education offerings or approaches work in schools.
The uncertainty is feeding alarm among some parents already worried about the amount of time their children spend attached to digital devices. Some believe technology is not doing much to help their kids learn, setting up a clash with tech advocates who say technology is the future of education.
Across the country—in Boston, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Austin, Texas—parents are demanding proof technology works as an educational tool, and insisting on limits. They’re pushing schools to offer low-or screen-free classrooms, picketing board meetings to protest all the online classes and demanding more information about what data is collected on students.
In April, a report from the National Education Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group at the University of Colorado at Boulder, found the rapid adoption of the mostly proprietary technology in education to be rife with “questionable educational assumptions… self-interested advocacy by the technology industry, serious threats to student privacy and a lack of research support.”
Proponents say schools must have technology. “We are moving into a time of exponential change,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of Consortium for School Networking, an association for school tech officers that also includes tech companies. “Schools are not at the leading edge of technology but technology is reaching a tipping point in the way learning happens.” He says, “Schools need to determine how to equip [students] to be smart digital citizens.”
Earlier this year, Cynthia Boyd, watched as her daughter, Jane, then a Baltimore County first-grader, poked at a keyboard on a family laptop in response to math problems on the screen, part of her public school’s math class. An interactive program delivered an image of a token on the screen when she completed an assignment. She could then trade in those tokens to play games.
To Dr. Boyd, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, it looks more like a videogame than a math class. She isn’t sure if the lessons are sticking with Jane and worries about the hyper-stimulating screen time. “I feel like my kids have been part of a huge massive experiment I have no control over,” says Dr. Boyd, who also has two sons aged 13 and 15. Liam, the younger son, began learning on screens three years ago and Graham, the older son, began learning on them four years ago.
There is a role for technology in school, she says, but it is a matter of how much and at what age. She has seen the benefits: Her younger son learned the basics of computer programming and the logic in- volved. Tech allowed her oldest son to build a website for a history project and to use online original documents from the Library of Congress.
Baltimore County’s latest results on state standardized tests, released last week, were so disappointing they prompted a letter to parents from the district’s new school superintendent, Darryl Williams. In English language arts and math, “far too few of our students are meeting or exceeding expectations…We can and must do better,” he wrote.
About 37% of the county’s students in grades 3-8 were proficient in English language arts, compared with about 44% statewide. In math, about 27% of the students were proficient, compared with 33% statewide. Dr. Williams wasn’t available for comment. A school district spokesman said Dr. Williams and his team will be closely evaluating what role, if any, the laptop program has played in the district’s performance.
Baltimore County said earlier this year it would scale back the ratio of laptops in first and second grades to one for every five students. A few miles away, in Montgomery County, a new curriculum this fall will return textbooks, paper and pencils to the classroom to supplement laptops.
In both cases, school officials say they were responding, in part, to parents and teachers. Baltimore County’s early-learning teachers said they didn’t need so many laptops. Parents wanted their children to “have a mixed media experience touching paper and reading books and down on the carpet without a device in their hands,” said Ryan Imbriale, who heads the school district’s department of innovative learning.
In Montgomery County, which was due for a curriculum change, “we heard loud and clear from parents,” said Dr. Maria Navarro, chief academic officer. Among other things, “they are very concerned about the amount of screen time” in school.
Technology is especially effective, she says, when it allows aspiring engineers and architects to build simulations in a high-school drafting class, for instance, or non-native English speakers to get an instant translation by touching a word in their reading assignment. “The question is what’s the best use of this tool,” she says, “and what’s the right quality and quantity.”
Montgomery County schools improved in nearly all categories in the results released last week, with average gains better than those seen statewide for students in grades 3 through 8.
Technology certainly helps solve some big problems. At a time when all 50 states report teacher shortages, instructors are being live-streamed into classrooms to remotely fill vacancies in about 180 school districts. In places such as Hot Springs, Va., Alphabet Inc.’s Google has wired school buses, turning them into rolling study halls for students with long commutes and patchy or nonexistent Wi-Fi at home.
The widespread prevalence of technology in American schools, often known for changing at a glacial pace, has been jarring for large numbers of parents, teachers and administrators— many of whom were big proponents just a few years ago. The school devices are undermining parents’ struggle to limit screen time. They say their children find ways at school to bypass their schools’ internet filters and can find their way onto YouTube exposing them to X-rated and violent content. They can kill time in class by shopping online or playing games.