How to evaluate screen time experiences
One of the most quintessential questions as schools and families are coming out of the pandemic: How much is too much screen time?
During the remote learning phases, it was clear that if teaching and learning could happen on computers, then that was a productive way to spend instructional time. But now that kids are back in school buildings, should they keep learning on digital devices or should they go back to the old way? Is computer-based instruction too isolating after so long without regular social time? How much screen time is too much for the school day? And – are these even the right questions to be asking?
While many parents, teachers, and school administrators are concerned about these issues, the more pressing question should not be about whether or how much to use technology, but rather what kinds of technology experiences are worth students’ time, in light of their current needs?
Types of EdTech experiences
Let’s consider some of the different purposes that education technology can serve. Many ed tech products are instructional, providing individualized, highly directed learning on specific content. These may include tools like cognitive tutors and online curricula, many of which focus on reading or math. These products play an important role and provide valuable personalized learning. At the same time, they employ a fairly traditional pedagogy where students work through content alone, without a lot of agency or choice. Coming out of a period with little socializing and teacher interaction, we may want to branch out from this type of learning experience.
There are also ed tech products that promote social, minds-on learning and student agency. These can be things like creativity tools, collaborative digital spaces, and online communities. While students are still spending time on screens in these cases, they lead to a very different kind of experience, one that can bring people together and let them explore their passions. This is often in contrast to the way students spent time during the pandemic, without easy access to peers to collaborate and discuss new ideas. Given that, we may want to prioritize more of these learning experiences. While digitally mediated, they enable students to connect and explore in new ways. These two categories show that the key decision is not whether to use digital learning tools, rather it is what kind of experience students should have with those tools.
Evaluating EdTech experiences
This idea begs the question of how to evaluate the type of experience students are having with a given ed tech product. The most effective tool teachers have to do this is their power of observation. Rather than focusing on the claims of the product’s company or simply the content covered, teachers should observe their own students in their own context, to understand what type of learning is happening. Teachers can watch what students do and how they respond to the technology, starting with some of these indicators:
Are students clicking mindlessly, or getting frustrated and giving up? Are they smiling, concentrating, experiencing productive struggle with aha moments? What is the balance between these? When looking for body language, remember that different students express emotions differently so use what you know about your own students.
What conversations and additional questions do students generate through use of the tool? Do they turn to their peers and ask for or offer help? Do they become curious about what else they can do in the digital environment? Learning experiences that spark social interaction and promote curiosity are often the deepest kind.
Do students make connections between the digital experience and the real world? Do they think about concepts once they’re off the computer, and notice places in their lives where the content is relevant? Expanding the learning into other areas of their lives is a key way that a good learning experience can live beyond the screen.
Do students show a desire to share what they have learned, thought about, or created within the digital tool? Perhaps talking about or showing their work to family, peers, or the school community? Looking for these opportunities shows ownership of their learning and a personal investment in the ideas they have been exploring.
Teachers should feel empowered to evaluate tech tools and make informed decisions on what is the best use of screen time in their classrooms. To do this effectively, they can gather observational evidence starting with the categories described above, and align those with the needs of their students, both academic and social emotional. This holistic view of the digital experience rather than simply the product can inform a much more nuanced conversation about the best use of screen time in classrooms.