Scores of Education Experts Call on Schools to Reject Screen-Saturated Return to Learning

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As school districts across nation make plans for the fall semester—with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic forcing varying degrees of reliance on remote learning—scores of education experts on Tuesday sounded the alarm over the very real threat to students posed by increased screen time.

The warning comes in a new statement (pdf) that cites risks to student privacy, the potential entrenchment of controversial educational technology (EdTech), and students' need for authentic and human engagement.

"With no end in sight to the pandemic, school leaders would do well to remember that remote learning does not have to equal online learning, and to emphasize offline approaches to support children's wellbeing and learning," said Faith Boninger, Ph.D. of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder's School of Education.

Boninger is one of 70 experts that signed onto the statement authored by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood's (CCFC) Children's Screen Time Action Network. The call is also backed by three dozen advocacy groups including the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Badass Teachers Association, Boston Teachers Union, and ParentsTogether.

The groups say their message applies "whether school is in-person, remote, or some combination thereof" and suggest educators eye with suspicion claims from the companies that sell educational technology under the guise of personalized learning. As the joint statement explains:

Seizing an opportunity to capture a larger portion of the $10 trillion global education market, for-profit EdTech vendors are selling families and policymakers the false premise that EdTech products offer effective and budget-friendly ways to learn. In reality, the products are costly to purchase and maintain, and frequently crowd teachers and staff out of the budget. The products also ensnare students, whose data and brand loyalty are harvested, and who often become targets of relentless marketing efforts. These efforts include the insidious practice of upselling, through which students and their families are pushed to purchase premium versions, thereby exacerbating inequalities among students. Equally important, these programs reduce the roles played by creative, compassionate teachers in educating the whole child.

"Learning happens best in the context of human relationships and is lost when the balance is skewed toward online platforms," the groups argue.

The statement goes on to cite research debunking technology's claims of boosting educational outcomes and adverse physical impacts—from eye strain to worsened sleep—from prolonged screen time.

More insidious impacts are possible with increased digital device time as well, the groups say, giving as one example the threat that "sensitive student data, once processed into 'de-identified data,' can be used for non-educational, profitable activities. Worse, de-identified data can be reconstituted as personally-identifiable data."

Simply put, "reducing screen use during the pandemic has to be a priority—no matter the adopted reopening plan," say the child advocates.

To make that happen, the statement outlines five guiding principles for educational institutions as schools reopen during the ongoing pandemic:

  • Limiting screen time so that's used only for necessary and intentional purposes. "Algorithm-driven adaptive learning platforms, gamified learning, and similar apps that incorporate persuasive design to keep kids online should be avoided."
  • Remote learning "should be driven by human interactions and designed to maximize student engagement and agency through use of project-and place-based pedagogies and other self directed projects."
  • Hands-on learning must be maximized through activities such as "reading actual books, writing by hand, art, movement, outdoor play, real-world math projects, and nature exploration."
  • Investment should be made in educators, not EDTech.
  • Schools must be mindful of privacy protections for students when bringing any technology into the learning environments.

"Our children and our nation deserve nothing less than safe schools and low-tech, child-centered, educator-driven learning," says the statement.

According to CCFC executive director Josh Golin, the choices schools make now will have reverberations well beyond the coronavirus crisis.

"We're at a critical juncture when it comes to the education of our children, and we cannot let pandemic profiteering set the educational agenda for our children for years to come," Golin said in a statement. 

"During remote learning last spring, millions of parents saw firsthand the ineffectiveness and downsides of EdTech," he said. "Now is the time for parents and teachers to come together and demand what children really need."

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