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Monday, Sep 15, 2014
Commentary

Building a paperless classroom


Published:

The 21st century learner is hard-wired for technology. Students today have a different profile of cognitive skills that resonate with digital tools. They expect multimedia, and they become quickly bored without it.

Schools have embraced the mobile-device wave with tablets (iPads and others), which are now almost as common as blackboards in classrooms across America. School districts are converting textbooks to ebooks to cut costs and to more easily update them. Does all this mean we are moving toward paperless classrooms? And is this good for our children?

The answer is a categorical yes. Learning occurs based upon students’ engagement levels, and no doubt, kids today are riveted by digital devices. It’s clear as a bell — a school bell, in fact. It would be short-sighted and illogical to not bring mobile-device technology and the new ways of learning into educational settings.

Leading educators agree that multisensory and multidimensional teaching methods are what engage kids today, and are most easily achieved with digital programs. The principal advantage of such pedagogy is that multiple areas of students’ brains can be activated at one time. Neuroscientists say such brain activity vastly increases long-term learning potential.

Tech-savvy teachers say that they are far more effective because tablets act as extra sets of hands for them. With a plethora of instructional apps to choose from, teachers can manage and assess classroom data and respond in real time. In a nutshell, they can provide better-quality personalized instruction, meeting the needs of students with wide-ranging skill levels, and all in a timely manner.

Teachers are not replaced by tablets — hardly so. Teachers are still the heart of education and are crucial to the success of any program, digital or otherwise. Yet think of the advantage they have by more easily breathing life into subject matter with animated, three-dimensional visuals. This feature alone has been shown to increase retention rates up to six times higher than the one-dimensional static visuals found in traditional text books. Yet it’s not only visuals that are producing learning gains; enhanced sound plays a role, too. Interactive digital programs requiring touch can employ all three of the primary learning modalities — visual, audio, and kinesthetic — and do so simultaneously.

Interestingly, special-needs students, including blind, deaf, and autistic children, are also showing increased engagement. Test results show they, too, are having accelerated and improved learning comprehension through the use of digital tablets in their instructional programs.

Awash in research, hundreds of studies have been conducted regarding technology-based learning, many of which are funded by technology companies. Ignoring those and focusing solely on independent research, the results remain staggering in favor of technology use. What’s the bottom line? Higher tests scores and improved attitudes, especially about reading and doing math and science. Students were also shown to be more motivated, to participate more, and to have increased comprehension. These impressive findings should make the most lackluster educators and parents jump up and cheer.

The U.S. Department of Education has done its due diligence, too. After analyzing data from technology-rich schools, it concluded this: “The use of technology resulted in increased attendance and educational gains for all students, regardless of age, race, parental income, or other characteristics.” That’s profound and inspiring.

Even in the face of such positive evidence, screen time, particularly the large doses when considering extended periods during the school day, remains a concern for many parents and educators. Although it’s true we do not fully understand long-term effects just yet, studies done in the past five years found that there’s increased relational skills — helping behaviors, collaboration, cooperation, and discussion — taking place among students in classrooms employing digital devices. This relieves some of the angst about socialization.

In addition, many teachers are using Skype and digital programs to connect with students in same-grade classrooms around the world, raising global awareness, cultural understandings and, most importantly, empathy, which is pivotal to healthy socialization. It’s just common sense that with kids getting substantial screen time at school, parents will need to step up their responsibility at home by providing additional socialization opportunities and setting digital-device limits. Sleep disruption is another concern of overdoing screen time. Numerous neurological studies show that sleep patterns can be disrupted, but mainly when kids (and adults) are allowed to take devices to bed and fall asleep with them nearby. The light that emanates from electronics has been found to interrupt the making of melatonin, an essential sleep hormone the brain naturally makes.

The screen time issue has been debated for a decade or more. Hours of violent video games and droning televisions would indeed have negative effects on anyone, particularly children. Dimitri A. Christakis from Seattle Children’s Institute, associated with the University of Washington, Seattle, had this to say about screen time for kids: “The quantity of media consumed has been unduly emphasized. It is not that quantity is unimportant, but the effects of media upon children are mediated more by what is watched than how much is watched.”

A new study released just this year by the Pearson Foundation made significant distinctions in this direction. It found that negative behaviors and bad moods did not occur in children using digital devices for extended periods in directed school settings when appropriate breaks were required and when the material was highly educational versus pure gaming entertainment.

You may say, this is all well and good for high-schoolers, but not younger children. Surprisingly, a study conducted in Maine showed that even kindergarteners, who had been exposed to educational ebooks and language arts-oriented apps, tested as having higher literacy rates. They were either already reading or had developed keen language-arts skills essential to reading readiness.

School districts that can afford electronic devices, have benefactors, or have partnered with banks and chamber of commerce groups to employ them in their classrooms, are on track. What’s troublesome are the districts that are establishing policies of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device, from smartphones to tablets). Lower-income children stand to suffer socially and educationally with these policies. In the face of shrinking budgets, we must back our schools and support them in attaining proper funding for technology that can be used by all students.

The report card is out: Mobile-device technology is helping kids to be smarter, to enjoy learning and improve achievement, and to be prepared for the future job market which will no doubt require high-level technology skills in a global economy. And it’s greener; just think of the trees that are smiling as we move closer to paperless classrooms.

Sherry Maysonave is an educator, motivational speaker and author, most recently, of “EggMania: Where’s the Egg in Exactly?” Visit her online at http://maniatales.com.

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