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Hidden in Plain Sight: Putting Tech Before Teaching

· 8 min read
Hidden in Plain Sight: Putting Tech  Before Teaching
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash 

In my second year as a high school teacher, my school district rolled out its “iPad Initiative.” Each of our district’s five high schools issued an iPad to every student. Within a few years, students at the middle school and the elementary level would have them, as well.

Like so many other school initiatives here and elsewhere, before and since, the iPad Initiative was driven by a vague, yet unassailable belief that technology was “the future” and, thus, that any measure that brought more technology into classroom instruction was inherently good. According to the prevailing wisdom, new technologies were sure to unleash a cascade of new teaching superpowers. And teachers needed to utilize these superpowers as soon as possible because “students were different now.” They would no longer learn well from the old teaching methods like lecturing, reading, and writing. The only way to reach the 21st-century student was to integrate a steady stream of new tools into every lesson.

The iPads were “deployed” in September 2012 and the administrators made it clear that they expected teachers to use them. But they weren’t just sending us to the wolves. The district employed an iPad technician on each campus and required teachers to attend weekly “iPad Modules” that would teach us how to integrate iPad apps into our lessons. Teachers were told to be patient and to build plenty of time into each lesson in order to handle the learning pains that would undoubtedly follow.

That year, teachers tried everything. We spent hours making content-based movie trailers on iMovie and then teaching students to do the same. We had students research topics and build Keynote presentations. We made interactive iPad-based test review games. And for those so old-fashioned as to insist on lecturing, PowerPoint presentations could now be filtered through a nifty little app called Nearpod. But, as a look at Nearpod will illustrate, despite how magical these new apps often appeared at first glance, their benefits were almost always dwarfed by a bouquet of unforeseen complications.

Nearpod is an app that syncs teachers' slideshow presentations to their students’ iPads. With the swipe of a finger across a teacher's iPad screen, everyone’s slide changes to the next.

The obvious downside to sending a presentation to 25 screens was that students would now all be looking down, rather than up at the teacher. Students had also quickly developed a masterful capacity to toggle to other apps (social media, messaging threads, online game, and the like) and then back on task whenever a teacher approached. But Nearpod had an answer for this. A number in the top right corner of the teacher’s iPad screen told her exactly how many students were on Nearpod at any given moment.

Teachers would begin a Nearpod lesson by giving their students a code to access the specific presentation that they would utilize. After five minutes of handling technical difficulties—waiting on students to re-download the app (they were always deleting apps to gain storage space); recognizing that the Nearpod attendance number was lower than it should be; walking around the room trying to find the students who were not on Nearpod; and, finally, giving up as the attendance number changed too rapidly to keep up with—the teacher would proceed with the lesson. He would then guide the lesson while monitoring the number of students on Nearpod and intermittently cajoling them to come back “in.” Teachers also had to project and progress a standard PowerPoint slideshow for students who had forgotten to charge their iPad, had broken it, or claimed it had been stolen, etc. As you might imagine, this was all quite disruptive. To make lessons engaging, teachers must establish a degree of flow. This was hard to do, with so many different demands on their attention and that of their students.

Nearpod’s biggest selling point at the time was that it gave teachers the ability to embed checks for understanding within each lesson. For example, midway through a presentation, I could add a slide with an interactive multiple-choice question to see if students had grasped a concept and, in real time, I’d see the students’ results. Wonderful as this sounds, most teachers already had informal methods for assessing comprehension and, as with most Nearpod functions, adding these questions tended to reveal the ills of the iPad more than its benefits. Teachers often had to plead with students to get back on Nearpod so they could answer the question and they had to wait on those without an iPad to move their desks so they could answer with a friend. Ironically, it was often only these iPad-less students who knew the answer.

So, to recap, in an effort to take a slide show that had been plainly visible in the front of the classroom and place it on each student’s iPad, the teacher ensured that none of the students were looking at her as she taught; that all the students were a click away from infinite temptation; that time was lost to technical difficulties; and that the teachers themselves were distracted by the need to command two devices at once. And this was one of the more successful apps that most teachers settled on as their preferred method for meeting the iPad requirement.

In a perfect world, Nearpod and many other iPad tools could have been useful for teachers, but it is hard to overstate how destructive the mere presence of iPads was to the broader learning environment. Prior to the iPad, students would have had nothing better to distract them than doodling on notebook paper or passing notes between each other. Often by surprise, students found themselves engrossed in the story of 20th-century world history or in the puzzle-like process of balancing a math equation. After the iPad, however, teachers had to compete with all the world’s entertainment and the attention-hacking efforts of Silicon Valley’s most brilliant minds.

The district tried to ban distracting apps as quickly as they found out about them, but, within 24 hours, students had usually found a way to work around any new district block. Even if they couldn’t, there were always another dozen currently unblocked apps that everyone felt they had to be on. By ensuring that every student had an iPad available at every moment of the school day, we ensured that students would face a barrage of nudges to keep up with chat groups, participate in group games, curate their social media image, and neurotically check how their posts were faring. The sheer insanity of this became obvious every time I helped a student on his iPad and watched the incessant flow of notifications popping down from the top of his screen, each tempting him with juicy morsels of entertainment and social pressure. Most students were too consumed with status management to even consider paying attention, particularly as grade inflation continued to make school easier.

Near the end of that first year with the iPad, I met with my principal to explain these problems and to ask for her recommendations. The principal, at the time, was a company woman who seemed to always toe the party line. In this case, that meant fervent support for the iPad Initiative. Yet she also cared deeply about education. She took pride in running the best high school in this “A-rated” district and wanted her students to learn as well as possible. I can still see the horror on her face as I explained my experience with the iPad and the distraction it posed to students. She thanked me for my honesty and offered a few vague platitudes that we both knew to be meaningless. But that is as far as it ever went. She never addressed the subject again. Like a fundamentalist first learning about evolution, she seemed to push aside this inconvenient revelation, determined never to acknowledge the full weight of its implications.

Over the years, the iPad Initiative slowly faded away. But its legacy is still felt, particularly in the way it changed expectations regarding whether smartphone use was acceptable in school. Prior to the introduction of iPads, there was a common sense that mobile phones had no place in the classroom or any other part of the school day. Even the most lenient teachers maintained the school’s zero-tolerance policy. Students would tell stories about the times they forgot to silence their phones and they bonded over their shared fears that this might happen to them. These clear lines were removed with the introduction of the iPad, however.

Frustrated by the daily deluge of students who had lost or did not charge their iPads, our district implemented a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy that allowed students to use their smartphones as stand-ins for their iPads. Students who had grown accustomed to being on their iPads throughout class quickly became students who felt they could get away with being on their phones at any time. They became more likely to respond with attitude when teachers asked them to put their phones away or to defend themselves with claims like: “I’m writing a paper,” or “My mom is texting me.” Teachers quickly grew tired of policing devices, and, within a short time, incessant smartphone use had become the norm.

Many teachers came to appreciate the way smartphone availability operated as a sort of class-wide sedative. Rather than talking and moving about the class, students who finished their assignments early would simply descend into quiet, solitary scrolling. Most teachers began to allow their students to put earphones in as they finished assignments, as well. Students would now listen to Drake as they rushed through their work, eager to get back to video games, group chats, or even streaming shows. And the teachers, too, became flippant about texting or scrolling social media throughout class time. Almost overnight, it seemed the world had accepted that no one would be able to stay off their devices for any reasonable measure of time.

In its desire to embrace technology, our school district failed to recognize the social devolution that was taking hold of society. The iPad Initiative came right as smartphones became virtually ubiquitous among American teens and adults. Teens began spending over seven hours per day consuming entertainment media. Twelfth-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eight graders Adolescent mental disorders skyrocketed. And at this crucial juncture, we decided to begin allowing students to use smartphones throughout the school day. These students would not know how to set boundaries for how they used their phones. They’d have no understanding of the psychological vulnerabilities that tech companies exploited—no training in how to use their phone without it using them. Most of all, they’d have no environment where they could be free from the incessant psychic drain that had come to define their world. Oblivious to any responsibility to help students or their families adapt better, our schools helped facilitate the community’s descent into becoming screen-addicted, constantly distracted people whose cognitive skills and attention spans were being chipped away rather than cultivated.

I fear we’ve been engulfed in this world for so long now that the obvious solutions will sound extreme. You cannot allow an infinite device like the smartphone in the classroom and expect students to cultivate academic capacities that require an attention span. You cannot allow smartphone use throughout the hallways and cafeterias and expect students to develop social skills. And you cannot expect students, parents, or even teachers to navigate the incessant temptations of modern technology—to be anything but distracted pawns—without clearly defined limits and an educational campaign to teach them the boundaries required for healthy use. Every school district in America has some Band-Aid initiative to shrink learning gaps and respond to the surge in mental health disorders, yet few, if any, will address this most obvious saboteur.

Instead of recognizing the obvious, schools are doubling down on the same faulty logic that brought us here. In my district, the kindergartners now have iPads. A few years later, they will receive laptops. With the right goals and boundaries in place, these laptops could be fantastic tools. And, despite there being few boundaries, they were obviously essential for virtual learning during the early days of COVID-19. But, as it currently stands, they have added little more than another avenue for distraction. Busywork proliferates, cheating has exploded, and most students still struggle to type, attach documents to an email, or think well.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, increased access to powerful technology has not democratized education. Far from shrinking the gaps, the availability of more advanced technology has only widened them.

Welcoming an exponential amount of technology into the classroom was supposed to democratize education and create exciting, innovative new ways for kids to learn. Instead, it has ensured a widening gulf between those with the means and good judgment to adapt, and those without—in my experience, at least.

An overreliance on shiny new devices is not the only issue with public education in America. But it is ubiquitous and insidious. We’re rearing a nation of passive, sedentary, and constantly distracted people.

Shane Trotter

Shane Trotter is a writer, high-school educator, and strength and conditioning coach in Texas. His book, Setting the Bar, released this past November.

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