How do we know when technology is helpful or harmful?

As an educational program that relies on technology to function, the impact that our software has on students is something we, well, sometimes worry about. And for good reason.

Research shows that certain interactions with tech devices raise dopamine levels significantly, and impact the frontal cortex – or part of the brain that helps control impulse – in the same way cocaine does. In essence, it has the power to create an unhealthy addiction that can cause even young kids to lose interest in the sports they play, reading or playing outside.

Children may also display difficulties with following multistep directions, problem solving with peers, and attending to task; all of which are necessary skills in the classroom and at home.

That’s pretty scary, especially when it’s difficult to tell when technology in education is empowering a student to learn something new in a more interesting way, or when it’s actually changing the way they think in a way that could be harmful.

A lot of times, it’s a bit of both.

Tech and Education: A thin line

An example of an educational tool that could go either way? Minecraft, a multi platform game where players can create their own worlds and experiences by using building blocks.

On one hand, it’s a visual, fun and creative tool for kids to learn about resource management, collaboration, perseverance, and even how to analyze cost over benefit. Teachers have used it to teach about history, problem solving, writing and comprehension in a way that many students find easier to understand and connect with.

But Minecraft also has several addictive qualities to it that can take away from what is supposed to be a valuable lesson in class. It’s an endless game with endless possibilities. And because it is a game, if it isn’t introduced the right way students might entirely miss the point – instead playing for the sake of playing without an understanding about what they are supposed to be learning.

Before school even starts, many parents now turn to iPads and tablets loaded with educational tools that can help their young ones learn how to read, spell and write. But these same devices that can further a child’s communication skills are also used to distract and quiet children when a parent or caretaker needs a moment of peace.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, until it is.

The “pass-back effect” can ultimately prevent kids from creating their own ways to cope with boredom or uncertainty, or they may lack social skills and expectations, like giving someone their full attention and putting devices away in certain situations.

Not having these skills once it’s time to enter school can impact a teacher’s ability when they not only need to teach students required curriculum, but also how to entertain themselves, communicate face-to-face or simply to pay attention (although, to be fair, this is and will always be their lifelong struggle).

Touch devices can also hamper kids’ physical skills: they may not have the dexterity or strength to hold a pencil or understand how much pressure to put on paper while writing because they grew up swiping and tapping. You see the same skills lacking in children who grow up in poverty and aren’t as exposed to objects like Play-Doh, blocks or coloring and writing utensils.

To be fair, it isn’t just the kids

In today’s world, it’s safe to say that most of us probably struggle a little with using technology in healthy doses.

Adults get lost in the Facebook or Instagram scroll, and many of us just can’t stand that little, red notification circle on our email icon, so we open it up and clear it ASAP. We find ourselves checking our devices for no reason at all, or even while most of us are doing the most dangerous thing we’ll do any day of the year: driving.

The struggle to balance virtuality with reality has permeated our culture enough where there is now technology rehab, where teens and young adults can go when they have lost control.

How DIBS thinks about tech in education

When it’s used responsibly, tech changes the world for the better, but we still have a lot to learn about its limits, and ours.

Here are three things we’ve learned so far:

  1. When it comes to reading, there’s still something special about the physical book. And it can’t be replaced by a tablet or Kindle. Maybe it will disappear in the future, but the act of flipping through pages, being able to inspect an illustration’s detail up close or adding your own drawings or notes (not necessarily condoned, but many of us did this as a kid, and maybe we still do!) helps build a connection to the stories we consume that tapping or swiping just doesn’t get at.
  2. Keep it intrinsic. Games, even when meant to foster an interest in something new or help with a subject a student is struggling in, often depend on extrinsic rewards to keep students motivated. Whether it’s leveling up, receiving tokens, or earning tools, the point – which should be to not only teach new skills, but also foster a student’s awareness, interest and passion around learning those skills – can get lost. When a kid does their math homework because it means they’ll be able to advance in a classroom video game they enjoy, that’s pretty awesome, as long as they understand why that lesson exists and how it’s supposed to be beneficial for them. But when a kid “games” this system by sharing homework answers among classmates so everyone gets to play without putting in the work, extrinsic rewards become problematic.
  3. Be aware of how information that tech helps unlock can influence student self esteem. Competition is already a complication that classrooms struggle to manage for one reason or the other: students sometimes put each other down or make fun when someone falls behind, or a student gives up when they realize they aren’t on the same track as their peers. Tech that’s constantly tracking metrics like how many reading levels have been surpassed or how many books were read can be extremely helpful, but it’s how that information is presented and explained to students that makes a huge difference in how they view their abilities. Especially as they grow older, the social pressures to be smart or cool in the classroom weigh heavier and heavier. They are more likely to organize themselves into fixed buckets (“I’m a dumb kid”) generally, but especially if they don’t have the tools or context they need to transform a data point into something actionable that will help them excel.

If you want help deciphering which apps, games or even TV shows and movies are appropriate for your kiddos, visiting Common Sense Media might be a good start. This site not only reviews new products and offers suggestions for certain age groups, but it also has guidance on topics like limiting tech use in the home, increasing your child’s media literacy and dealing with cyberbullying.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also has new recommendations for how to introduce children to technology at young ages, including avoiding screens altogether for kids younger than 18 months.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Feel free to drop us a line in the comment section – we’d love to hear your ideas and continue this discussion.

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