Effective Screentime

The question “What does it look like when technology is being used effectively in classrooms?” arises often… it has been treated in previous posts on this blog. Here is another version of my answer that is being repurposed for this blog.

Effective “Sreeentime”

In recent years, it has become clear to me that there are two types of technology-based education in schools. We find “teaching by computers” has come to dominate technology-rich instruction, and we find “learning with computers” still occurring but to a lesser degree than it did around the turn of the century.

Teaching by computers has been an instructional model since computers arrived on the consumer and education markets late in the 20th century. “Edutainment” software presents information to users, then presents questions based on that information. If users respond with the correct answer (or more accurately the answers programmed to be correct), then positive feedback is given to the user.

The approach is decidedly behavioristic and has been judged valuable for curriculum well-suited to direct instruction. This has been a criticism of the model as well as many find a rich curriculum and engaging instruction necessitates more complex problems and more sophisticated information tasks than are possible through the version of instructionism mediated through the computer program.

As flipped classrooms became to new mantra of advocates for educational technology in the second decade of the 21st century, teaching by computers gained in popularity, but in a different format. Today, cloud-based systems present collections of problems to students and provide personalized paths through the system based on each student’s performance. While this is generally understood to be an improvement over the first generation of edutainment, many of the same criticisms are leveled against these systems.

For me, my criticism of these sites arises from my interaction with students. Whenever I see computer rooms full of students working on these systems, I find a reason to sit next to a student and talk with him or her about he or she is doing. I have done this enough to know that I am going to hear students say, “it was kind of fun the first few times we did it, but now it is so boring.” I can also notice the students who are simply clicking through the problems and admit, “I’m just guessing… if I get a good score, I just stop.”

Yet another example of teaching by computers in the time since flipped classrooms became popular are the instructional video sites. There are several that are popular, but one (which I shall not name) is the most popular and familiar. Whenever possible, I ask students who have used those well-known videos, and their reaction usually concurs with mine: “They are fine, but the guy isn’t a very good teacher.”

If teaching by computer was the only use of computers in schools, it would be a dismaying situation. Fortunately, there are educators who are using modern technology to creating engaging classrooms as well. Again, I draw on my recent observations of students and computers. I have seen:

  • groups of students solving puzzles requiring sophisticated math and sharing strategies with classmates;
  • teachers having students create MindCraft maps then speak and write their methods;
  • faculties grappling with the rationale for and best methods for electronic portfolios in their school;
  • students collaborating on writing using online shared documents;
  • students using computers to graph data they have collected from authentic field research.

As the school year started, a principal asked me, “How do I know if the technology-based instruction I observe is ‘good?’” Reflecting on the observations I have made, I answered her with this list:

  • if students create something that didn’t exist before they started;
  • if students are compelled to look away from the screen (to another screen, to a human, or to another resource all “count”);
  • if the student is practicing “something” that can be useful elsewhere;
  • if the product contains the students’ words (or images or other expressions of their understanding).

If any of statements are true, then the screentime is probably engaging students in learning with computers. The greater number of the statements that are true the more likely the learning is meaningful as well.