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Tech Is Not a Treat: Responding to Device Misuse

As more and more of our classrooms go 1:1 with technology, they are being faced with new challenges. One that looms over many teachers' heads is what to do when students misuse the devices? That is, what is the appropriate response when a student is on the wrong app at the wrong time, downloads games to their device when they're supposed to be building a website, writes four-lettered words on a class discussion board, or worse - engages in cyberbullying?

Many teachers go with the "you misuse it, you lose it" philosophy. We tell our students that the technology is a treat, or privilege, and if they misuse it, we'll take it away. I myself was in this camp for quite some time. If my student did something inappropriate with their device, I had a stack of paper work ready and waiting for them. They lost their iPad privilege for the day and had to earn it back. At first, it worked for me, and seemed to work for the student. However after some time, I realized that a few of my students were rarely using their devices. More and more they were losing this "treat" and more and more they were getting accustomed to the paper version of our activity. I tried my best to keep the paper assignments as closely aligned as possible to what the rest of the class was doing digitally. However the more that technology allowed us to transform and improve learning opportunities, the greater the divide in paper and tech.

After awhile, I realized that this "consequence" was hurting the students more than providing social emotional instruction. Instead of being a reflective activity to teach the child the value of technology, I was depriving them of greater learning opportunities and reinforcing their negative behavior. After a few instances of losing "iPad privileges", certain students decided to disavow any desire to use the devices for classroom activities. When they were allowed to use them, they saw them as a "treat" - not a learning tool. They were more inclined to play or simply pretend they didn't want to use it at all. In the end, I had succeeded only in teaching my students that our technology was a reward, not an essential vehicle for our learning or exploration.

Now as I work with teachers, I urge them to see technology as a foundational part of their instruction. They are challenged to unearth their problems of practice and together we investigate how technology can alleviate these issues. In our highest functioning 1:1 classrooms, the technology is invisible, a natural part of a transformed classroom - as ubiquitous as a pencil in many other rooms. So in this setting, how can we punish students by taking away this key learning tool? If our students use a pencil to write inappropriate phrases in the back of a text book, do we punish them by taking away the pencil and the book? No - instead we find instructional consequences that help students in making better choices in the future. So why should this be any different for technology?

Instead of the "misuse it you lose it" mindset, I implore teachers to treat their tech as they would any other essential learning tool. Yes, this is a much more powerful tool than a pencil or book, and so with great power comes great responsibility. But should a student falter, don't take it away. Allow them to continue using it, but apply the same standards and consequences you'd give should they misuse any other essential learning tool - their pencil, book, desk or chair. And proactively support students in understanding how to make good choices through scaffolding, goal setting and clear expectations.  We've taken on this new frame of mind in many of our classrooms and we're seeing great results. The students have greater respect for their digital learning tools and, most importantly, a greater access to opportunity.

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