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Want Kids to Use Tech Productively? That's 'Asking the Impossible'


Matt Miles

"The sight of me on my device in class makes you nervous," said a teenager starring in a pro-educational-technology training video. "But I'm not posting selfies to Instagram. I'm actually in a Google Hangout typing questions to researchers in Botswana about water conservation methods," the clip continued. Her scripted lines illustrate one of the greatest misconceptions surrounding educational technology—that "children are easily capable of using technology productively."

In the decade since the release of smartphones, I've never caught a student on his or her device talking with experts in Botswana about water conservation, or anything like it. Students play games, take selfies, and message their parents and friends. When I shared this video with my students, they erupted into laughter. One student volunteered, "If you see me on my phone, there's a 0 percent chance I'm doing something productive. If you see me on my laptop, there's a 50 percent chance." Most students disagreed. They thought 50 percent was too high.

A 2015 study found that teens are using technology for an average of nine hours a day. Almost all that time is spent using entertainment media (games, music, videos, chatting). Only 3 percent is spent creating content, according to research from Common Sense Media. A Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that students are only using their technology for an average of 16 minutes a day for school work.

Many advocate for teachers to teach children how to use technology productively. But this is asking the impossible. First, young people are conditioned to use their devices for entertainment purposes for most of their waking day. Bring that same device into school, it doesn't stop being a toy just because an adult asked them to do something productive with it.

Second, their attachment to the less-productive side of technology is more than incidental. Their addictions are real. Many of the gaming and social media apps are designed using what has been dubbed "persuasive design." This blends operant conditioning techniques to "make players play forever." It exploits children's under-developed self-control and enhanced fear-of-missing-out to keep them engaged with their app for as long as possible. Students' inability to tear themselves away from entertainment media is real. It's not surprising that over half of teens today report that they are addicted to technology.

When teachers put devices in the hands of kids and expect them to be productive, they're expecting too much. Teaching kids with technology is analogous to having an AA meeting in a bar.

Matt Miles is a high school social studies teacher in Northern Virginia. He is the co-author, with Joe Clement, of Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber (Chicago Review Press, 2017) and the co-founder of the blog PaleoEducation.

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