Over the last decade or so, schools across the nation have started dropping a new set of resources on their students.
The books and blackboards of decades past have been swapped for Smartboards, laptops and tablets that provide educational resources for students, but not without national concerns about issues like student privacy and screen exposure.
Norman (Okla.) Public Schools is just one of the districts nationwide that have embraced educational technology, a way of teaching and learning ideally enhanced through the use of classroom technology. The district has been introducing technology — largely funded by school bonds — in phases for 10 years.
On a middle and high school level, Norman Public Schools provides 1:1 technology, meaning every student has his or her own laptop to be taken home at the end of the day. After the 2014 school bond, the district started introducing the 1:1 technology, and began placing some iPads in elementary schools.
At the start of the fall 2019 semester, NPS used part of its 2019 bond funding to increase the number of devices in elementary schools, providing an iPad for every elementary student, though the district says that elementary technology is not technically 1:1 because students don’t have specific devices assigned to them in the classroom.
The implementation of technology in schools follows a broader societal trend — teens’ tech use is creeping up. In 2015, 29% of teens said they used a computer for homework, but by 2019, 59% of teens said the same, according to a media census from Common Sense Media.
The district didn’t enter the world of educational technology with any measurable goals in mind, NPS superintendent Nick Migliorino said. Instead of aiming to improve test scores or specific learning outcomes, NPS wanted to provide more opportunities and exposure to relevant technology for all its students, he said.
“Call it a 1:1, (but) it was: What are we doing to expand opportunity for our students?” Migliorino said. “Technology is really becoming relevant in society, and continues to move forward. Our goal has always been to provide opportunities to expand the availability of information beyond the classroom, beyond a static textbook, beyond what a person sitting in front of you just knows. It’s teaching strategies, one on one, being able to ask questions, giving people the opportunity to explore answers, and then [coming] back and [having] conversations.”
Education technology comes to Norman
Laptops and iPads are supposed to be tools that enhance students’ learning, but not create any immediate or drastic change, said district chief technology officer Peter Liesenfeld.
“The continued vision of Norman Public Schools is to create an environment where technology is not a thing that you go to attend at an event,” Liesenfeld said. “It’s a seamless integration into the learning environment, where it’s designed to enhance the instruction that’s going on in the classroom. Not to replace, not to supplement in any way, it’s to enhance what’s currently going on to better prepare students for a global economy when they leave the high school.”
Funding short-term investments like technology with longer-term funding like bonds isn’t unusual anymore, according to the Hechinger Report, which reports that the trend is becoming more common as districts become more cash-strapped and receive less reliable funding on a state level.
Migliorino said funding technology through the district’s operating budget (instead of using bonds) hasn’t been feasible.
“There aren’t the operational funds to do that, and there’s not a district I know, in Texas [or] Oklahoma, that hasn’t done it through this process,” Migliorino said.
From the $186 million 2019 bond, about $20.7 million went toward technology, which included “student devices, library technology and instructional technology district-wide as needed.” While the bond was mainly promoted as a safety-and-security measure, Migliorino said the district made it “very clear” that technology upgrades would be included.
Though the 1:1 device rollouts in high school and middle school didn’t begin until after 2014, Liesenfeld said the district has been slowly introducing classroom technology since the 2009 bond passed. According to the district’s site, NPS spent about $9 million of the 2009 bond on “Intelligent Classroom Technology,” funding digital projectors, laptop carts, interactive white boards, document cameras and more.
“You don’t start with, ‘In 2009, every kid has an electronic device at their current rate,'” Liesenfeld said. “So in 2009, you start the process where kids are utilizing technology within the classroom, again with the goal of Norman Public Schools to create that seamless environment.”
While NPS didn’t have a defined “pilot program” for educational technology, the rollout was done in planned phases, Liesenfeld said. In 2010, Longfellow Middle School received a nearly $1 million federal grant that allowed the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade students access to their own laptops. Liesenfeld points to Longfellow as a “test site” for 1:1 technology, since teachers there received grant-mandated training and the school had the 1:1 technology about three years before the rest of the district.
After the 2014 bond issue passed, the district started investing in personal devices for middle and high school students. The Macbooks rolled out in fall 2017.
While other large Oklahoma school districts — including Edmond and Tulsa public schools — use Chromebooks, Norman schools rely on Apple devices with access to Google Classroom. Liesenfeld said the district’s decision to use Apple products was based on the products’ longevity, attractiveness to students and eventual resale value compared with other brands (the district offers students the chance to purchase their device upon graduation).
In giving each secondary student a personal device, Migliorino — who was chief technology officer when the 1:1 rollouts began — said the district was also looking to increase equitable technology access.
According to the Census Bureau as of 2017 data, 84.8% of Norman households had a broadband internet subscription, and 93.4% of homes had a computer.
But inequitable device access is still a problem across the nation, especially among lower-income families. Although teens from lower-income homes spend more time in front of a screen than students from higher-income homes, low-income teens are also far less likely to have a personal device or a computer in the home, according to Common Sense Media.
Migliorino said that although internet access is a larger societal issue, cheaper internet options and accessibility at schools and local institutions can help fill that gap.
Migliorino and Liesenfeld said the district is flexible on allowing students to use devices they bring from home, as long as they have district-mandated filters on them.
The district has no written policy that allows parents or students to opt out of technology use. Migliorino and Liesenfeld said NPS is willing to work with individual students and families to create technology use plans that are best for them, even if a plan involves a student’s not using technology at all.
“If a parent doesn’t want their kid to have a device, we’ll figure that out, absolutely,” Migliorino said.
Districts that go case-by-case on opting out also have to put in the effort to make sure that tech-less students are getting the same experience as students who are fully immersed in technology, said Sophia Cope, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“Opt out has to actually, in practice, result in a fundamentally similar if not same classroom experience,” Cope said. “If all the rest of the kids are logged into some math app with their real identities, and then some kid brings his family iPad and doesn’t log into the math app, can he basically get the same experience?”
No matter schools’ intentions, Cope said it also may be difficult to protect the privacy interests of students, especially when student devices are loaded with third-party apps. Even Google — from which NPS uses the Google Classroom suite — has been caught tracking kids who used its products educationally in the past, Cope said.
“Let’s say a math teacher downloads a math quiz app or something like that — there’s no controversy on the face of that,” Cope said. “But you have to look at what the apps and the companies themselves are doing, because we know that they collect information. So the purpose may seem benign and legitimate, ad ostensibly non-controversial, but there might be some back-end data collection that’s going on.”
Liesenfeld said NPS has team members who vet apps that the district puts on student’s devices or makes available to classrooms. Teachers are free to download outside educational apps, but the district maintains a digital-app kiosk on devices with vetted apps, he said.
When districts are dealing with software and app developers, Cope said the onus is on school administrators and teachers — not the developers — to understand the privacy policies and implications they’re dealing with. Cope said districts should also be negotiating privacy terms with any companies they contract with to provide devices and software. There is room for districts to push back on developers with objectionable privacy policies, she said.
Liesenfeld said while the district can see how students are using their devices, student information is not being shared with third-party groups. The district is in compliance with federal standards for protecting children online, but does not have a written policy dictating its privacy standards. NPS prefers to use practices over policy, Migliorino said.
Whatever the legal standards, Cope said it’s best for districts to be open with parents and obtain their consent when data collection from minors is happening.
“Legal issues aside, we just think it’s good practice to provide notice to parents and to get their consent if there is data collection going on, whether it’s for commercial purposes or educational purposes,” Cope said. “The parents just need to know what data is being collected on the kids, and that might be when they’re logged in with their real identities to an online account, or that might just be them not logged in, surfing around an app.”
Physical and mental effects
Educational technology is hitting a new generation before the effects of screen time or devices is fully understood.
Excluding the time they spend on devices for school, U.S. teens spend an average of 7 hours 22 minutes of time on screen media daily, while 8-12-year-olds use just under five hours a day, according to Common Sense.
The impact of added screen time in schools is not known, said Paul Shawler, chief psychologist at the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs. Shawler said that although technology has become an integral part of many students’ lives and it’s necessary to help students understand it, schools should do so in “a developmentally appropriate way.”
“At school, we need to make sure that there’s a balance between how electronics are used and the well being of children’s education,” Shawler said. “That’s also an area that is that is really understudied, but technology is very promoted within the school systems. So it is very important to think about at what age should electronics be introduced, in what format and for what duration, and right now we don’t have a lot of good literature on the age.”
A 2018 Gallup poll found that while 42% of teachers find digital devices in classrooms “mostly helpful ” to their students’ educations, 69% of teachers also said those devices are “mostly harmful” to their students’ mental health. While there has been a rise in some problems in student mental health, it can’t necessarily be tied to technology, said Jennifer Shields, a Ph.D. who works with the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center’s Department of Pediatrics.
“I think that that research is still up and coming in that area from a neuro-developmental perspective, but we’ve certainly seen a rise in things like depressive and anxiety symptoms in kids,” Shields said. “And certainly we could draw conclusions that that may or may not be solely from media, but we want to make sure that kids are getting good interaction with other peers and also with adults, that they’re not spending all of their time on technology, and developing things like family media plan so that they have a kind of approach to how they manage media and their family.”
Beyond mental-health effects, technology also opens a door to exposure to inappropriate content. Shawler said there are “many more kids being exposed to pornography than what the community and parents and schools want to talk about.”
Some of that exposure can come when students break through district filters on their school devices; some can come when students interact among themselves on personal devices, Shawler said.
NPS does have filter devices in place on its devices, and representatives said the district recently revamped its filters to let families pick their student’s level of restrictions exposure to different software. Liesenfeld said the district will also work with families to control the amount of screen time students get on their school devices.
Shawler and Shields said keeping students safe and healthy on technology will require communication among parents, teachers and administrators.
“Thinking back to ‘How are teachers and parents coming together to make rules around media, and how is that handled?’ is very important,” Shawler said. “The supervision and use for all students in school is something that is continuing to evolve and needs to be explored in regards to ‘How are we keeping our kids safe?’ but also, ‘When students do find their way into inappropriate material, how are we managing that?'”