May 6, 2024

It’s Time to Address the Cause, Not the Symptom: School-Issued Devices

It’s Time to Address the Cause, Not the Symptom: School-Issued Devices

Parents, Let’s Do This!

Parents, Let’s Do This!

child over exposed to technology
child over exposed to technology
child over exposed to technology

This week, I heard a story from a family that has become all too familiar: they recently discovered that their son was spending most of his school day on YouTube. Worse still, this very savvy young person (like so many others) had also figured out how to download a VPN app and use a “virtual private network” that allowed him to bypass all of the school’s efforts to restrict or block or limit what students have access to.

If you’ve never heard of a VPN, it serves a few purposes. If you want to watch a show that airs in the UK, you might download a VPN that would allow you to use an IP address that looks like you’re streaming from the UK. A VPN might also be used to mask your IP address and encrypt the information you send from your laptop to a destination or visa versa. Using a VPN at a school, for example, creates a “tunnel” that allows a student to mask their activity from the school’s network. This means the student can watch content that would otherwise be blocked by a school’s WIFI restrictions – convenient for YouTube and TikTok and, yes, even X-rated content.


After years of ramping up STEM and 1:1 programs, schools are investing millions of dollars in software, hardware, and now, surveillance and monitoring tools, all in the name of “preparing children for the future.” The problem is that much of this is misguided, doesn’t even get used or even work, is dictated by technologists, and is not in the best interests of children, learning, and teaching.


And it is shockingly easy for students to find workarounds, which is why any attempts to double down on security are laughable and ineffective games of digital whac-a-mole that often drive nefarious habits further underground. 

For example, for the purposes of this essay, I typed “How to bypass school security?” into Google. Here is one of the top suggested responses I saw immediately:

WIFI unblock

The next three searches showed me several options for how to do this, which indicates that this is a common search query (duh):

bypassing school security

Some companies even go so far as to advertise that they can help students bypass school restrictions:Please note that this company (and likely others), of course, “earn[s] compensation from the providers below,” and their YouTube videos have “over 10 million views.” Also, the middle option offers a “kill switch that ensures your school can never track your online activities.” (Source: https://www.security.org/vpn/best/school/).


I’m no teenager, but the above section took me about five minutes to research and write about. It’s that simple—in fact, it's child’s play, LOL.


I know your next question is probably: “Well, what are schools (or parents) supposed to do?”


And it’s a really good question to ask because I see many different attempts at solutions that address the symptoms but not the cause.


No teacher, psychologist, pediatrician, or child development expert worth their salt would ever recommend as much tech-based learning for school as is currently happening. 


Let me be explicitly clear: I am not anti-technology, I am tech-intentional. 


I absolutely believe that there is an important role for technology in the classroom; that children do need to learn important skills (like typing and research) related to how to access information; and that there are amazing ways to use technology to enhance learning, not displace it (see: EverySchool.org for more on this). 


But what is happening in schools today is a far cry from an intentional use of technology. 


Kindergartners do not need iPads; they need play. 


Middle schoolers do not need digital learning management systems; they need paper planners. 


High school students do not need PDFs; they need physical texts, which foster deeper reading, better focusing, and enhanced understanding.


And above all this, learning happens in the context of human relationships. 


If a tech-based tool in any way detracts from a human-to-human interaction where optimal learning occurs, we are in deep trouble as a society. 


And if you’re thinking, “Dang…we’re already experiencing this,” you’re right. 


Which is why the solution is a drastic but necessary one. A remedy that will push back on a tsunami of marketing dollars and pro-tech messaging from the industry itself. A reaction so dramatic that schools will finally be forced to reckon with their choice to implement so much tech, and we can bring back what we know works for teaching and learning. And it will require multiple parents to take this bold step together.


Here is what I propose:


It is time for parents to refuse to allow their children to participate in school-based technology. 

This will not be easy. It will not be popular (at least not at first). And yes, it could burden teachers unfairly. For that, I have empathy. But I also believe that most teachers know that more tech is not better for kids (or even teachers). 


We’re approaching the end of the school year. The phone-free schools movement is picking up steam, and it’s likely we’ll see many district and school administration policy changes in the fall.


Those efforts are needed, and yet, as I wrote previously, they only address half the problem.


Here is what parents need to do now:


  1. Tell your kid. It’s important to let them know what’s going on and not do this without their knowledge. They may not like it, and that’s okay. 

  2. Talk to the administration. If you already have a good relationship with your child’s school administrator, great. Let them know you will be requesting a change for the upcoming school year and that you would like to give them as much advance notice as possible. 

  3. Put it in writing in the form of a letter via email (see below for a copy/paste template). 


A few important things to keep in mind:

  1. EdTech can mean 1:1 devices (iPads or laptops) as well as software, apps, and digital curriculum. It will be difficult to opt out of 1:1 programs without also opting out of the other portions. Schools may want to compromise and offer this. My recommendation is still: less is more. Opt out of all of it.

  2. A complete opt-out for K-5 is developmentally best for this age group. (One caveat: there are exceptions for children of any age with diagnosed learning disabilities that require a tech-based tool). If a school offers a computer lab – where lessons on digital citizenship, research, and typing can be practiced – great. I do not see the need to opt out of that. But absolutely no 1:1 device programs, no learning management systems, no digital standardized testing (it can be up to you as a parent to request a paper version of state testing, but the availability of this is dubious and probably state-specific), no online reading or math apps, no YouTube. 

  3. For middle school students (typically grades 6-8), this will be more challenging, as so many schools have 1:1 programs and rely heavily on learning management systems such as Schoology. Most curricula these days also come only in digital form, so even requesting paper books will present a challenge. (I’ve been told that schools are “not equipped for paper” anymore.) Nonetheless, a complete opt-out of 1:1 devices and any digital curricula tools is necessary. The rare and few benefits that might come from the convenience of an EdTech tool are in no way outweighed by the harms caused by unlimited access to YouTube, for example, or the incredible distraction and impact on focus that exist because every child has a computer or laptop in from of them most of the school day.

  4. For high school students (grades 9-12), approach this with the nuance that feels appropriate to your family’s values and the needs of your child. For an older teen, their tech-based dependence in high school may be so embedded that opting out fully may not be possible. However, I still firmly believe that there are options here. Opting out of digital standardized tests or mental health screenings, career advice platforms like Naviance, and even requesting physical textbooks are still potential avenues for change. 


There is no question that these actions will be deeply disruptive. 

But that is precisely the point. 


As school administrators refuse to hit the brakes on implementing more 1:1 programs and EdTech platforms (and now, AI) in classrooms at younger and younger ages, significant and collective refusal to opt out is imperative. If one parent opts out, it’s a drop in the bucket. If two parents in a class opt-out, it’s a team effort. And if several parents in a class or school make this move, it forces a closer look.


And that’s what we want: a reevaluation of the reasons behind the tech, an explanation for how we’ve allowed increased use of technological tools that are deeply incongruous with child development, and a demand for prioritizing children and teachers and the messy complexities of real-world thinking, playing, collaborating, and learning that make up a classroom. 


Please know: This is where things are headed. This is the future of education– the juxtaposition of a reckless and rapid infusion of technology in schools with the slow-paced, tactile experience of learning in childhood. 


We’re on the right side of history here, parents.


Courage!

Here's your opt-out letter template to paste into an email and modify:

Subject: Letter to Opt-Out


To: Principal/School Administrator

Cc: Guidance Counselor/Advisor/Teachers/School Board


Dear <Principal's Name>,


We are writing to request a necessary change for our child <Child Name> (student # <number here>/incoming grade <grade here>) for the 2024-2025 school year. 


Our child will no longer be participating in <Your School's Name> School’s 1:1 device program [specify: laptop, iPads, etc.] This includes not only the device itself but also the accompanying digital tools such as any learning management system, digital curriculum, online grading portals, digital standardized testing or mental health assessments, and platforms that address career or college readiness (like Naviance). <Customize this section based on the tools your child’s school uses.>


Like you, we value education and childhood, and we want to ensure that children are in learning environments and using tools that prioritize both in developmentally appropriate ways.


We have seen our child’s school experience change with his/her increased use of screen-based technology. <Add in any personal anecdotes that help illustrate this.> While we are not opposed to all forms of technology in school, we are concerned that screens are too frequently being put before skills.


Here is what we hope next school year will include for all students at <Your School's Name> School:

  • [A student personal device-free school environment, if not already in existence]

  • More physical textbooks and materials like paper and pencils;

  • Opportunities to learn typing and research skills, as well as media literacy and tools to recognize mis- and dis-information in a school computer lab or library;

  • Intentional, occasional, and developmentally appropriate uses of technology where appropriate, as recommended by the EdTech Triangle (see: EverySchool.org), within the classroom, not on personal computers;

  • Increased support for teachers in the form of assistant teachers, not assistive technologies; smaller class sizes; and more prep time;

  • Communication with parents about all of the technologies the school is using and why, supported by independent research;

  • Zero use of AI that is not in alignment with the latest research on pedagogy, privacy, and brain development;

  • Transparency around student data and privacy, with informed parent consent at the core of an opt-in process;

  • Meaningful alternatives to technology-based aspects of education;

  • More time in free play, time outdoors, recess, creative pursuits, and socialization [select which ones are developmentally relevant to your child’s age group].


We are aware of the argument that children “need technological skills to be prepared for the future.” However, we know that other critical skills are needed first, such as executive function, critical thinking, and communication. We also know that research increasingly shows that children learn better when they write on paper and read in physical books. 


We recognize the potential burden our request may place on individual teachers, and we wish this were not ultimately their responsibility. We support the school in finding other solutions to providing our child with the materials he/she needs to participate in <School Name> School’s learning experiences and trust that no retaliatory or punitive actions are taken against our family as a result of our request.


Please let us know if you have any questions.


All the best,


<Your Name Here>

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™

are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.