Face the promise and threat of technology in education

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The latest large-scale analysis of remote learning and its effects on student achievement underscores what every parent saw with devastating clarity during the pandemic: Children need human connection to thrive.

In fact, according to a New York Times investigation released this week, attending school through a computer screen during the COVID-19 crisis was as deleterious to learning as growing up in poverty.

The takeaway should not be more finger-pointing and blame for officials who kept schools closed. That advances nothing. But a muscular and forward-looking confrontation with questions around technology in education is sorely needed.

One reason is that kids will likely face future emergencies that necessitate remote learning, so it’s imperative to get better at delivering education this way. But even now, with students back in class, the same technology that hijacked their attention at home remains present — cellphones. Before the pandemic, these handheld screens were not a ubiquitous force in every classroom. Now, teachers appear powerless against them.

Seattle Public Schools attempted to take a stand by filing a lawsuit against the social media companies running Facebook, TikTok and the like. That is hardly the most direct approach.

Better to do like the tiny Reardan-Edwall district in Eastern Washington, which this year prohibited younger students from possessing cellphones during the school day (high schoolers may use them during midmorning break and lunch). Or the Peninsula and Aberdeen school districts, which also have strict anti-cellphone policies.

“We’re having actual, human conversations again,” said a relieved Eric Sobotta, superintendent of the Reardan-Edwall schools, “and we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in bullying.”

Taking responsibility this way puts these districts in Washington’s vanguard. It aligns them with other states, like California, Tennessee and Florida, that are facing reality: Technology has enormous power, and its potential in education — for good or ill — must be addressed head-on at the state level, not with limp demurrals about local control.

Rep. Stephanie McClintock, R-Vancouver, attempted to get a law passed during the just-completed legislative session that would have restricted cellphone use in all Washington schools. Her bill never made it out of the Appropriations Committee. But she plans to reintroduce it next year — partly because restricting cellphones in school may be the simplest, least expensive way to improve learning.

A study from the London School of Economics found that the mere presence of a phone in class can hamper student achievement, especially for kids who are already struggling.

None of these tech-based quandaries should come as a surprise. Years before the pandemic, researchers were raising pointed questions about the efficacy of high school credit-recovery programs built solely around online learning. And earlier this year state education Superintendent Chris Reykdal issued guidance on using artificial intelligence in classrooms, urging teachers to embrace it as a tool to power human inquiry.

That’s a welcome step forward. But it’s just a beginning. To protect kids’ developing brains and capitalize on technology’s undeniable promise, all of Washington’s education leaders need to get a lot smarter about managing these tools — fast. The future is not coming at us; it’s already here.

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