In the final year of a five-year digital conversion project to provide all Rockingham students access to digital resources when and where needed, we can proudly place a check in the “completed” column. Devices distributed. Check. Software licensed. Check. Support staff hired. Check. Infrastructure beefed up. Check. Ongoing funding secured. Check, with thanks to our county’s School Board and Board of Supervisors. Professional development conducted. Always ongoing, but check. Yet just as the ink dries on those checkmarks, a new and critical budgeting concern emerges, one not involved with managing dollars and cents but rather with minutes and seconds. How do we responsibly keep screen time for students in check?
Students come to school each day with a set amount of time that researchers and medical experts deem appropriate to be on their devices. Estimates vary, but most will fall into the general range of a few hours total per day for students aged 8 and up, with less allocated to those under 8. With every device-dependent activity students perform throughout the day (instructional and otherwise), students spend away their screen-time allowances.
What strategies can we employ in order to be able to look a parent straight in the eye and say, “Yes, we do our very, very best to be aware of, monitor, and make judicious use of the time your child spends in front of a screen”?
Determine whether technology use makes a difference in learning. A need to budget screen time puts a premium on evaluation of digital resources for use in our instructional activities. Our litmus test for deciding if and when to use technology in our lessons becomes more critical than ever: “Does my use of technology in this activity enhance student learning?” Allocate time for uses where the answer is “yes.” Give greater deliberation to use if the answer is more wishy-washy, particularly if the time requirement is lengthy. Our initiative in Rockingham is about using digital resources when they are needed, and no Rockingham division leader has stated that because we have access to devices, we must always use them.
The kinds of activities that often fall on the first rung of the SAMR scale, the “Substitution” level, where there is no real learning benefit to the use of technology compared to their traditional alternatives, may sometimes be better done in those traditional ways without technology. If our budget is tight—and it is—using technology for the sake of using it becomes a wasteful expenditure of a limited resource. Ironically, we view some of these low-level uses, which may include taking a quiz online or distributing digital handouts versus print, as beneficial in order to reduce paper usage. It's an interesting dilemma now as we look at that practice under this kind of scrutiny.
Reduce required use at home. Can we avoid routinely assigning homework that requires screen time? There is plenty of serious discussion nationwide questioning the overall value of homework assignments. Put the screen time argument in the column that supports a reduction or elimination of homework, especially the kind requiring use of a computer or tablet.
Talk and plan with colleagues. As we move forward in Rockingham, we want to deliberately schedule more time for teachers to collaborate and communicate with each other on a regular basis. With more frequent discussion through common planning and the development of PLCs, teachers can better know what is happening in other classrooms. This awareness can help inform decisions about instruction, monitor student screen time, and consider overall student workload. Multidisciplinary coursework has the potential to reduce screen time since projects often meet objectives across several subject areas. One solid, coordinated project can replace 2-3 separate, disjointed ones that run up screen time minutes in a hurry.
Scrutinize non-instructional use. In our 4th-12th grade classrooms where all students have Chromebooks, we implement a feature in Securly, our Internet filtering tool, that produces a regular email to parents listing all the websites with timestamps their children visit both at school and at home. (Securly remains in effect for secondary students when they take their Chromebooks home.) Our parents appreciate this service, and feedback from them is overwhelmingly positive. However, these reports indicate to parents that devices are often being used in some classrooms to fill non-instructional gaps of time.
Parents tell us the conversation at home typically goes something like this:
Parent: “I see you were at __ website during your __ class. Why were you there during class? Were you off task?”
Student: “We had free time to kill in class so the teacher said we could choose to do what we want.”
The parent concerns are sometimes over the activity choices made by the child (games mostly because our filter works well to screen out inappropriate content, including a high percentage of gaming sites), but there’s a rapidly growing population of parents less worried about specific activity choices made and much more concerned over the overall unnecessary use of the devices. They simply do not want unwarranted accumulation of screen time. In pre-device days, the standard recommendation for filling these gaps often was to read a book, one with real pages. This remains a leading, valid, and productive option.
So, should we use devices when not specifically for the purpose of meeting instructional goals? We are starting to have conversations over this question in Rockingham. The scenarios most up for debate are those typically labeled “free choice” times for students: (1) indoor recess time in elementary schools and (2) situations, often in secondary classrooms, that are more loosely structured, such as when a student completes work and may be waiting for others before everyone transitions together to a different activity or to end class.
Is it as simple as designating these as unplugged times when no devices are to be used? Suggest this option, and debate typically ensues, beginning with someone’s listing off many of the potential productive, valuable learning experiences a student could choose to do on the device during those times. In this situation, quality of the activity is not the factor in question. We can list hundreds of valuable things students can do with their devices during free times. We must keep the discussion focused on the issue at hand. It is about having a limited amount of time to spend and questioning whether we routinely have the luxury to spend it on uses that are not part of what we carefully plan for instruction.
Offer alternatives. One of our young, excellent elementary teachers now on our Instructional Technology staff recently spoke about how she implemented unplugged indoor recess in her 4th grade classroom. She offered traditional options including board games, puzzles, Legos, etc. Students had plenty of choices. She said that, at first, they grumbled, but she held her ground, and in no time, they grew to love this time. These activities fostered opportunities for 4th graders to create, communicate, collaborate, and think critically while growing as classroom citizens and developing better relationships with classmates. It is safe to say that no parent complained about this policy.
To that end, we are assembling lists of unplugged activity suggestions to help teachers and students with options besides using the iPad or Chromebook during these non-instructional times. There’s something comforting about going “old school,” with recommendations like Yahtzee, Password, Battleship, Sorry, Scrabble, Rummy, and other nostalgic games that so many of us enjoyed to sharpen our critical thinking skills and to learn how to be gracious winners and losers with our friends and family. Puzzles and games of all sorts stand the test of time and have proven, highly beneficial effects on the brain.
Adopt a new mindset. To protect the health and well-being of our students, as well as to maintain the integrity of our use of instructional technology resources, keeping students’ screen time budgets out of the red is a difficult challenge but one we must accept and tackle together. As with many issues, finding a reasonable balance is key, and here, that entails having an awareness and being judicious. Considering screen time a scarce commodity rather than an unlimited one is a mindset change that will help us toward doing what is best for our students, the goal for us in every endeavor.
Written by Stephanie Failes. Stephanie is an Instructional Technology Supervisor for Rockingham County Public Schools
You can find her on Twitter @stfailes and follow the Rockingham ITRTs @rockingedutech.