Technology and Education

The Question: My 10-year-old’s school gave all students an iPad for use in instruction and student work. Now, almost all of my son’s homework is done on the device. My pediatrician tells me, as do child development experts, that I should limit my son’s time spent on electronic devices. How can I do that when his education is increasingly dependent on the device the school gave him?”

Ernesto Colín: The internet and connected devices have inevitably changed our world. I see nieces and neighbors, public and parochial schools — not to mention myself — entangled with the issue of electronic devices. As is true of most cyclical things, there is no right answer to the question. Each generation of parents confronts the impact on their children of new technology, from television to phones, video games and, now, tablets. So, does one heed the champions of the new or the heralds of danger? Let’s look from different angles.

Exploring the debate, we ask, “Why (not) iPads?” On the one hand, educators, professionals and students all see benefits. Connected devices offer a boggling amount of information on one device rather than in stacks of books, discs or people and places spread across the land. These devices have revolutionized schooling through updated information, innumerable applications, and the digitalization of songs, images, videos and documents. Also, equity and access grows for youth across the globe. The devices provide instant, democratized expression and creation, as well as speed, networking and communication. Proponents point to electronic devices as keys to higher education, globalized economies, and political and social engagement.

On the other hand, developmental psychologists, pediatricians and others notice problems: episodes of distraction, sleeplessness, dinner table silence, abandoned toys, awkward socialization and the like. They hold deep concerns about youth disconnection, privacy, targeting and health, to name a few.

Into the bargain, parents must use their own instinct and knowledge of their child. They must explore the tensions and decide where they stand: virtual vs. tactile, 21st century skills, data and instructional technology vs. holistic, hands-on, experiential learning.

From the Aztecs to John Dewey
On another level, parents can examine their opinion about the purpose of school to guide decision making. Human communities always embed their values in the design, content and conduct of schools. There are countless models past and present. For example, people in ancient central Mexico built some of the earliest public schools in the world. Centuries ago, Aztec school days filled with lessons on math, science, arts and astronomy were balanced with service-learning in trades, agriculture, elder care or public works. These schools were designed to foster a holistic skill set in youth through the central concept of in ixtli in yollotl — one’s (outward) actions and one’s (internal) heart. The ancient Greeks used the concept of paideia to posit educational ideals, and their education attended to the students’ mind, body and spirit. Similar philosophies can be found in education systems in every corner of the world, from Henan to Helsinki, Tamil Nadu to Chiapas.

In the U.S., John Dewey promoted the idea of an experiential education. He argued that the only way to really know the difference between wool and cotton is to work with the materials, experiment on them, not just read or be told about them. Dewey would be glad that the dominance of electronic devices would be held in check. Recently, U.S. schools have seen the re-emergence of Montessori education, Reggio Emilia approach, Makerspaces, Project-based Learning, STEM schools, and schools focused on ethnic studies, environmentalism, language and culture, and the arts. The common denominator: students engaged in purposeful, real-life activities. The implication: Parents have some choices.

You and Your Child’s iPad
I end with two thoughts. First, partner with your child’s school and shape schooling spaces and curriculum. Talk with teachers about approaches and electronic device exposure. Second, strive for balance. Let your child develop capacities to connect, research, store, create and share electronically. But whenever there is an opportunity, compel your child to experience and tinker with the real things. Some might claim that the iPad opens up a universe, but that’s only partly true. The rest of the universe is in the cooking, city exploration, outside play, family storytelling and “analog” activities.

“Dilemmas” is a feature of LMU Magazine in which we ask a member of the faculty for ethical advice about a complex question. Submit your moral quandary with the word “dilemma” at the start. We’ll pick one, put it to a faculty member and give you an answer in the next issue.