Modernization theory posits that it is not new technologies that change societies; it is the response to new technologies that changes societies.
The Utah Legislature is considering a bill that would mark an unprecedented state response to new technology — unprecedented in scope and price tag and in its target group. HB131, the Public Education Modernization Act, proposes a grant program for local school districts to provide a tablet device to every public education student, kindergarten through 12th grade.
Discussion at the Legislature has been marked by a sense of crisis and urgency, with promises of improvement in everything from test scores to parental involvement to discipline issues, all as a result of providing a tablet to every student. In a rush to embrace new technologies, lawmakers may not be giving sufficient consideration to the financial and logistic experiences of others pursuing this same goal, or to the unknowns about child development and extensive use of touchscreen devices.
“The devil is in the details, and tablet program details are proving to be very devilish indeed,” said online journalist Carmel Deamicis in October 2013. What lessons have already been learned from one-to-one tablet programs around the country?
1. Out-of-control costs result.
In North Carolina, students broke 10 percent of their 15,000 Amplify tablets. Who bears the responsibility and cost to fix or replace broken tablets?
In most of the programs reported, there is a cost for insurance ranging from $25 to $75 per student annually, or parents must prove coverage through homeowners insurance.
With HB131’s price tag of at least $200 million — a very conservative estimate — other programs and services will be cut or underfunded. Which ones will take the hit?
2. Pilot studies are finding one-to-one tablet programs to be ineffective at enhancing academic results.
iAchieve, a science program implemented in Texas, studied what 70,000 students were doing on their iPads and found that it didn’t meet curriculum standards; students weren’t learning what they were supposed to. The program was discontinued.
3. The objective of technology use matters.
How will the technology be used? Will it be used for things that can only be done with technology? Teaching kids the basic logic of coding, for example, or helping them become familiar with multimedia tools to organize and present their ideas?
Or will paper books be replaced with computerized books? There are many reasons to be concerned about the cognitive development effects of excessive screen time for just reading.
4. School-sponsored tablets bring new dynamics into family relationships.
In our own state, in Wasatch School District, kids were able to access a text messaging application on the tablets provided by the school. They were texting each other in class and at home. One mother, who was concerned about her son who suddenly disappeared from family life after getting his tablet, discovered this and decided to “ground” him from the tablet.
When she shared this decision with the school, they didn’t seem to care about the texting problem. They indignantly told her she didn’t have the right to keep the tablet from her own son because that would interfere with the objectives of the school.
5. Tablets enable unprecedented levels of individual data profiling.
Tablets can be a powerful tool for collecting individual data, especially when linked to student identification numbers. With Utah’s Student Longitudinal Database operating as it does, and with the capabilities and industry direction of new educational applications, it seems difficult to cover all bases in providing appropriate student privacy protections for a one-to-one program.
We submit three considerations for moving forward with more prudence:
1. Schools could have mobile carts of tablets that stay in the school to be moved from class to class as necessary for technology-specific activities. This enables greater access to technology while reducing costs and encouraging targeted, technology-specific use. It also negates the ability to track individual students.
2. Data collection by the state or third-party vendors must be 100 percent transparent or explicitly restricted, respectively.
3. Online activity should be trackable only by parents and teachers, and policy should reinforce state statute that schools defer to parental stewardship when it comes to decisions about misuse.
Utah has the opportunity to modernize the technological infrastructure of its schools. Let’s not choose to respond by chasing the siren call of new technology for technology's sake, but with wisdom, protecting the financial health of our core education programs, and the minds and privacy of the children we serve.
Autumn Cook is a mother and education advocate from Lehi. Alyson Williams is a former tech industry marketing director, mother and education advocate from Spanish Fork.