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‘A Deal With the Devil’: NPR Reporter Anya Kamenetz On Teaching With ‘Addictive Tech’ Like Facebook

By Jenny Abamu     Feb 27, 2018

What does it mean to report on education technology from a student lens? How does the tech-health discussion impact teachers in the classroom? What are virtual school lobbyists doing to impact the national discussion on school choice and accountability?

NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz joins the EdSurge OnAir Podcast to discuss her new book, “The Art of Screentime: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life,” and offer listeners some answers to challenging questions about the ever-evolving education technology landscape.

Listen to the podcast for the full interview below or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Read highlights from the conversation below (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: I’m curious to hear about the perspective you bring to your education technology coverage. I was watching a video that you did from a Ted Talk a while ago, back in 2010, and you were talking about transforming higher education institutions by getting conservative institutions to embrace technology. Since that time, how has your view on education technology changed? Has it evolved with your reporting?

Kamenetz: Well, I've been covering education in a lot of different ways since I was at The Village Voice, right out of college. The one common thread that I can say is that I've always looked at it from a student perspective— from writing about student debt in Generation Debt, writing about higher ed with DIY U, and now with The Art of Screen Time. I'm interested in students' experiences. We grow up in schools as young children, and we want schools to help us achieve our goals. But the fact is that schools are founded and run, not by students, by others with other goals and other ideas.

The tension that comes along with that, with students really wanting to prepare for their futures and to create a future that they hope for, and then others who construct schools in a lot of different ways, that's what really gets me interested. I'm interested in that tug-of-war and how new ideas enter into the space, with learners and people that are teachers as well, and how they're questing to use education as a way to transform society.

Let's dive into your book. You mentioned at an event recently that this book was inspired by a “me-search,” meaning that you were trying to find answers for yourself and your family around positive screen usage. Is that correct?

That's exactly right. As you and I both know, coverage of technology in a classroom has been really focused on the potential benefits and the promise of tech even for very young children. But, as a parent, you hear such a different story. We're just told as parents that we're supposed to keep the screens away from the kids, and we're bad parents if we let them have it. I wanted to resolve that tension for myself and figure out, "Okay, are screens this incredible promise, or are they just dangerous and the schools have it all wrong?"

Not to spoil the book for anyone but you come to a pretty reasonable conclusion in your book where you say that finding balance is a simple thing that people can do to manage screen time. Now, that's pretty obvious, I would say. What would you say are some other answers that you encountered that were not so obvious or, worked against conventional wisdom in some way?

Probably the biggest piece of news that parents might not welcome so much is that all the experts agree that the best way to get benefits out of screen time is to share it with your kids. They call it, 'joint engagement' and avoiding solo use. Being there with your kids playing games alongside them, talking to them about the content or what they're watching, either before or after. This is all important to help kids transfer both the academic learning and the prosocial messages that can be in some high-quality media. That's something that's very tricky because the prevailing use of screens, I would say both in the classroom and at home, is to occupy children alone and to have them zone out. That's not what you get the best effects from.

Another hot topic these days is the addiction to technology platforms. Several reporters— and myself—did an interview with Tristan Harris, the former Google employee gone rogue who founded the Center for Humane Technology. One of the things that he told me was even teachers who want to meet students where they are are pushing them in a negative direction by hopping on social media, in his opinion. I want to play a little clip from our conversation so we can be on the same page and then I'll ask you a question.

Harris: Is Facebook designed to maximize your concentration and focus on the goals that you care about? No. You land there. They have an incentive. Also, they have a bunch of notifications to show you. They'll want to drip out some now and then wait, hold some back and drip out more later. The more frequent and interruptive it is, the better it is for them.

Now, what does your research say about finding healthy ways for teachers to engage students who want to benefit from technology, being concerned about things like, possible addiction to applications like Facebook?

This is a really tricky thing to navigate. First of all, we have to acknowledge that some of the reasons for adoption of technology in the classroom are exactly the engagement that Harris is decrying. Online platforms are built to engage, and a lot of teachers want their students engaged. They're hoping that they can make a deal with the devil and use games or social platforms to get some of that engagement and to put it toward a good use.

But the problem we are often seeing is that it takes a lot of skill to do that. It takes a lot of skill to take a technology and to make it central to the goal of a lesson. Some of the successful strategies that I've seen for doing that may not be all that high-tech. I see students, for example, using Minecraft in the classroom. Minecraft in a classroom is not all that different from having students come together and do a group project to build a diorama or something out of paper and cardboard, but they're doing in the online 3D space. That makes it inherently perhaps a little more exciting or interesting.

But teachers have to be careful because what you often see as well—and what I see when I go all over the country and talk to parents about their frustrations—is that kids get into middle school, and the school-issued devices are coming home and the homework assignment is online, and the kids are doing their homework with 20 different tabs open. They're messaging their friends, they're listening to music, watching YouTube videos, and they've just immediately been plunged into this multitasking work environment that all of us are feeling as office workers. We're placing that burden on kids who are just learning the basics of time management, being on task, maybe they're struggling with motivation for other reasons, and it's a lot at once, and it's just a lot for students. The parents find that they're supposed to be scaffolding and supporting them, and they don't have all the best information about how to do that. So the computer is often seen as being more of in a position of bringing more problems with it than it does solutions.

You did a really interesting piece recently titled, “Inside the Virtual Schools’ Lobby: I Trust Parents.” Talk to me a bit about that story. There is some weird and secretive stuff going on.

Thank you so much for asking about this. I worked on this story for so long. Basically, the virtual charter schools, if you're not aware, there are almost 300,000 students who attend schools that are all online, that are K-12 charter schools. They're free to the students and the families. They're paid for by taxpayers. They're run by for-profit companies; the two largest are publicly traded. K-12 Inc, which is a standalone company, and Connections Academy, which is owned by Pearson Education.

The concern here is that as these schools have gotten a longer track record, they are really doing poorly. They have poor test scores, bad graduation rates, and every study has found that across the board, these types of schools are not doing well by their students. There's a lot of different arguments over the reasons behind that, is it part of the model, is it a problem because the students that end up in these schools?

What's been interesting is that state accountability systems have been mobilizing against these virtual charter schools. There's been this pushback. It sort of split the charter-school movement. Very mainstream centrists, even right-of-center groups that are in favor of accountability for charter schools, they're pro-reform, pro-charter, have ended up saying, "Well, we like charter schools but we don't want these schools to be considered charter schools because they're so different and their performance is so much worse in so many ways." That’s set up this huge debate.

These virtual schools— unlike public schools and unlike most charter schools— are not backed by non-profits. They're not backed by state governments. They're backed by profit-making corporations. These corporations had engaged in a vast array of political lobbying to try to keep themselves in business even though the state accountability system would have them closed or sanctioned.

What I read in your piece was that the crux of their lobbying focuses on parents. They use the hashtag, #ITrustParents, juxtaposing decisions that parents make about education with the accountability system in place. Can you unpack that a little bit?

It's pretty clear that if you can't make a case for your school based on students' performance, based on test scores, based on their learning advantage, all you have left is to say, "These schools should exist because parents want them." That's basically what they're saying. They have parents out there or people that are speaking as parents saying, "I don't care about test scores, my kid just needs this kind of school."

Often times they have very compelling stories because the kids that end up using online schools, they may be chronically ill, they may have a disability or they may be severely bullied at school and they need to stay home for their own safety. Parents are very impassioned in saying, "If we didn't have this K-12 virtual school, my kid wouldn't be able to have any studies at all, or I'd be homeschooling. I wouldn't have the resources to do it without this."

That's very compelling. It's an interesting take when you think about the types of statements that, for example, Secretary DeVos has made about her position on accountability and parent choice. If we're not going to impose test-based accountability, or other quality measures for charter schools in general, for school choice, for private school or for-profit private schools, it's very hard to think about what is the public role in education should be. If it's not operating schools themselves, public schools, or if it's not overseeing schools that children are going to, then what exactly is the government supposed to do other than just say, "Hey, everybody can go do whatever they want, and that's fine because that's parent choice."

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