How Can Edtech Close the Book on Summer Brain Drain?

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Among educators, summer "brain drain" is a constant pain point. Teachers have long lamented the significant learning loss that occurs during the yearly three-month break and have looked to summer camps, reading initiatives and parental stimulation as possible solutions to the problem. The growing trend among elementary-aged students, however, does not exactly involve opening a book. Instead, more and more young students (up to 66% nationwide) are turning on their tablets and ramping up their “screen time.”

While no one advocates spending the whole summer on a mobile device, educators need to capitalize on this untapped educational resource, rather than cast screen time as a foe. There is a wide array of valuable digital content that, if made available prior to the final bell, can help combat one of the more intractable problems in education: the widening of the achievement gap during summer months.

The academic backslide

Over the summer, the disparity between low-income students and their middle- and upper-class counterparts widens, particularly when it comes to reading achievement. Low-income students lose up to two months of reading skills while their middle- and upper-class peers make slight gains during the summertime. This can lead to increased struggles throughout the school year, lower standardized test scores or, even worse, a higher dropout rate.

Mobile content: the great equalizer

Researchers have started to recognize that hardware access is only part of the problem. There is a pronounced difference in the way children from different socioeconomic backgrounds use computers. The students that are most likely to lose academic progress over the summer months are the same students that are least likely to access educational content.

The result is that the broad availability of mobile devices is actually exacerbating the achievement gap. We must close this gap by pointing students to high-quality educational content, available on the very devices that we know students will spend untold hours on this summer. Grade-level teams can provide a summer digital content list to address the very skills they know their next class will lack. Better yet, educators can help students load content onto their devices before the schoolhouse doors close.

Yet, tablet or no tablet, you'd be hard-pressed to find a child in grades K-6 who is excited about doing school work over the summer. Providing a to-do list is hardly the solution. But it is relatively easy to motivate engagement with educational content by using the kinds of incentives that have always gotten kids fired up: games and prizes. 

Think BOOK-IT for the 21st century. Imagine what a pizza party could do for the class that logs the most hours on Dragon Box, or reads the most comic books or magazines checked out from their local library through Zinio, a free service available in most major libraries.

Apps like Math Dash and Operation Math allow students to fully engage in an educational activity without feeling like they’re doing homework. Since math is the top victim of summer brain drain, schools can make sure their students have access to a wide variety of math-focused apps.

Mobile devices have the ability to transform reading skill development as well. Disadvantaged students without motivation from home may be more inclined to read a book if it appears on a tablet with interactive illustrations and video content. Apps like Phonics Island and FarFaria use audio cues and enticing imagery to attract a child to the subject. Old favorites like Reading Rainbow take traditional children’s books and make them come alive with interactive options.

By offering these to children of all backgrounds, students can return to school on par with their peers. And best of all, the good folks at organizations like Teachers with Apps and Common Sense Media have already found excellent educational content. It’s not often teachers have the opportunity to solve tough systemic problems without a lot of extra work.

Before the final bell: lessons for the summer

Content aside, the greatest battle is implementation, particularly for students with less involved parents. So take the last day of school, a day that is often used more for parties than for learning, and turn it into a bring your own device (BYOD) app download party.

To understand how effective these one-day challenges can be, consider the Hour of Code. In 2014, schools in over 180 countries set aside one hour of classroom time to teach their students how to code. The result? The Hour of Code reached 15 million users in five days. It took Twitter two and a half years and Facebook three years to see those kinds of numbers.

So what if schools used the last day to load up student devices with valuable, educational content that will keep them engaged over the summer months? Even the evaluation part of the equation is built-in to this model: when kids come back and take standardized tests, formative assessments or fluency tests during the next school year, schools will be able to evaluate quantitative data. This has the added benefit of allowing schools on the fence about one-to-one or BYOD initiatives to better understand the challenges they might face without any financial commitment or downside.

Making the transition

Increased use of technology does not always sit well with educators. There is still plenty of skepticism among teachers, and leaving students with a tablet all summer seems like an open invitation to play video games for three months.

There are champions of tech at every school. There will always be teachers who opt out, but the tech evangelists out there can lead the charge. All it takes is one or two leaders to bring a world of educational mobile content to kids when they need it most and are most likely to use it.

As with anything else, those in education who are not ready for change will either hop on the train or be left behind. In the meantime, students in every socioeconomic group are using mobile devices aggressively. It is time to close the books and meet them halfway, beating summer brain drain once and for all.

Matt McDonnell is COO at Famigo, Inc.

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