How Edtech Developers Design Around ‘Screen Fatigue’

Opinion | Entrepreneurship

How Edtech Developers Design Around ‘Screen Fatigue’

By Colette Coleman     Aug 6, 2017

How Edtech Developers Design Around ‘Screen Fatigue’

When I think about education technology, images of engaged students in front of computers and tablets come to mind. I imagine wide-eyed kids with big smiles, just like the ones I see on edtech product pages.

But at the moment, there’s reason to question these expectations—and expect more.

As the director of business development at Zinc Learning Labs, a literacy company, my bread and butter is communication with educators. Not only do I want to know what is—and isn’t—working with my product, I also want to stay up to date on edtech trends overall. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, I need to be well-versed in the buzzwords of the moment and understand them deeply.

The trend I’m hearing about from every corner of edtech today is “screen fatigue.” Teachers are telling me they want to move their students away from screens. As someone working in the industry, my first instinct was to cringe—but upon reflection I’ve come to agree.

It’s well known that screens aren’t recommended for very young children, and in 2016 the American Academy of Pediatrics advised that for children over six, adults use judgment and “place consistent limits.” Studies warn of the potential for negative impacts of too much screen time; a few years ago researchers asked, “In our digital world, are young people losing the ability to read emotions?” (Yes, they are.) For many, that conclusion may seem alarmist, but for others, it’s a real concern.

Fast forward to this June, when EdSurge shared the “tired edtech trends that teachers wish would retire.” Among them: “blended learning.” Jennie Magiera, a former administrator in Chicago, lamented that edtech is potentially creating a “system where kids are going to sit in their little silos and go through their little teacher playlist and never see another human being all day.”

I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by educators around the country. One computer science teacher I spoke to had recently resigned because she could no longer stomach sticking young children in front of screens and, in her opinion, training them to be scrolling zombies when they should have more off-screen, human-to-human learning.

Magiera advised that we should “work towards pedagogies that celebrate teachers, celebrate human interaction and use technology as a vehicle.” As an edtech developer, I’ve been pondering these sentiments and asking myself how we can accomplish this. Here are a few guidelines I’ve come up with.

Edtech should engage, but not addict.

Learning is fun and exciting, and technology should reflect that. It has the advantage of generally being more engaging than a dusty textbook, especially since today’s students are digital natives. But the goal shouldn’t be to keep students in front of screens playing games, even if they are educational, all day every day. Fresh air does a growing child good!

Tristan Harris, whom The Atlantic dubbed “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” explained tech’s ability to addict, noting that “there’s a thousand people [sic] on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” This focus on dominating the attention economy must stay out of edtech’s learning economy. Harris wants “product designers to adopt a ‘Hippocratic oath’ for software that, he explains, would check the practice of ‘exposing people’s psychological vulnerabilities’.”

The edtech industry may not be at a place where we need to promise not to design tools that extract maximum attention from kids. But if developers continue to try building the next Instagram or Snapchat for learning, we should hold ourselves to higher standards.

Add off-screen learning extensions

Tech tools can serve as a great way to introduce offline content. They can be a means to a teacher-led end. For example, in the case of Zinc, teachers often use our product during the first 10-15 minutes of class to get students into “study mode,” especially after lunch. This method allows each student to work when they’re ready and at his or her own pace while grounding the class and getting everyone on the same figurative page. And when teachers use content related to the main lesson during this warm-up, it serves as a digital “hook” for what students are about to learn offline.

To further address screen fatigue, we developed a topic channel on our mainly non-fiction site that entices students to read literature offline by offering the first few pages or first chapter of each book online. Teachers have let us know that this strategy is working, with students heading to the library to search for the books they started reading on the site.

Build tech products that are hands-on and not behind screens

Edtech is often immediately associated with tablets, mobile devices and computers, but that leaves many important tools out. Technology that’s educational can also be offline. Take for example Solar One, a New York City company that I’ve heard local teachers raving about. This company offers students hands-on activities involving “offline” technology like batteries and electricity so that they can learn about tech experientially. Such programs are crucial to developing the edtech developers of tomorrow! And, I know from my days as a science teacher that students love the lessons that allow them to get their hands dirty.

Stay open-minded and agile

Concerned parents and teachers are onto something that tech titans know. Steve Jobs didn’t allow his children to use the iPad, and others famously send their kids to schools without screens.

But this trend hasn’t spread. Schools getting rid of screen-based tech is highly unlikely, since that would be throwing the edtech baby out with the bathwater. There’s a lot of good that technology can provide: one teacher pointed out that she appreciates its ability to individualize and work at each student’s pace; when you’re working with a student one-on-one, but 25 other students are calling out your name with hands raised, it can be hard not to rush, she explained.

Getting rid of edtech isn’t the solution, but being mindful of its potential detriments to human interaction and teacher impact can be. We have highly trained, committed educators in our classrooms and shouldn’t miss out on their skills by just plopping students in front of “teacher playlists,” as Magiera called them.

There’s a lot that we still don’t know about edtech and the impact of screen-based learning. Just last week Education Week summarized recent research, saying, “what we don't know outweighs what we do know about how people comprehend texts on a digital screen rather than on the printed page.” This means that we, as developers and educators, have to keep our ears to the ground and be ready to adjust course accordingly.

Earlier I said that edtech brings up visions of kids seated happily in front of computers and tablets. Now when I think of edtech I’m going to picture a paper and pencil, because that’s all edtech really is: an instrument for instruction. Edtech in and of itself isn’t effective, innovative or even cool. It’s just another tool educators can use to support learning.

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