Electronic textbooks. Educational apps. Instructional videos. Touchscreens in class.
They’re all part of a movement toward digital learning, an integration of technology into the classroom that can be intimidating for parents who are still trying to figure out how their own smartphone works.
In Archdiocese of Miami Catholic Schools, 12 of the 13 high schools have implemented iPads for every student. Its elementary schools also are moving to more digital content, by sharing carts of iPads that move from room to room, said Kim Pryzbylski, school superintendent for the Archdiocese.
In public schools, touchscreens are more scarce, but some teachers are bringing their own from home, or writing grants to secure them for classrooms. A bond issue that voters will decide Nov. 6 in Miami-Dade aims to upgrade technology across the school district.
For some parents, digital learning presents a dilemma – balancing excitement over new technology with overseeing appropriate screen time for their child.
Here is what some experts say:
What’s the biggest advantage of using digital content to teach kids?
Increased engagement, says Jeff Livingston of McGraw-Hill Education, which supplies digital and traditional textbooks to classrooms.
"We've seen that digital technology has the ability to more effectively and completely capture students' attention," he said. "This tends to lead to more time spent learning."
Technology tools offer personalized learning, said Richard Culatta, deputy director at the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education. Learning can be adjusted to a student’s pace, and technology can provide multiple approaches for teaching a concept.
Teachers can track student performance, connect with mentors and keep parents informed of progress.
"Kids who use digital content learn problem-solving skills, learn to make decisions and make informed choices, in addition to learning content," said Elizabeth Pearson, a children/teen librarian with the Miami-Dade County Library System.
What’s the biggest disadvantage?
The ongoing integration of touch and "point and click" technology decreases the likelihood that students will become proficient in old-school methodologies like using a paper and pencil, Pryzbylski said. "Though dated, these methodologies are likely to be in use for many years to come."
Culatta said bringing technology into the classroom without proper teacher training - how to teach differently with the new tools - won't work.
And "just because students find something to be fun doesn’t necessarily mean that it will help them learn," Livingston said. "For parents, the trick is finding the right balance – and make sure that the emphasis is on the learning outcome."
How do I tell if my child is learning, or just gaming for fun?
Culatta suggests sites like www.commonsensemedia.org, which review children's technology, for recommendations.
"Learning should be fun, and games can help teach," he said. "Parents should critically review the games and other apps that their children are using to decide their value."
Pearson said even games not labeled educational can teach strategic thinking, improve reflexes and coordination and encourage kids to practice to improve skills and performance.
"Ideally, the education of your child is a partnership between you and your child's teacher," Livingston said. "If you are considering a digital instructional program or an educational game for home use, discuss it with your child’s teacher. They will help you to know what is valuable and what is not."
How much is too much screen time?
Consider how screen time is being used, Culatta said. Some parents make the distinction between creative screen use (making videos, recording music, designing art, writing, practicing math) and passive screen use (watching videos or playing video games with little educational value). Limiting passive screen use in order to empower children to be creators is a good strategy.
"Certainly, if screen time begins to impact family time, chores, homework and other activities, parents need to be concerned," Pearson said. "Many parents set a time limit for all screen time, including video games, computers and television."
Livingston said many parents feel that screen time is somehow less wholesome or productive than other pursuits. But "digital technologies are with us to stay, and generally, they’ve made things better," he said. "Your children will spend their entire lives using digital tools to achieve their objectives. I see little problem in their getting a head start on that process."
What can I do as a parent to balance the screen time?
"Make sure that students are involved in productive family activities such as assigned chores and family games," Pryzbylski said.
Screen time should be only part of a kid’s day, Pearson said.
"Outdoor activities, sports, art and visiting the public library to check out a physical book to read can all provide a break from electronics," she said.
What at-home tech activities have the most educational value?
Researching family history, paying bills online, even arming your home security system can teach kids different skills through technology, Pryzbylski said.
Activities that help turn children into creators or practice concepts they are learning in school -- such as Khan Academy -- can be valuable, Culatta said. But parents should stay involved with their children as they use media.
"If children are reading digital books, parents can still read to them. If children are building in virtual worlds, parents can be part of the creative process. If children are writing online, parents can read and talk to their children about what they write," he said.
What about traditional activities such as handwriting – are they still necessary?
Yes, students need to have the skills of writing, drawing, painting and other artistic/communicative activities that are not likely to disappear, Przbylski said.
"Our goal is to educate the whole child, not just the technological aspect," she said.
Parents should think about what skills their children need to be prepared to learn and work in a digital world, Culatta said.
"Whether children learn those skills with pen and paper or keyboard and screen is less important than whether or not children are becoming critical readers and effective writers," he said.
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Julie Landry Laviolette is also a developer of kids' story apps at Story Bayou.