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Do computers in schools help kids learn? It's complicated.

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- As a teacher who's been around to witness schools "go 1:1" -- meaning one laptop, iPad or Chromebook per student -- I can attest to the dystopian sight of classrooms full of young children with their eyes glued to glowing screens.

Those first weeks of the transition to technology are harrowing. I watch every moment that used to be spent with math manipulatives like dice, playing cards or actual books now replaced with interactive Google slides and electronic books that read aloud to students.

At the end of the day, the kids blink their dried-out eyes, rub their faces and stretch their necks just like 40-year-old "knowledge economy" cube dwellers at any tech company.

I'm in awe of how technology has changed our lives for the better in countless abstract and concrete ways, but it hurts to see kids who can barely read, write or do simple math -- this almost always describes my low-income students -- skip over foundational skills because "Google Docs has a spell checker" or you can type in simple math equations into a search bar and get an instant answer.

I'm not saying that the sky is falling, but when the rich -- especially elite tech workers -- are opting out of smartphones and tablets for their children and are organizing to ban screens in their schools, we need to pay attention.

They are the vanguard of a class of highly educated people who recognize the dangers of allowing developing young minds to learn primarily, if not exclusively, digitally. This is happening just as middle- and low-income schools across the nation finally are able to access funds to outfit each student with a digital device. Some call this easing the so-called digital divide; some call it a form of social justice to create digital-first future citizens.

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But do the ends actually justify the means? And if the "ends" are literacy, numeracy and civic involvement, do digital devices actually help get kids there?

As ever: It depends.

"When teachers use computers or tablets to teach, we don't find that there's a gain in knowledge or an actual impact on standardized test scores," said Helen Lee Bouygues, the co-founder and president of the Reboot Foundation, a Paris-based organization advocating for developing critical thinking skills in children and others. "And what our analysis shows is that in younger ages, in third and fourth grade, in all subject matters, there was no benefit to using technology to learn. And in reading we found a negative benefit."

The Reboot Foundation's new report is titled "Does Educational Technology Help Students Learn? An analysis of the connection between digital devices and learning." It answered this question by using data from the 2017 U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as "the Nation's Report Card," as well as from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which evaluates student achievement in more than 90 countries.

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