Thursday, May 28, 2020

In recent weeks we have entered uncharted territory in our human experience. For many, existential staples such as school, worship and other social gatherings have been put on hold to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which in turn has caused increased anxiety and a real sense of isolation as a result of detachment from our regular routine. Parents have the additional internal conflict around increased technology use and screen time that many schools are turning to for distance learning. This series of articles will seek to address some of these issues. I welcome your questions at [email protected]

Distance Learning: Enhancement or Intrusion?

With schools around the country closing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many are turning to digital platforms to provide ongoing quality education. Companies like Google and Zoom can provide a distance-learning platform with a whole host of features and options that allows teachers and students to connect through with audio and video, as well as share content and screens in real time. Students can virtually raise their hands to ask questions and receive answers and even break off into virtual collaborative working groups. Many universities have long been using this technology to offer courses and degrees, further expanding their ability to educate and giving more educational options to students who would have otherwise been limited by geographic location.

For many, this is clearly the best solution for the current crisis we are facing. However, the following question has also emerged from concerned parents and educators alike: “We have heard the warnings from our community and school leaders about excessive screen time causing a whole host of immediate and long-term developmental issues, so how can our schools now promote a screen-based platform of distance learning? Won’t it do more harm than good?”

Let’s start with the term “screen time” being a misconception. It implies that the mere fact that one is in front of a screen is problematic, which is simply not true. Screen time can and should be viewed in multiple qualitative categories. For the purpose of this article we will divide it into two categories. Creative and consumption. Consumption is when the user is simply watching something happen on a screen for entertainment purposes and takes limited or no active part in the experience. Without function and purpose there is little value in this type of screen time and excessive consumption can be problematic for all the reasons we so often hear about. Creative, on the other hand, involves interaction and learning. Whether it is coding, graphic design, working on spreadsheets, writing or distance learning, there is a cognitive process that is taking place that is engaging, interactive productive and growth oriented. Although both are screen time, they are clearly not equal in quality or the risks that are often associated with “screen time.”

As schools, out of necessity, move to a distance-learning model we should not confuse the shared academic and creative experience guided by an educator with bingeing on Netflix, Hulu or Disney Plus. All screen time is not created equal. A fundamental question we should always ask ourselves as it relates to technology is “Is technology serving as an enhancement or an intrusion?” In light of the current situation of school closures and quarantine, and when a school is ready to come forward and offer interactive educational opportunities through platforms like Zoom and Google, I believe this is enhancing our experience rather than serving as an intrusion, and it is an opportunity that should be embraced.

In my next article I will focus on social networking in a time of social distancing.

Eli Shapiro (elishapiro.com) is a licensed clinical social worker and licensed school administrator, with a doctorate in education. He is the creator and director of The Digital Citizenship Project (thedigitalcitizenship.com) and a world-renowned lecturer on technology and human behavior.