Brain issues among concerns at tech 'open house'
“Engaging the Future,” an initiative that would expand availability of computers at the Haines School, including lower grades, came under the scrutiny of a handful of residents during a “town hall” meeting on the issue held May 14.
The district is proposing to spend $67,000 next year, which will include putting a “Smartboard” in every K-8 classroom and getting laptops for seventh-graders. The program would cost about $25,000 annually for circulating new machines, which would include laptops in grades 3-12 and iPads for students in K-2.
The meeting opened with a scripted presentation narrated by a succession of teachers and administrators in support of technology as another way of engaging students, including ones who would otherwise drop out.
“We have students who are disengaged,” said superintendent Ginger Jewell. “We have students who don’t see any relevance in school because sometimes they come to a school that is so disconnected from the reality they see the other 17 hours of the day when they’re not in school that they end up counting the days until they can drop out. Or they say, ‘I don’t know why I have to do this. Why do I have to take this course? Why do I have to be here?’”
Schooling today is about connecting to those students using communication, collaboration and creativity, Jewell said. “It’s about allowing students to look at these things and see meaning in their schooling.”
First-grade teacher Sophia Armstrong said computers can help students learn and demonstrate their learning in new ways. “It’s a way for students to practice their skills. Pencil and paper doesn’t have to go away. It’s important. But it doesn’t have to be the only avenue.”
To demonstrate what they’ve learned, some students want to make a song or create a video, she said. High school teacher Lilly Boron said having computers in the school allows students to be “creators, not just absorbers” of information “in a way that inspires them.”
Resident Suzanne Vuillet-Smith said she didn’t support use of the computers in lower grades. “Computers are wonderful machines, but they’re so user-friendly that we don’t have to think to get immediate results. We don’t have to ask somebody. They don’t teach us interpersonal skills.”
Instead of a “town hall,” the district’s presentation was a “well-rehearsed selling job,” Vuillet-Smith said.
Superintendent Jewell said if the initiative went forward, students at lower grades would be at computers only as long as it took them to complete a certain task, perhaps 10 minutes maximum. “It’s a tool. That’s all it is. (Students) aren’t going to be sitting in front of computers six hours a day.”
Adam McMahan, a local medical doctor, said studies have shown that long exposure to computers has an effect on young children. “In the studies, there are physical changes in the brain. To assume that this tool does not have neurodevelopmental consequences is foolish in a way.”
McMahan warned of “unforeseen consquequences” from even intermittent use of computers among young children during an eight-hour day.
“The physical brain can change in ways that we can’t know yet what the consequences are. The brain is developing until age 21. To take such a plastic mind and add another barrier to social contact, interaction and emotional learning is not something I’m comfortable with,” McMahan said.
He asked what could be done to monitor and measure time of student computer use.
McMahan’s wife, Emily Davidson McMahan, spoke to the value of traditional learning. “There’s something to be said for looking at words, reading them, and imagining the pictures. Using that creativity is lighting up different parts of your brain and you’re having to work more for it. That can’t get lost.”
Resident Sylvia Heinz said she was glad for the evident excitement staff had about the initiative, “but it’s a concern for me that I didn’t hear about any of the possible negative effects, and how you would avoid those. You guys are really excited about this, but that actually makes me more nervous.”
Heinz said some uses of computers, like Facebook, are so easy as to use that that’s an issue.
“With some tools, it’s very difficult to use them only with wisdom... I just wonder if every child having such easy access to such a powerful tool is such a good thing,” Heinz said.
David Sosa, borough manager and parent of a Haines student, said youths do misuse technology but the school program had the potential to teach students how to use computers appropriately.
“This is a really good opportunity to take a generation and teach them the proper way to use these tools,” Sosa said.
Jewell this week said parents’ concerns would be passed on to school board members. Jewell said that computers “absolutely” would be used selectively. “It’s used when it’s appropriate.”
The district would guard against overuse of computers at lower grades through teacher evaluations, Jewell said. “Principals are in and out of the classroom all the time. They don’t happen just once a year. They’re an ongoing event.”
The school board is expected to make a decision on “Engaging the Future” in the coming months. The question will be considered separately from the district budget, Jewell said this week.