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The Milton Measure

What Happens when Paper becomes Screens and Pens become Keyboards

by The Milton Measure on Friday, March 31st, 2017

By Katie Friis ’17

“Oh my god. Where is it?” my friends groaned. We had been trying to find the Big Dipper for what felt like hours, although in reality it had only been a few minutes. As we continued staring up at the maze of stars in frustrated silence, I realized something.


“Wait,” I said excitedly. I pulled out my iPhone, opened an app called Star Walk, and held my phone up to the sky. The app oriented itself based on my location and showed a projected translation of the constellations on my screen with connecting lines and labels for each one. I moved my phone around, and the constellations on the screen moved accordingly. Soon, I found the one labeled “Ursa Major.” I moved my phone to the side and squinted through the darkness, trying to make out the shape the app had drawn out so clearly.


“There it is!” I pointed up to the faint constellation. My friends awed in amazement at the app, but as quickly as it came, our excitement died down. The app was cool and informative, but using it had felt like cheating in a way. I had barely done any work on my own and only felt half the satisfaction from finding that constellation than I did from finding constellations on my own. This got me thinking. Was this Star Walk app good or bad? Does technology shortcut learning through the shortcuts it provides? How did technology in my classes at school change the experience of the students and the teachers? What will educational technology look like in the future?


I began my examination of these questions by speaking to the biggest technology advocate I knew: my brother, Erick, who is a computer science and electrical engineering major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ever since we were kids, Erick has been fascinated by technology — first toys like legos and DIY circuit kits, then various computer games and video games, and now more “grown up toys” like drones and the Amazon Echo. I interviewed Erick in his room during Thanksgiving break. He layed in his pajamas with his stomach down on his bed and his head hanging over the side, looking at a ball he was bouncing on the ground. I sat on the rolly chair by his desk, leaning back and facing him.


As Erick bounced the ball, he described how he had experienced technology in his education so far. He began having access to laptops in school in fifth grade and around the same time got access to a desktop computer at home. He reminisced about how, when he was in middle school, our parents deemed him addicted to computer games. So, they installed a software called Watch Dog to limit the amount of time he could spend on the screen. However, rather than spending his daily 45 minutes pretending to fly airplanes or fight people, Erick spent his time Googling how to disable the software and figured out how to hack it so he could spent as much time as he wanted on the computer. “That’s how I got into computer science,” he said, smiling. In high school, Erick said students were expected to have their own laptops, and by Junior year, he decided to go fully paperless and did all his work on a tablet. The following year, the school implemented a policy that made every student get a tablet and bring it to school everyday. Now, in his second year of college, Erick said that “you pretty much just do whatever you want,” but he continues to do the majority of his work on his tablet and laptop.


“Do you think technology has enhanced your education?” I asked him.


He paused and sat up more in his bed. “Yeah,” he answered. “I think a lot of times technology can you give you more one on one attention. Like I learned how to code from video lectures, and I think it was a much more personal way of learning things.”


I raised my eyebrows, surprised at this statement. I had always thought of technology as taking away the personal. With Khan Academy, for example, millions of students worldwide are learning from the exact same ten minute video despite their different learning styles, background knowledge, strengths, and weaknesses. Furthermore, if a student has a question about the material, he or she cannot ask it and discuss the answer with a teacher.


“How so?” I asked.


“Well,” Erick paused, “even if a teacher has a class of only 15 students, the teacher has to split their attention between 15 people whereas if you learn from videos or a portal that you code in or something, you basically get one on one interactions because you can pause the video and watch it whenever and at whatever speed you want.” He fully sat up in bed now and told me that he TA’s a computer science class and made the entire technical portion of the course into video lectures. “I don’t even give the lecture in person anymore,” he said. “That way, people who know how to code already can blow through it and watch it at three times speed whereas other people who have never coded might need to watch it through three times at normal speed before they get the material.”


Particularly in a large college lecture hall setting, I realized my brother’s opinion made some sense. With so many people in the auditorium, it would be hard to ask complicated questions anyways, and the professor has to give one lecture to the whole body of students, so it is a similar “one size fits all” model as a video lecture. Furthermore, if you already know the material you certainly can’t ask the professor to speed up, and if you’re having a hard time grasping it, you can’t really ask the professor to slow down. Maybe technology was more personal in a way. Khan Academy’s mission statement even begins with “Khan Academy offers practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard that empower learners to study at their own pace in and outside of the classroom.” Education Week, a newspaper that focuses on K-12 educational issues, stated that one of the goals of having a one laptop per student policy in schools was, “allowing teachers and software to deliver more personalized content and lessons to students, while allowing students to learn at their own pace and ability level.” The foundation of this concept seemed to be that, with technology, you are the only one looking at your screen, and with the rise of artificial intelligence and computing power, developers are able to make software that provides an even more personalized education than Khan Academy. One such company is Area 9 Learning, whose co-founder I interviewed.


I Googled Area 9 Learning to prepare for the interview, and when I clicked the link for their website, I landed on a colorful diagram of a brain, “Adaptive Learning” in big block letters, and “Ultimate Personalization” written underneath. A quick Wikipedia search taught me that adaptive learning is an educational method that uses computers to create a tailored education for each unique student. Area 9 Learning’s software quizzes students on homework readings before they do the assignment and makes them rate their confidence on each answer. Then, the software analyzes the data and uses it to give students unique homework assignments based on what they already know, highlighting the sections of the text they should focus most on. Area 9 has built this system for over 1,500 textbooks, 5 million students use it every semester, and a couple thousand institutions in the United States have adapted the technology into their curriculums.5 I spoke with co-founder Ulrik Christensen over the phone. As Ulrik explained to me what his software does and how it enhances learning, his voice was slightly muffled, but I could hear the up and down tones of his thick Danish accent come through my speaker.


“So we work closely with teachers to make sure that this is not seen as a crutch but is seen as an enabling of what teachers are good at.” Ulrik said right off the bat, easing my fear of a world with teacherless classrooms. “So teachers are good at a lot of things including the human aspect of learning,” he continued, “but students are very, very different and if you have 20 or 30 students, it is very hard to individualize your teaching.” Ulrik explained that with his software, the teacher can see which students have which weaknesses once they complete the homework, so the teacher can cater the class to those specific needs. “So you might teach the same History 101 class twice in a row for two different sections,” Ulrik gave as an example, “but you could teach them very, very differently as opposed to the old days where you would take the same outline out and go through it in both.”


Ulrik also emphasized that his company measures user feedback extensively and that they have found about 90% of all students find it useful, and 40% to 50% find it very useful or extremely useful. “Is this equally useful for good students and less good students?” Ulrik said, reiterating a frequently asked question. “The answer is yes, but it’s good in different ways,” he followed. “So the good students save time, and the less strong students actually spend more time, but they get substantially better and don’t drop out of college.”


If my school used the Area 9 software, how much time would I save? I wondered to myself. Thinking about all the homework readings I skim because I already know the information or it seems like common knowledge made me wish my computer wheedled those paragraphs out for me. Why didn’t Milton use software like that? I wondered. Eager to get a sense of Milton’s philosophy towards technology, I interviewed the head of the middle school, Will Crissman, and the head of Academy Technology Services (ATS), Bryan Price. First, I met with Mr. Crissman. In the middle school, they had recently been using technology more, and three years ago, they began lending every 6th, 7th, and 8th grade student a Chromebook. As we sat back in black leather lounge chairs in his small but welcoming office, I asked Mr. Crissman how students have responded to the increase of technology in their classrooms.


“They love their chromebooks — I’ll tell you that much,” he said with a laugh. “And if we think about middle schoolers now, 12 year olds, they are growing up in an era where this is ubiquitous. It’s totally a part of their lives now: smart phones and the internet and all these sorts of tools.” Mr. Crissman was more positive about technology than negative, noting that other benefits included communication and organization. “We’re losing some of the potential exchange where kids say ‘uh, I lost my sheet at home’ or come in with it in a crumpled ball — which happens to some students now and then,” Mr. Crissman remarked.


To my surprise, Mr. Crissman said that the response to technology from parents has been overall positive as well. In my experience, parents always seemed to have a “get out a pen and paper once in awhile!” mindset. However, some online research backed him up. A 2015 study by the Family Online Safety Institute found that 78% of American parents believe technology has a positive effect on their child’s future, career and life skills, and 64% think it has a positive effect on creativity. In a a 2016 study by Educause, students were reported as seeing technology very positively as well. They found that only 1% of U.S. college students do not own any devices and that students view technology 1) as something that enables them to engage in content in less traditional ways, 2) as a set of skills or literacies they are expected to possess in order to succeed, 3) as something that excites or empowers them to learn, and 4) ambivalently as a potential threat to their privacy. It seemed as though technology was everywhere in the realm of education, and for the most part people seemed to be responding positively.


Across the street from Mr. Crissman’s office, in the basement of the Student Center, I walked down a slightly grimy corridor to reach the ATS department. I found Mr. Price in his office, which was bursting with Milton spirit. Orange and blue, the school colors, were everywhere — on the Yogibos, wall hangings, and shelf decorations. Mr. Price, who sat at the dark wooden table in the middle of the room, wore a light blue shirt, a darker blue sweater vest, and an orange tie.


Mr. Price being the head of ATS and all, I was expecting to hear him go off about the benefits of technology and why we should use more and more of it. However, to my surprise, he emphasized that “despite the growing use of technology in recent years, technology is still used as a companion to the traditional classroom setting at Milton,” which, he noted, is on the cautious side compared to other schools. “I don’t personally feel like technology is a replacement for teaching,” Mr. Price said. “We all now can get answers to just about anything with Siri or Google or whatever, but in context — like having an ongoing conversation or dialogue — I don’t think technology does that for you.”


Although Mr. Price was right in his description of technology being a “companion” at Milton, it still seemed to be everywhere. Students carry their smartphones with them at all times, SmartBoards are in almost every classroom, and laptops cover desks and tables. Many of my teachers actually encourage us to take notes on paper rather than our laptops, saying research has proven that you remember more of your notes if you write them down by hand. NPR even did a recording last spring called “Attention Students: Put Your Laptops Away,” noting studies that concluded that because writing is slower than typing, when you take notes by hand you have to prioritize which parts to write down, which forces an extra layer of processing.9 Yet, I would estimate that over half the students in my classes still rely on their laptops when taking notes. I even take notes on my laptop sometimes, but usually only when I am bored or feel like there is something more productive I could be doing. The magic of the laptop is that only the students sitting right next to you can see what you’re doing, and there are an endless number of things to do on that machine. The instinct I have to pull out my laptop when I am bored in class is the same instinct I have to pull out my phone when waiting in a line, sitting on the train, or watching a boring movie. Technology provides an escape from boredom. Thinking about this reminded me of something Erick had said during our interview.


“I think kids get iPhones too early now,” he said. “Like parents use them as babysitters essentially. They just give them their iPhone, and they shut up for a while. And I think that’s not good, just because kids aren’t ever bored anymore, and I think being bored every once in awhile serves a purpose because it allows you to think about stuff. Now — I mean I know nothing about cognitive science — but I feel like only certain parts of kids’ brains are being activated all the time and others aren’t, and it’s gonna lead to developmental problems.”


In an article in the personal health section of the New York Times, clinical psychologist and author Dr. Steiner-Adair was quoted expressing a similar concern. “ If kids are allowed to play ‘Candy Crush’ on the way to school the car ride will be quiet, but that’s not what kids need. They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.”


In long car rides, I often find myself feeling more content and better rested if I look out my window rather than my phone. Daydreaming usually comes from being bored, but the daydreams themselves are not boring at all. Even in class or another place where you’re supposed to be paying attention, daydreaming is not always a bad thing. In my architecture class, for example, my teacher loves to go on long tangents, bouncing around from idea to idea. Rather than pull out my laptop or seeth in boredom, I find myself hearing a point Mr. Cheney makes and letting my mind drift from his talking to explore that idea more. Ironically, many of his long winded tangents are about technology in education, so I decided to interview him.


We spoke in the space where my architecture class usually meets, an open space on the second floor of my school’s Arts and Media Center. We sat in rolly chairs at the corner of a work table, which had a mess of drawing boards, rulers, and pieces of wood scattered about it. Mr. Cheney wore a blue button down shirt, a green vest, and his signature round wire rimmed glasses.


“Do you think that the increase in technology at Milton has been a positive change?” I asked.


“Im sure in a bunch of ways it has,” he began, “and I think that’s true not only for the students, but also for the faculty. The concern that I have and a lot of others share is…” Mr. Cheney paused now and laughed a little, “sort of keeping track of what the student is gaining and what they’re losing as well as what the teacher is gaining and what they’re losing. The nature of the human beast, particularly the American human beast, is to think ‘if it’s new, its gotta be better’ which is to say not that it’s ‘gotta be,’ but it is better.’”


“There has been an increase in the use of technology with a capital T,” Mr. Cheney said, his voice rising as he enunciated each syllable. “That basically means software and hardware that takes care of doing things that you would otherwise have to do yourself, right? Or you’d actually have to pay attention to how you could do it or what your options are. This has been something which, while making some things easier, has diminished the opportunity, if not the requirement, for people to actually have to pay attention to learning how to do things.”


Mr. Crissman, during my interview with him, had touched on similar territory. “There is a sense of long term planning that I think sometimes gets lost with the digital stuff,” he had said. “So schoology is a good example.” Schoology is a website where teachers post assignments; it acts as an electronic planner for students. “I think our students mostly look day to day at what’s happening, so they don’t have that long perspective of ‘I have project that’s due in 10 days and I really should be working on it a little bit each day’ because it doesn’t show up in their feed in that way.”


Every night when I sit down to do my homework, the first thing I do is open Schoology. Because I know I have Schoology, I don’t listen when teachers say the homework assignment in class, so without Schoology, I would have no idea what my homework was. Mr. Cheney believes it is this type of technology that actually makes us less intelligent. “I have not been so quick to say, ‘right, I’m not gonna use a calendar, I’m gonna use a computer, and I’m gonna have it beep me to remind me to do things. And otherwise I won’t worry about whether I’m supposed to do anything, so I don’t try to remember,’” he said. “I try to remember, or I’ll make a written list. And some of that is like ‘well, you’re just not going with the flow’ and its like, ‘well, I don’t really need to go with the flow. And if I go with the flow, I know I’m becoming dependent on somebody other than myself.’”


Mr. Cheney is not alone in his concerns. As technology has taken over the country, many others have stepped back and considered how the ease and efficiency technology provides is affecting our lifestyles and brains. In a New Yorker article, author Tim Wu wrote “our limited working memory means we’re bad at arithmetic, and so no one does long division anymore. Our memories are unreliable, so we have supplemented them with electronic storage. The human brain, compared with a computer, is bad at networking with other brains, so we have invented tools, like Wikipedia and Google search, that aid that kind of interfacing.” Our access to technology has in many ways created a reliance on it and made us deem certain skills we once needed useless. But many of those skills exercised our brains.


“It’s like, wait a minute,” Mr. Cheney said during our interview, “technology is supposed to be this thing that is serving us.” His eyebrows furrowed as he gestured with his hands, “well, now because of technology we have an advancement of the speed that we need this kind of thinking, and yet we’re witnessing that there’s actually less of that kind of thinking present in the people that are coming through the educational systems. Like, what’s wrong with this picture?”


Mr. Cheney’s point scared me. He was right: we are in a paradox. We are becoming more and more dependent on technology, yet our dependence on technology is reducing the cognitive skills needed to work on technology and make it better. I could see the effects of technology in my own life. When I was younger, I would wait a full five minutes for my family’s old desktop DELL computer to boot up, yet now I get frustrated and constantly refresh the browser if a website doesn’t load within seconds. Just eight years ago, my Danish au pair would take hours frantically driving through backstreets as she got lost driving me to soccer practice five miles away. Now, I don’t know anyone who drives and does not have Google Maps or Waze on his or her smartphone, and if their phones die or the virtual maps malfunction, I have witnessed peers have mini panic attacks. I cannot get into debates with my brother without at least one of us looking up facts on Google to make our arguments for us. It seems as though we have adapted to our increasing access to technology in the same way that animals adapt to changes to their environments. As we adapt to technology, our dependency on it grows, and we let our devices think for us.


I say this as a computer programmer and someone who is easily fascinated and excited by technology. The truth is, technology has so much potential to solve world problems and improve health. Even within the realm of education, online resources like Khan Academy have made education accessible to people who never had access before. Software like Area 9 Learning gives students a more personalized platform for learning. Virtual reality simulators are used in surgical training, allowing surgery students to learn and practice on virtual human bodies. Furthermore, it is true that the world is in this technology revolution, and it is unlikely that we will ever backtrack. Technology is a part of our lives now, and technology needs to be a part of the education system in order to prepare young people for the real world, both inside the workforce and out. But how do we navigate the negative impacts technology is having on our brains and our lifestyles with its prominence in society and potential?


Perhaps the solution does not lie in fully stepping back from technology, but rather diving into it. Completely eliminating technology in young people’s learning would on one hand deprive them from experiencing the benefits technology can provide, and on the other hand fail in preparing them for a technology driven society. At the same time, continuing on the same track of letting laptops, software, and smartphones dominate young people’s lives may create a reliance on technology that makes students lazy and impatient. Mr. Cheney’s biggest concern was that technology automates everything for us, making us not even consider how it is being done. “It’s a tool,” he had said. “It’s another tool. The problem is it takes the pencil out of the hand, it takes the brush out of the hand, it takes the hand out of the clay, it’s like, it just gets further and further away from this,” he said, holding his hand up and shaking it, “which gets further and further away from this,” he said gesturing to his brain.


The reason I had felt guilty using my Star Walk app to find a constellation was because it felt so far away my brain. I had no idea how that app worked, and I had let it do my thinking for me. But what if I had been the one to create that app? It wouldn’t feel like the app was thinking for me because I would have done all the thinking for the app. If schools taught kids to code, students would be inherently more conscious of what technology is doing for them and how it works. Instead of the electronic tools they use regularly — the internet, email, or Google Maps — seeming like magic, they would be real life examples of what the students are learning and would excite their brains rather than automate them. Furthermore, coming up with project ideas, fixing bugs, and making programs more efficient teaches the problem solving skills, patience, and creativity that overusing technology can make us lose. Technology should not be integrated into schools without computer programming being integrated into the learning curriculum. Computers without coding is like calculators without math, books without English, paint without art, or labs without science.


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Posted by The Milton Measure on Mar 31 2017. Filed under Nonfiction Feature 2017. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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