Thinking About the Risks of Tech in Schools

Thinking About Risks of Tech in Schools

I recently read Diane Ravitch’s “5 Risks Posed by Increasing Misuse of Technology in Schools.” I think it’s a really important article. In it, she writes,

“I have seen teachers who use technology to inspire inquiry, research, creativity and excitement. I understand what a powerful tool it is. But it is also fraught with risk, and the tech industry has not done enough to mitigate the risks.”

It may sound crazy — after all I’ve founded not one, but two edtech companies — but I completely agree with her take. I’m highly skeptical of technology and deeply concerned with the proliferation of technology in our lives in general, and our students’ lives in particular. If you tell me “there’s an app for that,” my first thought is I probably don’t need it. Technology definitely makes possible things that weren’t possible before, but that’s not always a good or worthy end. We have to be thoughtful about what we bring into our lives and what we require our students to use.

I want to speak directly to four of the five risks Diane mentions (Risk Four: Cyber Charter Schools is important too, but one I have less experience with).

Risk One: The Threat to Student Privacy

Yes, this is a major concern. Are students getting something for free? Then they are likely being tracked and monetized elsewhere. Are you being offered personalized learning? Then lots of data is being tracked about your students. There is somewhere around 13 epic tons of “educational” apps out there and their quality or trustworthiness is far from guaranteed. I know some school districts keep a carefully vetted list of apps and sites that are approved. Beyond that list, if a teacher directs students to a site, they need parental approval first. Extra work? Yes, but vital to keeping student personal information safe.

Risk Two: Proliferation of “Personalized Learning”

Personalized learning, it sounds good but it’s really just short-hand for substituting a computer for a thinking, breathing, human teacher. There are several reasons to be concerned about this trend.

  1. We know that teachers, and having a good relationship with a teacher, make a huge difference in a child’s success. Removing teachers from the equation presents a huge, as yet unmeasured, risk.
  2. We know that screen time has been linked to feelings of loneliness, poor health and even addictive behaviors. Putting students in front of screens more and without guidance, is something we should consider with great caution.
  3. An important part of learning and growing into a responsible and empathetic person in the world is being able to understand different points of view. The more we send students down their own private, protected learning path in their own private, learning bubbles, the more we deprive students of the opportunity to develop skills like collaboration, listening, and communication. Knowing how to deal with people who hold a different opinion or perspective, how to wait for someone in class who needs extra time to catch up, or how help your neighbor is important. The world needs people who are aware of the community around them, who will be kind, helpful, and able to solve problems with and for others.

Risk Three: Extensive Use of Technology for Assessment

When we rely on technology for assessment we do so at the cost of critical thought. If we want students to think critically and creatively, we can’t rely on computers to help them do that and give them feedback. If we want students to know how to pick the right answer from a list, then by all means, let’s use computers!

Also, does it worry anyone else that companies want computers to be able to read and grade an essay? I don’t want that. Even if they were good at it, I wouldn’t want that. I want human to human connection. I want essays that lift the spirit and move me. I want students to write essays that they are proud of and excited to share with their peers and family. I want projects that aid the community or solve a real problem. I don’t want my students doing work so that I can feed it into a computer. If that’s the only reason they are doing the work, them I’m wasting their time.

Risk Five: Money in Edtech

We should all be skeptical about the intentions of edtech companies. There are definitely companies and entrepreneurs looking for ways to make money off of schools without investing the research or work necessary to develop products that are safe, effective and rooted in sound educational practices. It’s important to know the company. Do you trust them? Are they good people? Do the founders actually care about education or are they entrepreneurs looking for the next cash cow?

Is what they are offering really high quality and can they deliver what they promise? This is especially important when looking at edtech companies providing content. Is that content vetted? Who made it? There’s a reason it’s cheaper than buying textbooks or full curriculums; chances are it was made fast and cheap without the rigor that goes into developing great content.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, free is equally concerning. Nothing is free. When a company is giving away their product for free, you should always ask why. What’s in it for them? If they are giving something to schools and students for free, you should definitely be asking. Sometimes they are giving the it away for free so you can try out part of the product before paying, but sometimes there are more concerning motivations. Here are some reasons companies give stuff away for free:

  1. They are selling your data
  2. They are finding some other way to monetize — like selling ads and pushing other products on you or your students
  3. What they are offering isn’t high quality — that’s why it’s free.

Of course free isn’t always bad, but it does mean you should think about why it’s free. When deciding what apps to let my child use, I find the ones that charge money are often of higher quality and have some educational merit to back them up.

As a founder of a tech company, I urge you to be cautious about technology in schools. All tech is not created equal. When considering new technology, start with your school’s mission. Is this tool really serving you as you work tirelessly to educate your students and nurture them into good people who are our future? If you can’t answer that, it’s not worth it the cost, even if it’s free.

This week’s post was written by Pear Deck co-founder and Chief Educator, Michal Eynon-Lynch.

A note: Pear Deck offers a free version of our software. We do not sell information or push ads in exchange. Rather we let teachers use part of our product for free because we think active learning and meaningful student engagement makes a huge impact in student achievement and happiness. We offer free trials and a free version of our tools in hopes that teachers will try them and see the deep value in what we are providing, helping us spread this way of teaching and learning to other classrooms.