Too Much Screen Time in a Blended Learning Class?

The mid-July issue of Newsweek, linked below, was sitting on the coffee table at the Tahoe cabin of a friend of mine this past weekend. My interest was piqued by the cover image so, despite the fact that it was dated, I picked it up.

The author of the feature article, Is the Web Driving Us Mad?, Tony Dokoupil, presents what I will call a deeply researched opinion piece that does more than just suggest our brains are being negatively effected by our increased interaction with computing devices. I have reprinted his final paragraph below.

But in a way, it doesn’t matter whether our digital intensity is causing mental illness, or simply encouraging it along, as long as people are suffering. Overwhelmed by the velocity of their lives, we turn to prescription drugs, which helps explain why America runs on Xanax (and why rehab admissions for benzodiazepines, the ingredient in Xanax and other anti-anxiety drugs, have tripled since the late 1990s). We also spring for the false rescue of multitasking, which saps attention even when the computer is off. And all of us, since the relationship with the Internet began, have tended to accept it as is, without much conscious thought about how we want it to be or what we want to avoid. Those days of complacency should end. The Internet is still ours to shape. Our minds are in the balance.


Dokoupil shares his distillation of a host of studies that associate increases in various forms of digital interactivity with poor health outcomes. Make a documentary about an African dictator, when it goes viral you will respond to an exponentially growing Twitter fan base and go crazy enough to beat the pavement while naked on a street corner. Spend too much time surfing the web, you will start acting compulsively. Play video games for too long, and your real-life baby dies from neglect while your virtual baby flourishes. Take their digital devices away for twenty four hours and college kids practically beg for methadone to come down.

As a synthesis of research, Dokoupil’s effort wouldn’t exactly stand up to the rigor of academic critique, but he did a good job of pressing my face to the glass. Will there be negative consequences for an increase in screen time for students in a one to one environment?

Instead of synthesizing research in a defense of my edupreneurial, blended learning march toward an education environment in which students achieve at higher levels, maintain interest for longer periods of time, and feel inspired to take learning into their own hands, I will share my Dokoupil inspired reflections.

Not all screen time is the same. With the exception of the possible degraded eyesight that can come from extensive exposure to an active screen, I suspect there is no difference  between reading an ebook and reading a paper book. Does reading flat, one dimensional text count as screen time? I say no. What about when the text has links? Certainly, this is different than reading static paper. Is the distraction from narrative that is achieved when we visit a link to examine a source or watch a quick video clip push us one step closer to the ADHD cliff. Not sure.

One thing Dokupil’s article did for me is to remind me of the effect that rapid changes of scene may have on the developing mind. What might be okay for a forty year old edtechnophile with real shelves filled with the wooden trophies that are books read, may not be okay for a fifteen year old who processes more than one hundred text messages a day and plays two hours of first person shooter games at night.

A well managed digital classroom promotes greater social interaction, it doesn’t stifle it. My experience mirrors that of other educators using tools like Twitter, Remind101, and even Facebook. With the structured environment that is provided by a school interaction, social media becomes a powerful tool that lifts under-represented voices in a classroom. Teachers blog about this with respect to the increased communication they experience with their students outside of class. I experience this inside of class. My current tool of choice for amplifying the voice of all students is GoSoapBox.

Like PollEverywhere, GSB allows me to pose questions in the cloud that students can respond to with any web enabled device. My favorite use case is when I can make students’ responses anonymous to one another, but visible to me. They read and critique one another’s work without knowing who the author may be. I find the gems produced by the students most reticent to speak out and ask them to share their thinking. This is powerful edtech that can’t possibly be doing more harm than good.

Teaching in the blended environment has given me what I wanted, and now part of me wants to give it back. Adolescents have many different needs, and those needs are more apparent when you have time to interact with them individually on a daily basis. When I was the sage on the stage, everybody’s needs seemed to be met. They were quiet while I entertained. When I told them to take notes, they dutifully did so. When I asked them to share their ideas with each other, they obliged. The world was just tickety-boo.

Now, just a few weeks into the blended school year, I am painfully aware of how little one of my EL students, D, actually understands what I am saying. When I had time to review both the attendance record and transcript for J during class because he arrived tardy for the fifth time after two days of absence, I felt the hopelessness of knowing that my chances of helping him succeed by the metric of earning credit are highly unlikely. B wants to be an engineer and is moving through the curriculum so quickly that he finishes all of the work with two full class periods to spare before the unit exam, and is exhibiting signs of boredom – even though he is accomplishing at least 25% more of everything (problem solving, labs, paragraph responses, formative assessments) than last year’s students. My burden felt lighter when I didn’t know all of these things, despite their almost certain existence prior to the blend.

Blended learning does not mean kids in a classroom staring at screens all day long. The blend is a combination of digitally-anchored activities and other activities. My science classes still perform labs. We still solve problems on whiteboards in small groups. And I still occupy the stage when my formative assessment data collection gives me a direction at which to target my direct instruction. Of late, my teaching colleagues and I have decided to structure less time on the machines for the students and more time in whole group and small group activity. Too much individual screen time seems to unmoor the anchor of the class, letting the current of adolescent whim carry the ship off course.

Blended learning is not the same as taking an online course. And answering analysis questions about videos and simulations is not the same as processing 123 text messages a day. OMG! The internet connected life is upon us. Unless we, as educators, enter the space where our students have committed a significant part of themselves, acting as their guides, they will govern each other. Piggy will you please pass the conch? I’d rather be remembered as a teacher who trained the mushy text message marinated brains of his students to question internet sources than the teacher who failed to inspire a new generation of learners by sticking to a paradigm that worked for me.

About Jack West

Consultant, writer, analyst, teacher, coach, maker.

2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on elketeaches and commented:
    interesting read….ooooh the scary computer and its impact on our brains! 🙂 Totally agree with Jack’s main points here, I especially like the “…promotes greater social interaction…” point, it’s amazing how many people I talk to still view computers in the classroom as an independent/lonely activity.

What do you have to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s