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EdTech and Screen Time are Awkward Friends

I work in a 1-to-1 school. Every student and teacher has a device used for accessing resources, carrying out learning activities, and communicating and collaborating for academic purposes. My title is Digital Learning Specialist, so I love the tech. But I’m also a mom, so I understand worries about distraction and detachment. When our entire school community was surveyed last spring, the top concern of parents, teachers, and students related to technology use was screen time. Many of these concerns are based on warnings from experts we trust.

The research those warnings are based on came out over a decade ago.

How to Interpret the Research

Way back in 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended limiting screen time to under 2 hours per day. A decade later, in 2011 researchers in Australia noted that these limits were virtually impossible as screens became more than place for consumption of media. In May of this year, the AAP replaced these time-based restrictions with 12 guidelines. As noted by Jocelyn Brewer, psychologist and creator of Digital Nutrition, “These guidelines take a leap towards recognising the virtual reality of many families, where there is an increasing emphasis on learning with technology, yet there’s scarce direct teaching of the soft skills required to avoid the curses of excessive and compulsive use.” The 12 guidelines include clear recognition that parenting needs to happen in all environments, including online environments, and that it is normal for teens to do part of their growing and exploring online.

This adjustment to AAP recommendations does not put the screen time debate to bed. There is even more recent concern with the release of the Common Sense Media Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens. The most often repeated statistic from the study is that teens are spending an average of 9 hours per day with media and technology. Denise Lisi DeRosa, tech parenting consultant and Huffington Post blogger, cautions against reacting to this information by locking down teens’ access to technology. She says,

“The total screen time amount is not the full story because not all screen time is equal. We need to understand what our kids are doing online and why. Are they connecting or disengaging? Learning or escaping? Creating or being passive consumers? All of this is okay within reason, as long as there is balance in their lives. There’s a lot of junk online, but there are also great opportunities for learning, exploring, connecting and creative expression.”

That learning and exploring will happen at home and at school. Parents and educators need to work together to help teens learn a healthy balance.

Educators and Parents are Partners

When we get down to our roots, parents and educators want the same things for children. David Ryan Polgar, co-founder of the DigCitSummit and Digital Family Expert at Ask.fm, sums it up nicely. “We could make more progress regarding screen time if we focus on the end results that we are looking for with children. We want our kids to be tech savvy, but also able to allow their brains to wander and wonder. We our kids to have diverse online friendships across the globe, but also sharpen their social skills to appreciate the nuance in face-to-face communication.” Just as parents are looking to researchers and experts for ideas on how to work with their teen at home, educators need advice too.

Teachers in training are already thinking about how to balance the power of technology with the distractions in their future classrooms thanks to people like Marialice Curran. Curran is Associate Professor at Saint Joseph University and co-founder of DigCitSummit. When she works with her undergraduates, she encourages them to be intentional about their tech use. “I always ask my teacher candidates if, when they attend a concert or a sporting event, they watch through their device. I remind them be more present and not just watch events happen through a screen. We don’t want our children to see us making and capturing memories through just our devices.”

At the same time, Curran recognizes the power of the technology. “I like that the guidelines from the AAP distinguish the difference between consumption and creation. As a mother and an educator, I believe that it is our responsibility to model the difference.” The thing is, finding the right balance of consumption and creation can lead to some tough conversations in school conference rooms and happy father using tablet pc with little girlsPTO meetings.

Parenting experts, like DeRosa, agree that working with educators to model and teach this technology
balance is well worth the discomfort. “Parents should support their schools’ efforts to bring 21st century learning into the classroom and reinforce appropriate tech use at home. Our kids will need digital skills as they enter the workforce, so we should embrace this change for the sake of our kids’ future.” So how can all adults work together to help our children feel empowered, but not controlled by, the technology in our homes and classrooms?

The Answer is Digital Citizenship

Digital citizenship includes responsible use of technology in order to access resources, manage privacy and safety, contribute ideas, and collaborate with others. Mike Ribble, author of Digital Citizenship in Schools, has been researching and publishing on digital citizenship for well over a decade. He believes the AAP guidelines are parallel to what the digital citizenship community has been talking about for a while. Ribble says, “We are coming closer and closer to where the digital will be dropped in front of citizenship just like AAP dropped screen in front of time. We have changed as a society and technology affords us some great opportunities and will continue to do so. As adults and educators we need to continue to be flexible with our view of technology, but also know its place in our lives and our children’s lives. Technology, like everything, requires a balance and we must now learn how to help everyone know where this exists in our society.”

If conversations about screen time are to be productive, they should move away from the term “screen time” rather quickly. Technology use by students, and adults, must be measure by more than time. Not all time with tech is well spent, but not all of it is poorly spent. When we adults – parents and educators – learn the difference, we can better help our children manage their technology use as well. It is important to remember that none of us will do this without making a few mistakes along the way. Sometimes we will be coaching our kids, and sometimes they will be coaching us. As long as it is a constant conversation, we will be moving in the right direction.


After 13 years as a middle and high school history teacher, today Kerry Gallagher is a Digital Learning Specialist at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts. She is also Director of K-12 Education at ConnectSafely.org, a Silicon Valley based non-profit dedicated to educating users of connected technology about safety, privacy, and security. She is co-author of ConnectSafely’s Educator’s Guide to Social Media. Kerry is coordinator of the Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence Student Leadership Institute in July and December. She is the 2014 recipient of the Yale-Lynn Hall Teacher Action Research Prize and is a 2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator. She was the featured educator for her state’s ISTE affiliate, MassCUE, in November 2015. Recently, Kerry was recognized by Google and the Family Online Safety Institute with the 2015 Outstanding Achievement Award for exceptional work in the field of online safety. She is on Twitter @KerryHawk02 and her website is Start With a Question.

Take a Hike and Take Your PD With You

I’ve been doing a lot of math in my head lately trying to puzzle through some vexing equations:

Teachers + Technology + (?) = Engaging/Effective PD

(Sub-equation: Effective = Dynamic Learning for Students and More Trusting, Transparent Professional Culture)

Truth be told, professional development can often be an impersonal experience, one that fails to nourish connections between teachers that work right next door to each other. What to do?

Hall Middle Principal Tom Utic and I thought about this when planning our opening day PD this year: How could we create the right mix of structure (key outcomes around building community, school culture, intervention and instructional practice) and freedom for teachers to use digital tools to have a meaningful and memorable meeting? A meeting oriented toward doing/experimenting rather than watching someone show off their expertise (and dropping a big binder in our lap while doing so).

Our solution was dubbed #OpenAirPD– which we came up with while (fittingly) on a hike ourselves. Tom Kelley of IDEO talks about finding the “unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts” as a formula for creativity/innovation. It seems like an oxymoron to see the outdoors as an ideal place to learn how to use technology in a meaningful and creative way; however, if our goal is to disrupt an educational tradition of boring/uninspiring/ineffective PD, then the outdoors suddenly offer the perfect opportunities for unexpected juxtapositions. The outdoors invite cross-pollination.

#OpenAirPD began with a brief huddle in the library of our sister elementary school. After introducing new teachers and handing out iPads, we laced up our boots, reapplied sunscreen, and walked out the front door in pairs. Each pair was armed with a driving question handed out on a small strip of paper. Five minutes later we were walking gently uphill through stands of bay and oak trees, jagged rocks and poison oak with the first blush of fall red in its leaves. Every 10-15 minutes we gathered together to debrief, take pictures, and hand out a new question on another small piece of paper. We ate lunch atop Turtle Rock, a gas station-sized boulder famous with locals for views of the Bay and San Francisco and read an article one of our teachers recommended. On our way back downhill we spent 15 minutes doing a sensory walk: no speaking, just listening and looking at our surroundings – a protocol suggested by another teacher. At our final gathering back in the school library, people had time to create something on their iPads, putting into practice our overarching theme for the year at my school: Making Our Values Visible.

Were we successful? Despite our initial fears about some teachers not liking the location and format of the PD (not serious enough, not relevant, too much fluff…), the verbatim feedback below describing “Likes” from the day represents the overwhelmingly positive feelings people had about the experience – in fact, we’ve incorporated outdoor walks into virtually every staff meeting since.

The fact that we were in a natural setting without having to be sitting the whole day listening to the same speeches we hear every year.

Being outside, iPads, small group discussions. Being able to hike and talk allowed for more organic conversation as opposed to usually meetings. Success.

Working outside. It was nice to have conversations one on one out in the open because there was a privacy and space and time to finish our thoughts. The prompts were great. It was a nice way to start the year.

I really enjoyed being able to meet my new staff members in the great outdoors. The environment really allowed for casual conversation which was appreciated.

New equation:

#OpenAirPD + tablet = hAPPy Trails. (Sometimes life calls for sAPPy puns!!)

The greatest authority we have as educators (regardless of our position/role) is creating a sense of permission to try something new; after all, isn’t trying (and internalizing) new ideas and practices the definition of learning? We PD-planners and meeting-makers spend a lot of time building agendas, gathering materials, sorting through feedback. Do we spend an equivalent amount of brain-wattage choosing where we hold our meetings? If not, then here’s the simple math that will continually trip us up on our journey to make PD better:

Same meeting space + same people = (really close to) same results

Having yet another meeting in the Faculty Lounge somehow doesn’t lend itself to the idea of adventure

For a more in-depth look at our #OpenAirPD go here.


Eric Saibel is the Assistant Principal at Hall Middle School in Larkspur, CA after 16 years as a high school Assistant Principal and Spanish teacher. He is interested in how inclusive, emotionally intelligent leadership fosters school cultures that center on student growth, ongoing organizational learning and shared risk-taking. Co-founder of Global School Play Day – over 65,000 kids on six continents participated in 2015, aiming for 1M in February 2016! Blogging about the intersection of leadership, learning and creativity at Principalsintraining.wordpress.com. Presenter on social media in instructional pedagogy and adaptive leadership models. 2014 Bammy Award nominee for Secondary Principal of the Year. Big fan of the outdoors as humanity’s first (and best) classroom. Find him at @ecsaibel.

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