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‘It’s time to wrestle again’: Bend-La Pine Schools plans fall changes, work group to tackle addictive tech in the classroom

Schools may limit younger grades' device use; a 'fine balance' sought between powerful tools and troubles

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – Technology moves fast, in general, and government bodies don’t, also in general. But the concerns voiced by 135 health care professionals in a letter presented to the Bend-La Pine School Board Tuesday evening about over-use of ‘addictive tech” in the classroom, especially in younger grades, came as the district already was considering significant changes this fall.

Those potential changes could include a limit on device (mainly iPads) use for students in kindergarten through second grade, removing access to YouTube content for elementary and middle schoolers, and more use of a device manager to let teachers give students access to specific apps only during their class.

Whether the potential changes outlined by school district Director of IT Scott McDonald go far enough, or more will be added, time will tell.

The district has also been phasing in over the past few years an “off and away” policy for student cellphones and other personal devices, McDonald said. But adults know well – and parents/teachers even more so - the challenges of keeping powerful handheld tech in its rightful place, whatever the age.

On the last day of the school year for many kids, several speakers, including parents and teachers, and school board members as well said it’s time for another close review of whether policies and guidelines need to change more significantly, to assure the often-“gamified” nature of tech and learning apps are really helping students learn, or diverting them from attention, focus and what they need to know to be successful in life.

Then there are the both in- and out-of-class issues of misuse of cellphones if not kept out of young hands for much if not all of the school day, from diverted attentions spans to more dangerous issues of isolation, cyberbullying or worse. These are also the kinds of issues Bend state Rep. Emerson Levy, D-Ore., said she plans to discuss in coming months and bring to lawmakers during the 2025 session.

Child psychologist Wendy Laakmann, representing Dr. Kate Broadman, MD, who spearheaded the health care professionals' "letter of concern," said she’s collaborated with the school district for 14 years and that it needs to again address what learning is best utilized on screens, vs. paper and pencil, and “potentially addictive aspects of technology.”

Parent and Bend High English teacher Megan Bowerman held up a drawing by her first-grader son. When asked to draw “what I like about school,” his drawing showed students at their desks, on their iPads, with an empty playground in the background.

Brooke Mues, co-founder of Well Wired, which calls itself a "healthy Tech" parent advocacy group, said her second-grade son became obsessed with a math game called Prodigy this year, and learned he’d spend a minute on the math questions and 14 minutes playing video games that “didn’t feel like it was enhancing his learning.”

She said he showed her in the reading app Lexia how he’d found he could rapidly tap the device at a certain point few times, skip the reading and still get credit for doing so.  If it’s “falsely reading his progress, how do we know if it’s working?” she asked.

Ami Formica, Well Wired’s other co-founder, said teachers tell them that “phones are the root cause of so many problems during the school day.” She called for a “stronger district-wide policy at all levels,” noting how the U.S. surgeon general just this week called for warning labels on social media platforms, similar those on tobacco products.

Answering school board members’ questions, McDonald said for example that “we struggle with YouTube content, because people do use it instructionally.” He said they blocked YouTube in 2017 but that lasted only a couple months: “I think it’s certainly under consideration again,” despite the instructional value in some situations.

Board member Amy Tatom asked, “Is it possible to have no games available on the iPad?” She said she works in adult medicine and sees the addictive behaviors with phones that also can happen among the very young. She hopes they can “try to remove the games that are more dopamine rushes than embedding information in our brains.”

McDonald said, “There’s a lot of merit to that argument. Some of our apps do try to strike that balance.”

Fellow board member Cameron Fischer said it can be a “fine balance” to seek, as “we need tech skills” in today’s society. But she sees “games that are clear learning tools, and others don’t qualify as learning at all, in my opinion,” and said she hopes “we tighten up a little bit more,” to support high-quality learning tools “and ones trying to one-up each other on the highest score that don’t seen to be helpful.”

McDonald said “elementary school should be ‘technology light.’”

Board member Carrie McPherson Douglass said she was “thrilled to hear we’re working on ‘off and away’ policies,” But district Superintendent Dr. Steve Cook noted, “We’ve had varying degrees of success in implementation,” as at the elementary levels, it goes “gangbusters for two months, then starts to erode. Kids are tenacious and find ways to push” the limits.

Board member Shirley Olson said the effort “needs to be in partnership with parents,” as well as student voices.

“We’ll have parents who feel very strongly one way or the other,” she said, “but that’s okay – we need the input.”

Board Chair Marcus LeGrand said, “What I’m hearing is, we all need to get in a room and figure this out together, collectively.”

And after all the concerned but not combative discussion, McDonald agreed: "I think it is high time for a work group," similar to one that came together six years ago, to look closely again at what tech has wrought, for better and ... not so much..

"Yeah -it's time to wrestle again," he said.

Here’s the memo McDonald presented and read to the school board and audience:

Bend-La Pine Schools takes a proactive and holistic approach to student technology use in and out of the classroom. We evaluate our digital learning program regularly through the school year, and we welcome input from educators, students, families and members of the community. We strive to provide a safe, effective and appropriate digital learning environment for all students.

We understand that some members of our community have valid concerns regarding the screen time children experience for communication, social and entertainment purposes. We share these concerns, which is one of the reasons the district over the past two school years phased in an “off and away” practice for student phones and other personal devices.

Managing School-Provided Devices

We also are aware that there are concerns about the instructional use of school-provided devices, such as iPads. The iPads we provide students are managed devices with controls, such as filtered Internet access, to ensure safe and appropriate use.

Access to tools and apps via these devices is intended to promote quality instruction and learning, and give educators and families an opportunity to work together to advance the goals of safe and responsible use of technology. Students may access several safety features on their iPads, including the First Step youth crisis and support service; the district’s bias incident reporting form; and the district’s Student Code of Conduct.

Evaluating and Improving Digital Tools

The digital tools and applications used by students in Bend-La Pine Schools are routinely reviewed and evaluated between our instructional staff and Information Technology Department. Each week, a team meets to review tools and applications in order to maintain an inventory of up-to-date, high-value applications for use by students and staff.

Our annual evaluation of the digital learning program at Bend-La Pine School is a comprehensive process that spans the entire school year. It begins with the careful consideration of digital curriculum requests submitted by each school in the spring, which are reviewed before the end of the instructional year. Over the summer, we engage in further discussions about purchasing, security, learning management systems, classroom management, student wellness, and safety, as well as a plan for teacher training.

Changes Currently Under Consideration

Bend-La Pine Schools is dedicated to improving how our students, families and educators work together to provide a positive and healthy learning environment through use of technology. For the 2024-25 school year, the district is considering several potential changes in how students interact with technology in our schools. The changes under consideration include:

  • Limiting device use for students in kindergarten through second grade. This could entail an emphasis on research-based applications that are beneficial, diagnostic, and transformative for student learning.
  • Removing access to YouTube content on district devices for students in elementary and middle school. YouTube currently is the only social media platform available on student devices, and access is filtered.
  • Providing a device management resource to teachers allowing them to provide students access specific apps for the length of a class period. This instructional tool was piloted in select middle school classrooms this spring and is in consideration for deployment district-wide for the 2024-25 school year.
  • Improving our digital curriculum review, adoption and deployment processes.
  • Forming a Bend-La Pine Schools digital learning workgroup with district and community stakeholders, allowing for further conversations about our digital learning program.
Article Topic Follows: Education

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Barney Lerten

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