Opinion: Gwinnett parents and all parents ought to be wary of digital push

Jane Robbins of Atlanta is an attorney and senior fellow at the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank.  She often writes about how student data is being collected and used.

Here is an earlier AJC Get Schooled piece she wrote related to that issue.

As a parent, I would have no objection to the vocabulary-building program used by Gwinnett that is the focus of Robbins' column today.

While I share Robbins' misgivings over the use of electronic media by young children, American parents continue to expose their kids to screens at earlier and earlier ages. Young parents today use technology in every part of their lives. I have been amazed to see all my young neighbors who now order their groceries online. I am still running to Kroger or Publix for my milk and eggs.

It takes me hours to figure out a vacation between searching for cheap airfares and finding hotels. Sitting in the airport two weeks ago, I sat next to a 27-year-old who researched and booked a weekend trip to Santa Fe in about three minutes. Schools cannot resist technology when kids arrive wired and ready. Parents expect and want their schools to weave technology into the classroom.

In a study released earlier this year, Nielsen looked at when U.S. kids got a smartphone from their parents:

Slightly less than half (45%) of mobile kids got a service plan at 10-12 years old. The most predominant age when kids got a service plan was age 10 (22%), followed by 8 years old (16%) and ages 9 and 11 were tied at 15%. The mobile child also skews more male (56%) than female (44%), with at least one in five being Hispanic. Among 10-12-year-olds, the highest percentage of age represented was age 10 at 34%. The vast majority (93%) are on the same plan as their parents, and 72% have all mobile wireless services including voice, messaging and data.

With that background, here is Robbins' piece:

By Jane Robbins

Among the many challenges facing modern parents are the relentless lure of electronic media (computers, iPads, Chromebooks, video games) and the constant barrage of commercial advertising directed at children. Conscientious parents try to limit their children’s exposure to both. But for some whose children attend kindergarten in Gwinnett County Public Schools,  their task has been made more difficult.

Six classrooms of GCPS kindergartners were recently exposed to a pilot program to test a vocabulary-building app created by Sesame Workshop and IBM Watson. According to IBM, the two organizations have created a platform combining "IBM Watson's cognitive computing technology and Sesame's whole-child curriculum." The new app "features . . . Sesame Street's beloved characters in research-based videos and interactive learning games." Supposedly, this app helped teach challenging vocabulary words such as "arachnid."

IBM touts this instruction as “individualized” – teachers will be able to monitor each child’s vocabulary development in real time and “adjust lessons, pacing, and the curriculum, all based on each student’s needs.”

The photo accompanying this description shows three solemn-faced youngsters, each wearing headphones and staring at colorful images on their individual screens. The glazed-eye look on their faces would be familiar to many parents.

What could be wrong with using this cutting-edge technology in the classroom? The most basic concern is that excessive screen-time, especially in young children, can lead to a plethora of problems including attention-deficit disorder and obesity.

Psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley warns that many problems associated with increased screen-time come from physical hyperstimulation of the user's nervous system. Such "dysregulation" can lead to behavior problems, "meltdowns," and inability to focus, among other things. "What's surprising," Dunckley says, "is how little screen-time it takes to induce dysregulation symptoms. For some kids just 30 minutes a day of iPad use causes huge problems that disappear once the iPad is removed. . . . A child need not be 'addicted' to technology to suffer effects from using it."

For these reasons, national pediatricians' associations agree (see here and here) that screen-time for 5-year-olds should be limited to no more than one hour per day. Were parents of the GCPS tots advised to eliminate screen-time at home because it had already been imposed at school?

The idea of "individualized" or "personalized" learning also carries unrecognized dangers. "Individualization" means that sophisticated software, such as the Sesame/IBM software, collects myriad data points on each child's behaviors as he interacts with the platform. (IBM says it collected 18,000 data points on the 120 GCPS students.) That data is fed into an algorithm that essentially maps the brain of each child, analyzing how he thinks and predicting what he supposedly needs at the next stage of the lesson.

So now, two private companies have digital data on how 120 Gwinnett students’ brains work. Did GCPB explain that to their parents?

IBM also brags that it will expand its platform to include "play experiences" in "emotional learning." "Social-emotional learning," or SEL, is the direction that public schools are headed. Rather than teaching academic content, the progressive education establishment now focuses on re-shaping students' attitudes, mindsets, and behaviors – which can be controlled much more effectively with technology such as IBM's. In fact, concerns about the inappropriateness of such psychological manipulation recently led the Georgia Department of Education, to its credit, to withdraw from a nationwide SEL program.

The introduction of videogaming into the classroom is also alarming, given the research showing that such games can actually "change the structure and composition of the brain." In fact, gaming proponents predict it can be used to alter human behavior to align with government preferences. A government that wants to change behavior will welcome the chance to start in kindergarten.

But does "individualized" digital learning actually improve academic performance? Multiple studies say no. Some educators are banning digital technology from their classrooms because of its interference with the vital social interaction of genuine education. But Gwinnett parents probably weren't told this either.

Beyond the dangers of screen-time, mind-mapping, and privacy invasion, the Sesame/IBM project exacerbates the difficulties of protecting children from commercialization. The taxpayer-supported Sesame Street enterprise makes millions every year from toys, videos, theme parks, and much more. Its "educational" apps injected into public schools give the enterprise direct access to a captive audience of 5-year-olds. "M" is for "marketing."

Parents, insist on answers to direct questions about what’s happening with such “digital learning” in public schools. If the answers aren’t satisfactory, pull your children from the programs. Corporate America has no right to your kids.