The Data (plan) Ate My Homework

Teens and smartphone

Photo: Olaf Speier

In February, The Wall Street Journal featured a story that must have freaked out parents and guardians everywhere. In “Smartphones Go to School, reporter Charlie Wells cites an increasing number of schools nationwide that are allowing gadgets in the classroom for quizzes, homework and projects.

Massachusetts-based educator, Joni Siani, is an outspoken and passionate advocate of media literacy in schools and author of Celling your Soul: No App for Life. (This book was made into a movie by her students and was named best documentary at the Boston International Kids Film Festival last year.) Siani says,

Using smartphones in class is not only counterproductive, but downright insane. Assignments done on a gadget is homework in tiny chunks of thought with little reflection.”

Not to mention the excuses. Dogs will no longer be the scapegoats for missed assignments. Instead, maxed out data plans will be blamed for incomplete projects or homework that just didn’t get done.

It is well documented that overuse of electronics by children is detrimental to their growth. The Learning Habit, published in 2014, reveals that grades, sleep, social skills and emotional balance begin to decline after just 45 minutes of media use. A 2015 study by the London School of Economics found kids banned from using phones at school did much better on test scores than those who were allowed to use them. The impact of banning the devices was equal to an extra hour a week at school or a five-day increase in the school year.

Ironically, many tech leaders are anti-tech parents. Apple founder Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use an iPad. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired also had strict rules on electronics use at home. When asked why, Anderson said, “Because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, and I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

At a time when adults are talking about balance, stress management and Internet overload, our children are increasingly hooked on technology. Classrooms should be a safe haven from distractions and a focused learning environment, but teachers are caving in to their students’ desires. Comedian Paula Poundstone said it best. In reference to excessive smartphone usage, she said, “Some kids like heroin. Does that mean we’re going to give it to them?”

Surprisingly, many people defend the use of smartphones in class. And not just those profiting from the technology. John Kim, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, told the WSJ, “The teaching profession has yet to catch up with how students are using the devices.”

Apparently our overworked, underfunded, dedicated teachers don’t have enough to do. Certainly the Internet is a superb research tool. Except when the student gets sidetracked by Snapchat while looking up the per capita income of Zaire. But will writing a paper on a smartphone make the topic stick better? Why is technology driving the content of the learning? At what cost? Who really benefits?

According to Siani, encouraging more gadget use is not what students want. And she should know. During the past seven years, she has interviewed thousands of kids and parents about the effects of digital communication. The response has been eye-opening. Young people are desperate for relief from the demands of 24/7 connectivity. After a recent screening of her film at a Boston area high school, a student asked if she could “just vent” about the pressure from smartphone distractions. Last year, 25 teenagers at another school sat with Siani for two hours after watching the film, waiting to be heard. Many were in tears. (The filmmaker says this happens after nearly every screening.)

“Parents and kids look to their schools for leadership,” says Siani. Therefore, it’s important for superintendents, teachers and other educators to help kids unhook from their gadgets, instead of enabling them. Nationwide, rules on smartphone use in school varies, but consistent, digital communications policies in classrooms are needed that benefit the children. Not Samsung, not Apple or Verizon or Sprint, or the many other companies that provide the technology.

Steve Jobs must be rolling over in his grave.


5 thoughts on “The Data (plan) Ate My Homework

  1. Thanks to another passionate advocate and awesome mother who gets it! We’re excited to invite the community to move on the solutions that we have found “work!” Book a conversation, workshop or screening and let’s talk…together!


  2. Hi Joni! You may find it interesting that that feature article did not result in one printed “letter-to-editor” in The Wall Street Journal. As if no one wrote in to disagree with using smartphones in the classroom! I find this very hard to believe. (I know that there was at least one because I sent it in!) Good luck with your digital literacy educational campaign! It is so valuable for teachers, parents/guardians and kids, of course!


  3. This is very interesting to me! My son in his junior in high school and is often asked to use his smart phone for course work. This is in a school where almost all of the students have smart phones. My other son is in college and is frequently asked to use his smart phone. Both receive text messages for homework assignments and other school information. I will have to think about this a bit more but if smart phones are used in the work world extensively I would think this would be helpful in the learning process. Very interesting debate and I’d sure love to see that film!


    • You hit the nail on the head. This is the debate that we are struggling with. It is a paradox of both positive and negative and that’s why our aim is “digital distinction.” An opportunity to really evaluate both, creating a “best practices” approach, while also examining the “cost” of these conveniences. We’ve had amazing feedback from parents, students and teachers when we elevate the discussion and examine the trade-offs. The constant flow of non-stop information coming at us – whether it’s a homework text, a girlfriend, some digital drama on social media, the latest sports score – simply adds up to information overload and a pavlovian conditioning to our devices. The result – a steady rise in stress, anxiety and host of unintended consequences.
      I’ll be sure to let you know about the next screening or workshop! Awesome thoughtful response!


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