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Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer

Recently, my son mentioned, in an irritated aside, that he was tired of being called “the Nazi” by some of his friends at school, and that he didn’t appreciate the playground jokes about throwing him into the gas chamber. Being half-German, my son – unlike his Grade 4 peers – knew this wasn’t funny.

When I raised the issue with those friend’s parents, they were shocked and appalled – all the more so when their kids revealed that the jokes originated in videos they had been watching at school. As they reluctantly explained, they were using the 15 minutes their teacher granted them on the classroom laptop at the end of the day to watch videos that they knew were inappropriate.

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In addition to exposing gross negligence on the teacher’s part, the incident raises uncomfortable questions about the use – and abuse – of technology in the classroom. Parents, on the whole, have bought into the promise of connected, digital, paper-free classrooms; we clamour for more devices and faster connections in our schools. And while we struggle to ensure that screens have their time and place at home, we assume that at school they’re a force for good – developing the “global competencies that will allow students to communicate, collaborate and create … in a globally connected technology engaged world” as a Ministry of Education spokesperson put it. Have we been naive?

The videos that my son’s Grade 4/Grade 5 French-immersion class were watching – projected from the classroom laptop onto a whiteboard – were episodes of children’s animated television series, such as Peppa Pig or Caillou, redubbed with misogynist, anti-Semitic and racist text and intercut with endorsements of guns, marijuana and junk food. In the emergent lexicon of the online world, these subversive mashups of video content are called YouTube Poop.

The teacher claims he thought the kids were watching bona fide kids’ television and that he used the time to get some marking done or clean up the classroom at the end of the day. Students in the class say he was mostly at his computer or on his phone. There are many things wrong with this picture.

Of course, YouTube Poop has no place in a classroom, but it’s not hard for it to land there. Since the Toronto District School Board’s WiFi rollout completed in 2016, all schools in the board – like most in the country – have wireless networks and as many devices as they’ve been able to obtain from their slice of the board’s $3-million annual technology budget, plus fundraising initiatives. (Last year, $10,000 of our school’s parent-council funds were spent on iPads, MacBooks and a cart to transport them).

As Kevin Bradbeer, senior manager of the TDSB’s IT services, explains, the filters on the school board’s network, which block pornography and adult content, are fallible, as are the computer systems programmed to flag and remove these kinds of videos – which often violate copyright and hate laws – from YouTube. My son and his friends got a kick out of the TDSB content-warning banner floating impotently across the screen.

It’s hard to gauge the prevalence of technology abuse in the classroom. Gabrielle Barkany, spokeswoman for the Ontario College of Teachers, the provincial body that licenses and regulates public-school teachers, says there has been “a significant increase in reports of inappropriate electronic interactions” in the past decade, and estimates that roughly a quarter of the 80-90 disciplinary hearings held annually at the College involve inappropriate use of social media. But, as she points out, this is pretty much par for the course in a device-rich environment.

It’s also hard to measure the overall impact of technology in the classroom. In 2015, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its first report on “Students, Computers and Learning,” correlating 31 countries’ Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results with their investment in information technology in the classroom. Its sobering conclusion was that there was no “appreciable improvement” in student achievement in countries that had invested most over the past decade, and, critically, that technology in the classroom had done very little to bridge the skills gap between advantaged and less advantaged students – one of the central aspirations of digital-classroom proponents.

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While it’s hard to draw specific lessons from a study of this scale, the report’s author, Andreas Schleicher, points to one glaring truth: “Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology will not replace poor teaching.”

This may be the rub. In order for teachers to use technologies meaningfully, they need much more than network filters and the general guidelines for use that school boards provide.

“If there’s one thing teachers and parents agree on, it’s that teachers need more support integrating technology in the classroom,” says Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based non-profit that promotes media literacy, which, in 2015, partnered with the Canadian Teacher’s Federation to survey more than 4,000 teachers across Canada about their use of networked technologies.

Mr. Johnson says teachers often lament that their training on new technologies rarely goes beyond the technical “on and off” level. As a result, their use of devices remains shallow; they use today’s digital technologies the same way they would have used a DVD player a decade ago – to show a video for instruction, for a break or as a reward – rarely exploiting their creative and interactive potential.

Shallow use is one thing; misuse – such as what happened in my son’s classroom – is another. But in the opinion of Matt Miles, a high-school teacher from Virginia, misuse is baked into the system. Together with fellow teacher Joe Clement, he is author of the 2017 book Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber.

“We’re told to be ‘guides on the side,’” Mr. Miles says. “To flip the classroom, put our lectures online to be listened to at home, allow kids to work on devices alone and at their own pace.” The YouTube Poop incident at our school comes as no surprise to him. “You can’t trust kids to use these incredibly entertaining and addictive tools for educational purposes.”

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Mr. Miles and Mr. Clement believe the digital classroom requires more of teachers, not less. With the virtual death of the textbook, teachers have to mine the internet for quality instructional material and don’t always find it, as the grammatically and factually flawed homework sheets my son regularly brings home demonstrate. Online material to be used in class need to be screened in advance to avoid the shock inflicted on a friend’s daughter’s Grade 1 class, when a video on gummy-bear production took a sharp turn into a slaughterhouse to show how gelatin is made. Students using the internet require more, not less, supervision, to help them discern reliable from unreliable sources, and to steer them away from its very dark corners. Should they land there, teachers may have a lot of explaining to do.

This is not to suggest technology get the boot, but that educators, like parents, have to think hard about why and how they’re using it. My son’s teacher admits that he made a mistake, but he also feels the incident reflects social ills that extend well beyond his classroom. He’s right on both points.

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