Marion Gruner is freelance writer and producer and graduate student at the University of Waterloo.
A few years ago, when he was eight, my son Isaac was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a relatively understudied learning disability that makes handwriting incredibly challenging. The psychologist who assessed him apologized, saying, “It’s very new. We don’t know much about it,” and then offered brightly, “but technology is so amazing now, it really won’t affect him.”
“What about university?” I asked. “What about when he needs to take notes, or write an exam?”
“He can have a keyboard,” she said, reassuringly. But the idea that my son wouldn’t be able to jot down a shopping list, or would never sit down and scribble out a love letter was somehow unacceptable. Call me nostalgic, but the technology fix was an uncomfortable consolation.
The solution we were offered was expensive occupational therapy and a Chromebook, Google’s low-cost mobile computer for students. School boards hand them out readily, and as diagnosed learning disabilities continue to increase, more Chromebooks wind up in the hands of North America’s children. But while educational technology makes life easier for teachers and students in the short term, there are growing questions about whether hands-off, screen-based learning facilitates true comprehension or skill development.
As a parent with neo-Luddite aspirations for my family, my son’s default to a laptop with access to YouTube and other twinkling distractions wasn’t welcome. What’s more, keyboard writing seemed counterproductive, especially when writing practice and learning cursive were recommended courses of action for dysgraphia.
“You don’t have to take the Chromebook,” the educational support worker told me, “but it will make his classroom time so much less stressful.” Reducing Isaac’s anxiety around written work was job one at that point, and he was already acutely aware that he was falling behind, so we relented.
For several years now, school boards have been focused on the promise of tech as a teaching tool, and in crowded classrooms with fewer staff, tech’s pitch as the key solution to learning challenges is powerful. According to a 2017 market report, the Chromebook was the No. 1-selling educational device for kindergarten to Grade 12 schools in Canada, and in that same year the devices were distributed to more than 44 per cent of the students in my kids’ school board.
Praised by educational technologists as a boon for special needs and ESL students, now the Chromebook and other devices have also become a solution for pandemic learning. This past spring when schools around the world shut down, Google’s ambitions as a large-scale infrastructure provider got a shot in the arm. In our “no touch” pandemic reality, Chromebooks and virtual solutions such as Google Classroom are exploding. In just one month of lockdown, Google Classroom users doubled to 100 million worldwide, and millions more Chromebooks were deployed to North America’s youngest students. Parents logged their kids on, telling themselves it was temporary, but the truth is the “temporary” part is sticky, and this is where we’ve always been headed.
The problem with this direction is that, by most accounts, Canada’s crash course in e-learning was a dismal failure. In the spring, many students and parents opted out completely in the first month, citing stress and confusion, along with very little learning. It bolstered the growing concern that tech doesn’t solve education problems, it disregards neurodiversity and any rigorous research on its effectiveness has been outpaced by its rapid growth. But as the first term back comes to a close and the pandemic surges, more parents are once again facing the prospect of online learning.
As the product of a 1980s elementary school, I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of modern classroom technology and a curriculum that can be deeply computer oriented. I have considered enrolling my children at a Waldorf school because of its tech-free, tactile learning philosophy that uses art, craft and storytelling as the primary modes of early learning. It seems like a dreamy throwback to simpler times, and friends accuse me of being a technophobe, assuring me that the kids will be alright.
I’m aware of my generational bias for low-tech education, but as it turns out, the research agrees with me, and so do some of Big Tech’s biggest brains. In Silicon Valley, Waldorf and other low or no-tech schools are popular among parents employed at places such as Facebook, Google and Apple. Recognizing the intentional habit-forming design of tech products and their effects on young attention-spans, these parents are following in the same low-tech parenting footsteps of tech giants such as Steve Jobs and Tim Cook.
As tempting as these educational options are, they are only options for those who can afford the tuition, and going tech-free at home is only available to people who don’t have to work, or who can afford a nanny. Screen-free child care is a luxury not available in state-run American schools where there is a growing reliance on screen-based education as early as kindergarten. According to research by Common Sense Media, lower-income families are exposed to the most screens in and out of the classroom. As Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine, told The New York Times, “The digital divide was about access to technology, and now that everyone has access, the new digital divide is limiting access to technology.”
That public education has become so screen-reliant is a worrying trend. Studies show that when children read information on a screen they absorb less than when they read from paper, and devices have the tendency to distract students from the actual content they are meant to learn. Indeed, my own son’s Chromebook offers myriad internet wormholes to descend into.
Beyond distraction and information absorption is the enormous question of privacy. When Isaac first logged onto his new Chromebook in Grade 3, Google assumed ownership of his data from that moment forward. As researchers begin to take a closer look at what education technology really achieves, these and other hard questions are arising. A critical 2019 report from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado found “questionable educational assumptions embedded in influential programs, self-interested advocacy by the technology industry, serious threats to student privacy, and a lack of research support.”
With these concerns in mind, my husband and I considered opting out on our own: no Chromebook at school, limited screens at home. But when it came to realistically managing Isaac’s dysgraphia in a classroom setting, we knew that tech was still the crutch that would help him through each school day.
Still, the choices of Waldorf families in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, who can and do opt out of tech, deserve some thought. Writing about users and non-users of technology, computing and informatics researchers Christine Satchell and Paul Dourish argue for more study of various levels of adoption and resistance as a way to understand a technology’s meaning in our lives. They explain: “Eager adopters and active resisters are both responding to and shaping cultural interpretations of technology, even though they do so in different ways; their perspectives each play a role in the cultural appropriation of technologies.” It’s an important consideration. If some educators, parents and even Big Tech employees are shunning tech in schools, then, rather than being viewed merely as outliers or laggards, their reservations should influence the development of educational tech.
I’ll start with me. If I wish for a neo-Luddite classroom, why is that? The original Luddites of the early 19th century have come to be known as counter-revolutionaries, protesting the mechanization of production by bursting into textile factories at night and smashing knitting frames. In his book Against Technology, Stephen E. Jones explains what is less understood about Luddites is that they weren’t opposed to technology itself, rather, it was the social changes technology had produced that they railed against. Ultimately, the Luddites’ tech resistance was about alienation from their labour, and my own wish for a Luddite classroom has similar roots. Learning is physical work, and there is growing alienation from the labour of learning.
Bodies, materials and knowing
In the 1950s, as powerful new technologies had begun to shift society, philosopher Jacques Ellul was writing about their effect on humans. In his classic, The Technological Society, Mr. Ellul pondered techno-capitalism’s pursuit of efficiency and the dogged focus on usefulness, a directive that he argued left no room for aesthetics or non-economic pursuits. In this state, he concluded, “nothing useless exists.” What Mr. Ellul saw was a profound change resulting in the human disconnect from the tactility of material work, where the worker had “lost contact with the primary element of life and environment, the basic material out of which he makes what he makes. He no longer knows wood or iron or wool. He is acquainted only with the machine.” In education, Mr. Ellul felt schooling was being diminished to the production of technicians, generating machine-operators rather than engaged creators. The effect of this, Mr. Ellul went on, “has occasioned profound mental and psychic transformations which cannot yet be assessed.”
While notoriously pessimistic about the direction we were headed, Mr. Ellul’s concerns were prescient. I would venture that it’s this physical engagement with learning that is slowly leaking from our screen-based classrooms. The simple turn to keyboards for students like Isaac – and others who don’t even have learning challenges – is a move toward efficiency over non-digital and more time-consuming tools.
One of the casualties in this logic of usefulness is cursive handwriting. My husband and I were told it could be helpful for dysgraphia, but in the modern classroom we were out of luck. Cursive is no longer mandated to be taught in Ontario schools, despite a growing push for it to return. Advocates such as University of Calgary researcher Hetty Roessingh explain that handwriting effects comprehension, unlocking creativity and content interpretation. More, she says, “students who have fluent handwriting consequently have more working memory capacity available to plan, organize, revise and retrieve sophisticated vocabulary.” Dr. Roessingh points to primary education’s larger focus on communicating content, rather than on printed skills themselves, ignoring that these fluid movements are what establish neuronal connections. Even basic printing is found to improve learning outcomes when compared with keyboard note-taking, but despite this research, the support for faster output prevails. Mr. Ellul might note that in the technological society, the keyboard is a more efficient communication tool, rendering handwriting “useless.”
The interconnected sets of motor and information-processing skills required for handwriting can mean that dysgraphia presents differently from person to person, affecting anything from spelling and legibility to expression. Isaac’s spelling was poor, and his handwriting was a mix of minute, barely distinguishable letters and overly large ones, randomly capitalized and written across declining lines. It made sense to us that we focus on his motor skills right away.
We weren’t covered for occupational therapy, so instead we found a developmental educator who specializes in movement-based therapies. In the sessions, Isaac drew letters in the air with his fingers, repeating their shapes over and over. He did juggling exercises and other manoeuvres that focus on early locomotive developments, all while composing descriptive stories. It was repetitive and tedious, but things started to click. Three years later, his handwriting has vastly improved. These practices affirm the work being done in embodied cognition, an approach that “considers the body as the main actor, and as such, as a key factor in shaping our cognition,” psychologists Thea Ionescu and Dermina Vasc write. Learning is supposed to be a hands-on, gestural experience, and when that physical quality is removed, there’s a kink in the chain.
For Isaac, it was a positive result, but I’m keenly aware he is a kid of privilege; we were lucky to find a therapist at a cost we could manage. As screens overtake pencils, addressing and overcoming these learning disabilities will be less and less likely for many kids.
‘The Screen New Deal’
In May, as distance learning was in full swing for millions of students – and even some Waldorf schools were logged onto Google Classroom – Naomi Klein penned a concerning take on what she calls “the Screen New Deal,” Google’s and Bill Gates’s opportunistic leap into education infrastructure amid the pandemic lockdown. Mr. Gates had shared his plans to develop a “smarter education system,” and in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo was thrilled about his concept. Mr. Cuomo said the pandemic has produced “a moment in history when we can actually incorporate and advance [Mr. Gates’s] ideas.”
“All these buildings, all these physical classrooms – why, with all the technology you have?” It’s a question that points to the broader e-learning approach, where bodies and brains are divorced from each other and physical experience can be replaced by onscreen information. In Mr. Cuomo’s vision, Mr. Ellul’s concerns about our vanishing contact with our materials, with life and the environment, are realized.
As the pandemic has worn on, however, I think the many solutions that tech has offered have also brought a clarity about our own humanness. During quarantine, adults around the world confronted a longing for other people, for community, for touch. “Zoom fatigue” became a reality. Children missed their teachers and friends, and when it came to their education, parents reported that their children had fallen behind. It touched on yet another shortcoming of screen-based learning: Kids are more likely to try, and perform well, when they regularly work and engage with a human with whom they have a relationship. In other words, we found out that short spurts of onscreen communication are no substitute for off-screen connection.
This fall, millions of children across Canada returned to their schools. The reopening plan was contentious because as much as people want safe learning, they also want their kids to really learn. Despite unprecedented buy-in to Google Classroom, perhaps the pandemic has crystallized our need for real live teachers, for each other, and a recognition of the necessity of our own feeling, moving, learning bodies. For Isaac, who never loved school, the real classroom is where he wants to be. Virtual learning feels “foggy,” he tells me. “I just feel out of touch.”
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.