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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators

Teens know tech – they need help managing it

Age-appropriate digital training can help limit distractions

By Sam Shrinsky, La Cañada High School | May | June 2021
The digital transitions and adaptations students have had to make since the start of the pandemic are often misunderstood. So are our age-specific needs. This is evidenced by the fact that many of the resources and much of the support have been focused on getting students “up to speed” on using educational platforms and basic tech. These lessons are important for many students, but I believe grade-level specific plans would improve engagement and will continue to be important as the digital learning game has changed. School districts and students have better learning outcomes during the pandemic when there is a stepped approach to addressing different tech needs at each grade level.
My high school is one of the districts that had a robust pre-pandemic technology plan deployed, which made the transition to digital and age-appropriate training modules easier. This plan included tech training for teachers and various instructional tools that many students and teachers were familiar with. The fact is, not all districts have the resources to deploy a plan like this, which brings up an important discussion about equity. For this article, I will focus only on my experience in matching students’ needs with age and skill-appropriate tech training, not just how to use the tech but also how to manage distractions.
In 2018, a full two years before the pandemic, a Pew research study showed that teens were well-versed in various tech platforms, regardless of household income level. The study says that 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45 percent say they are online “almost constantly.” The fact is, most teens are comfortable navigating multiple platforms. It is a part of daily life as the technology landscape has evolved. For this reason, a less tactical and more strategic approach would have stronger outcomes than “how-to” sessions. When the pandemic forced us into full-time digital learning, most teens found that they were already digitally savvy with the tools provided, but what we needed was age-targeted support such as 1) developing more dynamic experience like the apps and platforms we use, and 2) supporting tech for keeping students off ancillary pages and engaged.
More dynamic experiences win
At the start of the pandemic, our district offered digital learning sessions at varying levels to the teachers. And while everyone needed a little time to get up to speed, the teachers who invested time in not just learning the platforms but introducing new engaging ones saw the benefits almost immediately. Their content was more engaging and felt like the digital experience students were already used to, thus improving participation. I found these classes the most enjoyable. Additionally, our school deployed anytime online tutoring resources that are dynamic and interactive, as well as third-party apps for edugaming that felt comfortable and updated. We also added optional learning sessions for students and parents at various levels, rather than forcing opt-in for all.
Virtual learning is here to stay in one form or another and will be a part of our education journey moving forward.
Supporting tech for focus
I love the internet. I love to game, and I love YouTube. I also love learning. As we transitioned to learning at home, there were times when content was less engaging, and my focus was waning. I found myself drifting to YouTube or other sites rather than staying focused. In a live classroom, the school and teachers have the ability to block certain sites and ensure students are on task. These guardrails created an unintentional, or perhaps intentional, mental safe space to learn without drifting. I didn’t check other sites I knew were off-limits. At home, this is a much harder task. I often wished there was a school-sponsored opt-in app with a rewards system for using it, for time management, and blocking page visits. Imagine if I could opt-in or out, at my discretion, but the rewards for opting in would outweigh the reasons not to. Balancing competing interests and cell phones and learning time management are skills high school kids are still learning.
Using technology to balance these competing attention draws with a rewards system would be a great addition to our tools.
It is abundantly clear that the days of a once-in-a-while online summer class are gone. Virtual learning is here to stay in one form or another and will be a part of our education journey moving forward. We have learned so much about what tech works and what doesn’t during the past 11 months. As teachers, parents and students have dramatically increased their tech skill level, it is time to rethink the training and available tools to meet the changing needs of students, parents and teachers. It is time to focus beyond how to use tech tools and advance to employing tools that create more dynamic learning environments and that help support healthy learning habits.
Sam Shrinsky attends La Cañada High School in the La Cañada Unified School District.
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