Rope Burn in the Tech Tug-of-War

May 1, 2018

Viewing School from the Inside Out–Part III

By Senior Partner Chuck Evans

For twelve years, I have spent the majority of my time on the outside of schools looking in. I typically play the role of the third party, the objective observer who has enough of a combination of distance and experience to give (mostly) good advice. I happen, though, to be writing this in my last week as the interim head of The Covenant School in Dallas, a six hundred student K-12 school celebrating its 25th year.

This year has been an interesting mix of perspectives. Though still able to work with several other schools on strategic and financial planning initiatives, much of my year has been absorbed with the daily life of a school community. Leading Covenant has provided me with something like a time warp, comparing and contrasting the patterns of activity and relationships in 2018 with my last full-time head of school position in Austin in 2006.

Rope Burn

When I stepped away from running schools in 2006, the iPhone was still a top secret project called “Purple.” My Blackberry stored my contacts, displayed a calendar, and could send text messages and email. That was it, other than to make phone calls (though it also performed well as a sturdy doorstop). Children did not have cell phones, generally until they learned to drive-and then mostly for emergencies.

Stepping back into the daily world of a school operating in the ubiquitous presence of the internet has been arresting. Call me oblivious, but just being around schools a lot, as I am, or having kids in school, as I still do, doesn’t really expose you to the impact that smart phones have on the day-to-day school experience. And my up close exposure this year has been in a school in which cell phone use is highly regulated during the school day, and among parents for whom it is almost fashionable to delay buying that first phone as long as possible.

There are so many more things to guard against today. So many more ways for students (and teachers) to technologically go off the rails, even while under our very noses! Never has a strong, positive peer culture been both more necessary and more difficult to craft.

Cell phone use in school has replaced, or at least eclipsed, other perennial controversies, too. It is the new uniform/dress code debate. Conducting parent focus groups this Spring for schools in Silicon Valley and East Texas (you couldn’t find two more divergent local cultures!), the single constant was disagreement about technology. In both schools, I encountered groups of parents who, in the same interview sessions, said, “Get rid of tablets/cell phones/computers” and then, “Allow more cell phone/tablet/computer use.”

Of course, every parent in every focus group clings tightly to a phone, most checking their screens multiple times during the forty-minute conversations.

Not unlike their clothing preferences, parent perspectives on the risks and benefits of technology in school are highly personalized. They also seem largely informed by polarizing opinions accessed, well… on the internet. From online bullying to pornography to wasted time, the risk averse have plenty of ammunition. As do the technology globalists, who want their kids to learn computer code in third grade, or who feel they need instant access to their children during the day via text or FaceTime.

This is not to say that the new tech normal is all bad. Instant internet access provides creative teachers and curious students with all sorts of resources which were much more difficult to find and use in the dark ages of the naughts. Twelve years ago, you could still purchase history or literature curriculum resources that came with CD’s full of pictures of famous art and other graphics or illustrations-for thousands of dollars! That economy is fading fast, as far as I can tell, and I would love to teach my old seminars with the technology horsepower available today.

Frankly, I don’t see a practical pathway for most schools to reverse course. It won’t be long, probably, before kids show up to school with location/communication devices embedded under their skin. Internet access is already on their watches, and a workplace version of Google Glass spectacles has found a foothold in manufacturing. It’s just a matter of time before it boomerangs back into the consumer mainstream and into schools.

Meanwhile, the tug-of-war over devices in schools will continue unabated. Glad I don’t have to referee the struggle everyday, but I’m glad I got a little rope burn, if only for a year.