Jul 22 2020

Q&A: Peter Bezanson on the Importance of Intentionality with Tech Use in Schools

Students can use mobile devices to gain knowledge, but they also need to know when to end their screen time, explains the CEO of BASIS Educational Ventures

Dynamics of digital instruction, learning outcomes and equitable access can be complex, with no one-size-fits-all approach. As researchers learn more about best practices, educators are tasked with putting their findings into practice — a job harder than it sounds. Now, districts are confronting new challenges around equity and screen time as they seek to deliver remote instruction.

We asked Peter Bezanson, CEO of BASIS Educational Ventures, to share his views on students and screen time.

This interview is part of a roundtable on how researchers and educators view screen time, digital equity and learning outcomes.

EDTECH: Research about the effects of screen time varies widely. How would you characterize this issue and the effort to balance technology in schools?

BEZANSON: BASIS is a network of brick-and-mortar schools that, until recently, didn’t have a distance-learning component and had very little in the way of classroom technology, with one exception: We have a tablet that our middle-school kids and many of our high school kids use to access the SPORK Math curriculum. The SPORK platform can also be customized and used by schools to manage the whole of their curriculum, for teachers to design lessons, for schools to monitor implementation of the curriculum, and by teachers to push content to student tablets.

As a member of Generation X, I tend to look suspiciously at screen time, but I don’t think the research backs that up. We’ve embraced it when we can control the screen enough to be a piece of educational technology, rather than a gaming device. We teach kids how to respect the tablet as something from which they can gain knowledge — and to know when to put it away.

EDTECH: If intentionality is key to effective use of educational technology, how can educators apply this in practice?

BEZANSON: If you just give a student a tablet, you open up a world of distraction. I think what a lot of educational establishments end up doing, since they’re nervous about opening up a world of distraction that a tablet or a laptop can bring, is they don’t introduce tablets and laptops.

For us, the intentionality is that we introduced a tool that can only be used in the way we designed it to be used. The tablet is a curriculum distribution device and a crowdsourcing platform where teachers put their syllabus and students take quizzes and polls during class so the teacher gets real-time results. The students still do all of their homework on paper, but they use the tablet to access the curriculum and deliver feedback to teachers.

Middle school kids are prone to rambunctious behavior, so we had to figure out a way that the tablet could be “stupid” 90 percent of the time. In other words, we didn’t want a smart device in the classroom. We wanted a device that would only connect to the resources that the teacher was pushing to it.

READ MORE: Learn how K–12 schools can measure ed tech ROI.

EDTECH: Some educators have concerns about potential negative effects of screen time. Are these concerns legitimate?

BEZANSON: They can be really distracting, especially if the student is looking at a screen the teacher can’t see. Our teachers love that students can utilize the tablet, but it’s a controlled environment. We’ve even gotten to the point now — it’s taken some significant programming — where a teacher can send a link to a YouTube video without allowing them to access the entire YouTube site. Our teachers have embraced it because they know they can send kids to a video without fear of that opening up everything as a distraction.

The “uh-oh” part of this — the notion of tech as a potential distraction — is why we created the program for our students that we did. It’s called SPORK, like the old spoon-fork combo utensil they gave away at the local fried chicken or BBQ joints. Its intentionality is the point: There’s an intentional spoon or spoon-fed part, and there’s an intentional fork part, that teachers or students will want to grab themselves.

It’s a pervasive need in American education. It’s a common topic among educators, too: finding the balance with tech. That’s why we license our SPORK tech for other schools and districts: It is a modern need, not yet fully met, due to the rise in the presence of tech in all of our lives.

Watch experts discuss the benefits and obstacles connected to screen time.

EDTECH: How do you frame the relationship between technology and equity?

BEZANSON: We have a school with a very low percentage of low-income students, and we have a school that’s about 75 percent low-income, and everything in between. By and large, we serve a lot of first-generation immigrant families who are looking for the sort of education they had as kids or that their kids had in other countries, where education is more rigorous.

We don’t have BYOD or an academic program that relies upon a student having internet access at home, because we’ve built our curriculum around a platform on a relatively inexpensive Samsung tablet. It’s affordable for the school to purchase, and the material gets pushed to tablets during the school day.

We want a student who goes home to a family that doesn’t have internet and doesn’t have devices to basically have the same “device” as a student who goes home to a mansion, and those devices access the material in the same way. We use that technology to enforce this sort of equity.

Peter Bezanson, CEO, Basis Educational Ventures

EDTECH: What’s changed as schools aim to continue instruction during the pandemic?

BEZANSON: Since we had to pivot to distance learning, it was great that all of our middle school kids had tablets. The fact that we provision them centrally meant that we could go into those tablets and open them up to the internet and to Microsoft Teams, which is our current distance-learning platform. We can decide to turn the camera and microphone on or off. For the most part, in classes, the cameras and the microphones are turned off, so students are watching the teacher and using the text box to ask questions.

But we did have to provide for students who don’t have tablets and for families that needed laptops. Then we had to do a lot of hotspots. It has not been inexpensive to make sure that all of our students have access to technology for distance learning.

The classes we’ve held online in recent weeks are much more didactic, with a teacher teaching and the students learning. The students use the technology to ask questions of the teacher, but they don’t use it to communicate with one another.

DISCOVER: Find out how K–12 IT leaders can support digital equity.

EDTECH: Given that our understanding of access and equity issues will continue to evolve, how can schools best approach this complex issue?

We’re confident because we think we’ve made smart decisions about how to use technology in the classroom and how to introduce it to kids. We’re confident that we’re doing it the right way. I believe that research will bear that out.

That said, there needs to be a better set of data on the relative performance of students with and without various technological devices: whether students perform better on a computer-based adaptive assessment or whether they perform better using paper and pencil. I don’t think we have a strong set of research on that yet.

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