Personal computing devices have revolutionized University School of Milwaukee’s curriculum, putting unparalleled knowledge into students’ hands with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger. But they can also serve as a distracting temptation—one that can be difficult for children and their parents to manage. So why are these devices important in the classroom, and how is USM teaching students to use them responsibly?
The first iPhone was launched and made available for purchase on June 29, 2007. While it wasn’t the first smartphone in existence, few would disagree that it was the most popular. As the fastest-selling product in Apple’s history, the company sold an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 phones that first weekend alone. It ushered in a new era of connectivity, entertainment, e-commerce, and life as we knew it.
The impact of that day might not have been immediately felt within the walls of University School, but its ripples would reach the school—and its students—soon enough. Today, a mere 12 years later, parents and educators at USM and beyond grapple with how to best manage tools like smartphones and tablets. When more than 300 guests attended the USM/REDgen speaker series event last November featuring Dr. Delaney Ruston, a Stanford-educated physician who created the film “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age,” it became clear that parents had reached a tipping point.
The root of the issue many parents face—that children want a sense of belonging with their peers, as well as autonomy and freedom—is certainly not a new one. But the methods today’s children use to attain that sense of belonging—and their consequences—have changed. Schools and parents, therefore, are finding themselves navigating the same uncharted waters together. And while USM embraces the role of technology in its curriculum, it also recognizes the rapid pace of change in our connected world. As a result, the school continues to examine and implement best practices in educational technology to teach children—and their parents—how to use these tools successfully in school and at home.
HOW WE GOT HERE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF COMPUTERS AT USM
Before it had iPads, Wi-Fi, and Google docs, USM had computer labs. They were the norm in each division at USM, but it did not take long for the curriculum to outpace the labs’ usefulness. Not only were the computers expensive to equip and maintain, they sat unused when school was not in session. Teachers could not always access the labs when they needed to, making it difficult to unify lesson plans amongst multiple classes throughout the day.
In an effort to alleviate the logjams caused by the labs and to ensure equal access of technology to all students, the school implemented its 1:1 program in the 2012–13 school year. The program provides students in grades 3 through 12 with their own dedicated personal computing device throughout the school day and beyond. Before implementing the program, administrators worked with an outside consulting agency, surveyed the USM community, and held multiple focus groups to ensure that the implementation was necessary to support learning. Once it was in place, the school held extensive professional development opportunities for faculty, and invited them to help develop the technology mission at USM.
Parents are telling us—and we understand—that is can be very hard for them to say no to their child’s use of technology.
Recently, school administrators announced a change in the 1:1 program in Lower School. Starting this fall, iPads for incoming 3rd graders will be owned and maintained by the school, not by the parents, and will remain at school during the evenings and on weekends. The impetus for the change was driven, in part, by parents. “Parents are telling us—and we understand—that it can be very hard for them to say no to their child’s use of technology,” said Tom Mussoline, one of the school’s academic technology coordinators. “So we’re hoping that this change will help alleviate some of that difficulty at home.”
Furthermore, the school recognizes that the world is a different place now than it was in
2012 when the program was launched. “When we implemented 1:1, group chats, Instagram, and Snapchat didn’t exist,” said Brad Dunning, assistant head of Middle School. “I think it’s important that we keep evaluating what we’ve done and use that knowledge to inform our decision-making moving forward.”
HOW—AND WHY—TECHNOLOGY ENHANCES USM’S CURRICULUM
If, as many suggest, devices like iPads can be addicting to children, why does USM require students to have them starting in 3rd grade? For starters, 3rd grade students at USM are exposed to iPads in a limited, highly monitored setting when they are relevant and useful to the project or unit. “Third grade is the beginning of learning how to use Google’s G Suite for Education,” said Brita Willis, 3rd grade teacher. G Suite is used by students in all three divisions at USM, and is free. “They’re learning how to make a Google doc or a Google slide presentation, and also how to create something in one app, like a movie, and embed it in another app. They’re learning that the iPad is capable of doing many things.” The foundation that the students build in 3rd grade is vital to the work they will continue in subsequent grades. “Having their own Google suite set up starting in 3rd grade is really cool because they can keep all of their work in one location that will stay with them all the way through 12th grade.”
But, as Dunning noted earlier, the world is a different place now than it was in 2012 when
USM’s 1:1 program was launched. The question has been raised in the past about whether or not
USM should consider banning devices completely, as France did recently with cellphones in all primary and middle schools. Banning devices outright, while perhaps an easy solution in the short term, is difficult to enforce and doesn’t necessarily prepare students for the reality they face outside of school walls. Rather, teachers at USM are taking the harder—but more beneficial—approach: using technology in monitored settings to help build genuine engagement with their students.
Will Piper ’96, 5th grade world cultural geography teacher, cited a recent example—the China mega map project—from his classroom. “The old-school way of teaching was having kids pick an area of China they’re interested in, research it, and give an oral report,” he said. “But with modern learning, that might seem kind of dull.” Instead, Piper asked students to design an artifact that represented their area of interest using any material they could find in the Middle School makerspace. Materials ranged from 3D printers to cardboard, bubble wrap, and clay, to name a few. Students then recorded their oral reports on their iPads using an app called Scratch. Finally, they placed their artifacts on a table-top sized map of China and wired each artifact so that students could push a button and hear each other’s reports.
The result? “The learning for that project was exceptional,” said Piper. “All of a sudden we got into some higher-level thinking about, ‘Why would people live in southeastern China as opposed to the plateau of Tibet? How is China a mix of modern and traditional cultures?’ I could point to anything on the map and they could tell me where it was and why it was important, whether it was their project or someone else’s.”
The key to how technology enhances curriculum at USM lies in the fact that students use the tools to create content—not simply to consume it. “An iPad, for example, is a relatively inexpensive way to help children learn basic skills, to work on group projects, and to create new things,” said Nikki Lucyk, director of innovation and academic technology. “We use iPads or laptops in class to improve learning, not just to play a game or to watch a video.” “I think at home, they see technology as gaming or something to do to waste time,” added Willis. “But at school, every single day they’re creating something, sharing something, collaborating with each other. We use technology in really cool ways here, and those kinds of skills are powerful.”
TEACHING POSITIVE USE OF TECHNOLOGY
From a very young age, students learn that the tenets of USM’s Common Trust—treating each other with respect, trust, honesty, fairness, and kindness—extend to the digital world, too.
Administrators and teachers have implemented a digital citizenship curriculum that begins in 1st grade and continues through senior year. Lessons start with teaching children how to safely search online and advance to topics like showing respect online, writing good emails, and understanding plagiarism.
Whenever possible, teachers reinforce these concepts in their standard lesson plans, too. “I think the best way to teach responsible use of technology is within an integrated, meaningful setting,” said Piper. In the Middle School, for example, students may work on a group project or presentation in a shared Google document. “Before starting a project, we ask the kids, ‘What does it mean to work in a shared space? How can we be respectful of other peoples’ work in a digital space?’ Good digital citizenship really boils down to being a good citizen, period. I haven’t had any problems, but I think reminding kids of those lessons and working them into our learning every day helps.” Several years ago, Piper coined a phrase that encapsulates the Middle School’s philosophy: “You are who you are wherever you go, including online.”
Upper School lessons continue to advance from there, starting with the freshmen STEP program and continuing throughout the four-year advising program. Students read social media case studies and discuss issues like how and why companies collect user data, the effects of screen time and multitasking, and how to tell when an online interaction becomes risky. “Upper School students are introduced to more demanding academic expectations, and they learn how technology can both support their efforts for success and diminish their returns,” said Lucyk. “With their advisors, they learn how to be self- and socially aware when using technology to maximize their learning, and have healthy relationships.”
Mussoline, who along with Brad Dunning and several teachers led the development of the digital citizenship curriculum in Lower School and Middle School, expects the content to change as the world changes. “My assumption is that the lesson plans will look completely different in the 2020-21 school year,” he said. “The Lower School and Middle School programs lay a solid foundation for the expectations and skills needed in the Upper School,” added Lucyk. “Administrators and teachers meet often to assess the school’s programming and its evolution as the landscape continues to change, to best meet the needs of the community.”
Good digital citizenship really boils down to being a good citizen, period.
University School takes the digital safety of its students just as seriously as their physical safety. From the minute they walk through the door, students’ digital access is carefully managed within an age-appropriate framework. “Each division’s wireless network is subjected to different levels of content filtering based on age-appropriateness,” said Chris Cruz, director of information technology. “For example, Upper School students are allowed to access social media on the Upper School wireless network, but younger students are not allowed access on the Middle School and Lower School networks. But many students can—and do—circumvent our filters by using their phone’s cellular data, which is outside of our control.”
As students gain increased access to content, however, they are subject to increased scrutiny. Upper School students are required to authenticate when accessing the Wi-Fi network, meaning they must enter a username and password for internet access. This enables the school to identify individual machines and, theoretically, track where they’re going online and what they’re doing. “It’s not like someone is actively monitoring the school’s network analytics 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Cruz. “But the reality is, we need to be able to inspect our traffic to protect students—which is really no different from what any other organization does, including our students’ future colleges and employers.”
Children today have the same desire to connect and belong as those who grew up without the
internet or smartphones. But the speed at which today’s youth can make mistakes—and the scale
on which mistakes can be made public—is unprecedented. Parents, understandably, are caught in the middle. “We’ve definitely heard from parents who are finding it hard to manage their
kids’ technology use at home,” said Lucyk. “It is the responsibility of the school and the parents to work together to develop the best solutions for students.”
While there is no magic-bullet solution for everyone, research and best practices are catching up, enabling parents and educators to make data-driven decisions. In her community
presentation last year, Ruston highlighted the Wait Until 8th movement, in which parents sign a pledge declaring their intent to delay giving their children a smartphone until at least 8th grade. She encouraged parents to learn more about it and consider signing the pledge, advocating a strength-in-numbers approach. “I like the whole Wait Until 8th movement,” said Lucyk. “With smartphones, it can take mere seconds to make a bad decision with life-altering consequences, and I just don’t think kids are developmentally ready for that. I’d like to see the USM community more engaged in that idea, because I think most of the problems our students have happen at night at home, not here at school. They have a tool that gives them instant access to connect with others, and they might not be ready to use it unsupervised.”
Student response to the movement, not surprisingly, is mixed. “I don’t think you should give kids a smartphone until 7th grade at the earliest,” said Bennett Hermanoff ’20. “I think it
gives them too much freedom. They can get a flip phone if they need it, but there’s no need for them to have social media and all those other web services.” But waiting until 8th grade, according to Carson Petersen ’20, might have negative consequences. “Kids will still have friends who have phones, and I think it would just create a lot more sneakiness,” he said. “The second they do finally get their phone, they might go overboard with it.” Added his sister, Mackenzie ’23, “I feel like it’s delaying the inevitable. I think technology is a great tool, you just have to be taught how to use it properly.”
Ultimately, it’s up to parents to decide if and when it’s the right time to purchase a smartphone for their child, and no amount of case studies or research will make up for a parent using his or her best judgment. “I think the hardest thing parents today face is standing up for what they believe is right,” said Pamela Nosbusch, retired head of Middle School. “It’s really easy to cave your rules when your kids are constantly bombarding you, but you have to figure out what works for you and your family, be brave, and stick with it.”
One thing that all parties can agree on is that technology is a great tool. “Technology is amazing,” said Dunning. “It’s powerful. It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s changing the world.” Added Mackenzie Petersen ’23, “I think with smartphones and those things, for the most part, the pros definitely outweigh the cons. They are a great way to be connected with friends.”
But the cons do exist, and they are hard to ignore. At USM, using the tools and technology to create content, more than simply consuming content, is a key differentiator. In addition, equipping students with the knowledge of how and why to use the tools appropriately provides them with a solid foundation for how to navigate those cons when they encounter them. They become empowered to take ownership of their decisions. There is no easy, one-size-fits-all approach to these important issues, and mistakes are inevitable. But mistakes give us an opportunity to learn and improve. “We’re never going to know what’s next,” said Dunning. “So parents and teachers, we’re all in this boat together, and we’re constantly learning. But we need to teach our kids how to work with these tools so they go on to change the world. If we don’t, we’re leaving them behind.”
Consider the below tips for technology use with children in your home.
Talk to your kids about technology
Get your children involved in the decisionmaking and value their input. Show them articles or research on kids and technology use, invite their feedback, and make decisions together.
Create screen-free spaces, such as at the dinner table and in bedrooms. Talk to your children about if and when you would monitor their usage, for example, if you notice a change in mood or behavior.
Model good behavior in real life and online
Put your phone down when talking to your child. If your child is not allowed to have screens at dinner, neither are you. Ask your kids to THINK before they post: Is it True? Helpful? Inspiring? Necessary? Kind? Ask yourself the same before posting something.
Recording of Dr. Delaney Ruston’s USM/REDgen presentation to the USM community.
Digital Minialism by Cal Newport
Invent to Learn by Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez
Robot-Proof by Joseph Aoun
Screenwise by Devorah Heitner, Ph.D.
The Big Disconnect by Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D.
Tech Generation by Mike Brooks and Jon Lasser