Debate 3: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

Topic 5 – Is Social Media Ruining Childhood?

Source: meme generated by

Before we get started…

One of the mental stumbling blocks I had during this debate revolved around the shared experiences of childhood. Both sides employed general statements such as, “when we were kids,” or “when we were growing up.” I don’t know about you dear reader, but I am certain that given our cultural diversity, age, and geographical location that our childhood experiences most likely varied considerably from person to person. For example, I doubt anyone else in our group was at a summer camp where a child threw a box of live blasting caps (his father worked in the mining industry) into a camp fire resulting in several serious injuries. All joking aside (but yes, that did happen) I am hesitant to harken back to some sort of poorly defined universal childhood experience. These statements also suppose that childhood was better for us in the past than it is for our students today. How one would even attempt to measure this escapes me completely.

What did our debaters think?

What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing! The Agree Side.

  • Social media interactions are superficial, fleeting, and do not develop the lasting relationships that children need.
  • Use of social media platforms open children up to a host of dangers (cyberbullying, sexually explicit material, and online predators) that they are not equipped to deal with at a young age.
  • Children are particularly susceptible to online advertising given their inability to discern when they are being misled.
  • Various health concerns correlate with the habitual consumption of social media including depression, anxiety, obesity, etc.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. The Disagree Side.

  • The fear of change and moral panic blind us to the potential of social media as a learning tool, and its capabilities should not be denied or ignored.
  • Social media allows isolated individuals to find like minded communities and spaces in which they belong.
  • Social media can empower students to make changes in their own communities and beyond (through activism and advocacy)
  • Education (particularly in terms of engagement) can be transformed by the calculated use of social media with proper training and supervision.

My thoughts on the topic

I believe that social media has not ruined childhood, but I do believe technology has changed childhood.

Childhood for students born in the 21st century is quite different from the one I experienced (I am reticent to age myself, but let us just say I fondly remember the 1980s). Social media simply did not exist; my worst moments were not immortalized on video, shared, or archived. My mistakes did not follow me for life. Social media makes certain nothing is forgotten and it is affecting children profoundly. As Bizieff (2021) notes excessive social media use is associated with a range of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. She also argues that social media has opened up new avenues for harassment (i.e., cyberbullying).

So social media is ruining childhood then? It is a little more complicated than that. The problems I mentioned existed long before Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. When I was a child my peers struggled with mental health issues as well. As a young male I was fed a lie that men don’t cry, complain, or acknowledge their feelings. The name of the game back then was repression. Several students in my high school took their lives. Bullying was everywhere. Let me be clear: these things were not okay then, and they are not acceptable now. What concerns me about social media is its pervasiveness. When I went home from school I was granted a brief respite from the harassment. Children using social media do not have that luxury. According to Bizieff (2021) there are over 3.96 billion social media users worldwide. It is everywhere. Now your bullies have access to you 24/7.

Surely parents are to blame? Matt Walsh (2021) argues that parents have failed in their responsibility to restrict, monitor, and govern the online interactions of their children. Dr. Brenna Hicks (2021), a child counselor, emphatically insists that children should never have unfettered access to social media. In our debate social media was compared to swimming. Surely no parent would throw their young child into the deep end of the pool without lessons? Any sane parent would teach their child to swim gradually under close supervision. Our debaters indicated that social media was no different, children need to be gradually introduced to social media and be taught digital literacy skills to keep themselves safe. So with the right training they can safely use it? Imagine a world in which no one had grown up with a swimming pool, or had never been near deep water. Would parents know how to teach their students to swim, or would they be learning themselves at the same time? Consider how young social media is. It is barely 20 years old. Parents are learning about it at the same time as their children. Is it fair to expect them to know all the dangers and mitigation strategies to ensure their children are safe online?

Does social media ruin the childhood of all children? What about those who have reaped its benefits? According to the organization Smart Social (2022) students across the United States have utilized social media to organize online campaigns to support a myriad of causes and bring about real change in their communities. Social media allows students from geographically isolated areas to engage with people around the world with similar interests. As Hauge (2020) points out technology as an agent of change is intrinsically tied to “public voice.” Is giving children a platform and a voice ruining them? I don’t think that it is. Social media is often abused, but I don’t think that it is right to deny its potential benefits either.

Topic 6 – Cellphones should be banned in the classroom

What did the debaters think?

Be Gone with Thee! The Agree Side.

  • Cell phone usage can lead to technological addiction.
  • Removing cellphones from the classroom will improve student productivity and reduce distractions.
  • Cyberbullying will be greatly diminished without cell phones in the classroom.
  • Cell phone usage causes stress and anxiety for the majority of students.
  • Cell phones facilitate and increase academic dishonesty.

Give Peace a Chance. The Disagree Side.

  • Cell phones can be an asset to learning and instruction with proper planning and supervision.
  • Engagement increases when cell phones are utilized within lessons.
  • Using cell phones increases accessibility to technology as most schools do not have enough resources to provide all learners with their own laptop or tablet.
  • Cell phone enabled technologies (VR, cameras, etc.) provide exciting and engaging learning opportunities.

My Thoughts on the Topic

For me this debate breaks down to two fundamental questions:

  1. Why do we want to ban cell phones in classrooms?
  2. Would banning cell phones eliminate the problems we have identified in question 1?

Let’s explore these questions. During the debate I heard more than once that cell phone usage was causing technology addiction. I think we need to be extremely careful to differentiate between clinical addiction and habits. Habitual use of technology is not the same as being chemically dependent on narcotics. Panova and Carbonell (2018) point out “It is important to acknowledge that it has emphatically not been scientifically ‘proven’ that phone (over)use is equitable to drug addiction” (p. 11). Therefore banning cell phones will not eliminate technology addiction (Panova & Carbonell, 2018).

Surely cell phones are an unnecessary distraction? I think instead we should ask if student distraction is exclusively linked to cell phone use. I don’t think that it is. Cell phones can be distracting, in the same way that CD players were distracting, or comic books, or chatting with friends. A lack of engagement can be attributed to many factors. I suggest that varying instructional strategies, eliciting student participation in topic selection, and trying inquiry based learning may reignite student engagement. As Sam Kerry (2020) points out the solution to our problem may be staring us in the face: we could use cell phones to make our lessons more interesting and engaging using augmented and virtual reality. Of course if all else fails you can still take them away, but before you do ask yourself what you’ve tried as a teacher first.

Academic dishonesty is facilitated by cell phone usage in the classroom, of this I have no doubt. According to the Canadian Council for Learning (2010) technology is changing the way students cheat and think about cheating. As Smale et al. (2021) over a third of students have used their phones at one point to cheat on homework. So if we get rid of cell phones the cheating stops? I remember teaching in a classroom in the flip phone era, before texting was a big deal. A couple of my students were army cadets and I caught them tapping out Morse code to one another on a multiple choice test (Boy Scouts was useful for something). Fast forward two years and I caught a student with a fake label on a coke bottle where the ingredients list was replaced by chemistry formulas. His photo shop skills were excellent. My point is that cheating will still occur with or without cell phones.

I think the strongest argument against the continued use of cell phones in the classroom is the environmental impact it is having on the planet. We are cultivating a culture of plenty: we desire unlimited data storage, unlimited bandwidth, faster searches, and more access. As Selwyn and Agaard (2021) caution “the sustainability of digital education is rapidly declining” (p. 15). Data centers, server farms, and devices use tremendous amounts of non-renewable resources such as energy and raw materials. There will come a point where we won’t ethically be able to upgrade our phones every two years. This speaks nothing to the human costs of our consumer culture. How comfortable are we using devices produced by people in third world countries under horrendous conditions? Is this sustainable? I wonder if our time of plenty is rapidly coming to a close and if we are adequately preparing our students for it.

Debate Part 2: The Reckoning

In the future there is only verbal warfare

Teachers are passionate by nature. How else could one explain the desire to seal oneself in a room with 30 small children for eight hours a day with nothing but whiteboard markers for self defense? My point is that educators have strongly held beliefs that sustain them through the tantrums, phone calls, spills, and general chaos that is the average day in a classroom. This was on full display during our second debate. It was lively, or as Amaya put it, “Spicy.” What stirred up so much passion? Come with me as we explore the harrowing jabs, and tactical counter punches that were topics 3 and 4.

Source: “Food fight.” by Free the Image is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Topic 3: Should we teach skills that can easily be accomplished by technology?

Let it go

The Arguments of the Agree Side

  • The skills of tomorrow are unknowable so classroom time is best spent teaching students how to process and synthesize information, thus improving their ability face the world as it evolves around them.
  • Teachers should focus on instilling certain traits in their students: a disposition toward lifelong learning, healthy skepticism, high level problem solving skills, and curiosity.
  • Learning should center around the student rather than the teacher. Top down prescriptive skill delivery is outmoded and outdated in today’s society.

Old but gold

The Arguments of the Disagree Side

  • The world has not moved beyond the necessity of basic skills; the work world prizes accuracy and precision in areas such as written communication.
  • Technology has not reached the point where it can reliably replace the skills of the individual.
  • Teaching basic skills has various positive knock on effects for learners (fine motor skills and coordination).

What does the research say?

In their article Mason et al. (2019) state that with regards to education “Some systems persist while others become obsolete.” This immediately begs two questions: are skills like cursive writing obsolete, and if they are why do they still persist? The authors offer clues to the latter by arguing that stagnant pedagogy results from organizational cultures in schools that don’t promote change. This leads to an institutional inertia, or a tendency to do things the way they’ve always been done. Thus deprecated skills are taught not because they still have intrinsic value, but because it is easier than changing one’s practice. This tendency to hold onto the past was wryly observed by Ethan Dickens in his TEDx lecture. As a young adult he couldn’t believe that he was still carrying 50lbs of textbooks from class to class in a digital age that had long since rendered physical texts outmoded. This tendency of education to lag far behind the pace of technology was echoed by David MiddleBeck. He pointed out that the gap between those who create technology and the public that depends on it has widened at an alarming rate. He explained that education needs to embrace technology to personalize learning instead of relying on direct instruction that dates back to the industrial revolution.

There is however another side to this argument. As Pan et al. (2019) point out basic skills such as spelling don’t matter, until they do. As they point out job recruiters prize spelling and writing skills using them as a sieve to separate prospective candidates. Furthermore they state that recent reviews of academic literature affirm the efficacy of explicit spelling instruction. Writers such as Berger (2017) note that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss basic skills as promising technologies have come and gone in the past. Abandoning basic skills such as cursive writing without knowing if it will be permanently supplanted is in his opinion, premature.

One of the articles entitled “Mathematics deficit: Why do Canadian students still struggle in math?” was not, in my opinion, credible for the purpose of this discussion. The sources quoted within it represent private for profit tutoring organizations with a vested interest in recruiting clients. Their criticisms of schools are thus tainted as they have a strong economic incentive to paint a bleak picture of the state of public education.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. Education is not a zero sum game: we can still teach students basic skills while adequately preparing students for the future. The important consideration is the allotment of time, teachers need to be responsive to the individual needs of their students, but a day has only so many hours. I am comfortable with students learning their times tables if they are a means to an end, and not an end in and of themselves. Through pattern recognition, problem solving and inquiry they can employ said skills to further advance their learning.

Topic 4: Educators have a responsibility to use technology and social media to promote social justice.

With Great Power comes great Responsibility

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt

The Arguments of the Agree side

  • Teaching is not a neutral act; by failing to address social issues with students teachers are tacitly supporting the status quo and its power structures.
  • Teachers need to model and expose their students to pro-social behaviour (including activism).
  • Technology plays a critical role in disseminating social justice messages due to its prevalence and ability to connect and organize groups of people.

The Arguments of the Disagree side

  • Social media activism divorced from real world action is performative at best and harmful at its worst.
  • Teachers must walk a fine line between their personal and professional lives. Their actions online may have serious consequences and repercussions.
  • Objectivity and the appearance of relative neutrality allows students of various backgrounds to express their views and feel welcome within the classroom. Many teachers fear indoctrinating their students with their own ideas and beliefs.
  • Teachers are facing many demands in the classroom, social media activism is just another onerous requirement being placed upon them.

What does the research say?

In his TEDx lecture on the role technology plays in promoting social justice George Hofstetter (2019) describes how young people of colour have a “target on their backs” and must be extremely cautious in the way they move and behave in the world. His interest in technology gave him an outlet to confront the societal inequities he experienced by allowing him to network with subject area and experts in the fields of policing, policy making, and technology. Hofstetter (2019) is critical of public education and believes that it stifles creativity and “dismantles the idea of critical thinking.” He sees technology as instrumental in dismantling the influence of white supremacy in society. As Liang et al. (2010) observed educators need to utilize platforms that students are already familiar with. Thus it is critical that teachers use social media to spread social justice messages.

Confronting racial bias and discrimination through technology is also a central theme of Angela Watson’s podcast Some Things a Teacher Shouldn’t be Neutral About. Watson (2019) argues that it is impossible for educators to divorce real life experiences with racism and exclusion from their context and treat them as intellectual debates, as she notes when a student is the target of discrimination everything becomes personal and neutrality does not exist.  Whiteness allows many teachers the privilege of distancing themselves from these types of experiences. She states that educators with white privilege have a responsibility to use it to advocate for students who do not, the status quo is schools is both racist and biased and must be confronted by teachers.

Not all authors share in this enthusiasm. As Ashley Reid and Katie Sehl (2020) note there are many considerations one should consider before taking to social media. They argue that “genuine social media activism is supported by concrete actions, donations, and measurable commitments to change.” People can see through inauthentic behaviour and the consequences for deception can be severe. On the opposite end of the spectrum even sincere advocacy can have unintended consequences. According to Navindra Persaud 42% of educators were finding it more difficult to discuss politics with their students. In her view teachers fear sharing their political views due to pushback from parents. Madeline Will expands upon this stating that teachers not only fear alienating parents, but their students and coworkers as well. “They don’t want to hurt their relationships with parents, students, or colleagues who might have different beliefs than they do” she stated.

I believe the main sticking point in this debate lies in a single word: responsibility. By making social media activism a requirement we might inadvertently rob it of its authenticity. I would hate to see the passion for advocacy die as it becomes just another task that teachers have to perform. Passion, in my opinion, does not belong on a checklist to be evaluated. I think that mandatory social media activism also places some of my colleagues and I in an awkward positions. There has been a great deal of discussion in school divisions regarding work intensification and the effect it is having on mental health. This presupposes that all teachers are comfortable advocating on the very public forum that is the internet. There are other ways to be an ally in which you are not necessarily front and center. The Internet is not renown for being a place of sensible measured discussion. Will school divisions be prepared to defend their staff online if things get out of hand?

PTSD: Post Tough Debate Syndrome

The Aftermath…

A friend of mine who is an attorney once described his rehearsal process for cross examing a witness. On the way to court he would practice in the car trading imaginary barbs back and forth with himself (he likened it to verbal shadow boxing). Like all good legal counsel he had anticipated the opposition’s arguments and had developed a series of strategies for dealing with them. Generally this would go pretty well in his head and he would feely pretty confident. Once in front of the judge those same questions he had drilled beforehand always seemed to lack the punch and emphasis they did on the way there. Time seemed to go by faster and he said he would stammer more than usual. Leaving court he would always feel he could have done better. Once back in the car again, he would buckle his seat belt, and with the benefit of hindsight, deliver the most devastating cross examination in legal history to his rearview mirror.

This was what participating in the first round of debates felt like to me. Soon as I logged off Zoom and turned off my computer I delivered a tour de force series of counter arguments while brushing my teeth. By the time I got to folding laundry I had completely devastated my opposition. Perhaps next time I will sort socks while debating, it brings out the best in me.

That said, here are some of my thoughts on this weeks debates and associated readings.

Round 1: Arguments For and Against Technology Enhancing Classroom Learning

I will start by discussing some of the arguments against this statement. Something that struck me early was the assertion that social media was diminishing the ability of students to form authentic connections with one another. I must admit that this argument appeals to me on a primal level: I did not grow up with social media (“twitter” was and always will be to me a sound that a budgie makes), I find it scary, and therefore I avoid it unless absolutely necessary. On the other hand I can’t help but recognize that my beliefs reflect my lack of familiiarity with these platforms. Is texting a more shallow form of communication than speaking in person? I sometimes wonder if people reacted in a similar way when telephones displaced letter writing as our primary means of correspondence.

It was stated early in the debate that technology had not yielded significant educational gains despite its widespread adoption. This idea deserves to be unpacked as it feels a bit vague. Are we speaking about international standardized testing scores like PISA? Are we referring to reading comprehension levels or the retention of math facts? At what grade level? Where? Secondly, it is difficult to attribute success or failure to a single variable in education. If significant advancements have not occurred can we pinpoint technology as the culprit? Could other factors be at play? We have to remember that correlation is not equivalent to cause.

This is not to say the group arguing against technology did not make valid points. In the internet article they posted (from Western Governors University) the spectre of cyber bullying was raised. The article notes that cyber bullying is an unintentional side effect of our rapid adoption of technology in the education system. This reflects my personal experiences as a high school teacher as almost all fights that break out at my school originate in some form online, and are quite difficult to diffuse.

Technology has other unintended side affects as well. In his article “Four Ways Technology Has Negatively Changed Education” Dr. Alhumaid observed that the overuse of technology dulls the rapport that exists between teachers and students. This rings true in my own classroom. Since I started using a data projector in my lessons I have noticed a growing distance between myself and my students. The problem became so acute that I resorted to limiting its use to raise engagement levels. I think that this is more of a problem with the way I am using technology, rather than the technology itself.

This directly connects to an article that was posted by the group advocating for technology. In it Mcknight et al. assert that “instructional methods cause learning…when instructional methods remain the same, so does the learning, no matter which medium is used to deliver instruction” (p. 195). This points to the root cause of a lack of engagement my classroom, simply using technology to do the same old thing isn’t really innovation, and is not the fault of the tech being employed.

Round 2: Arguments For and Against Educational Technology Increasing Equity

I found that during the second debate, which my team participated in, I couldn’t help but concede some of the points that the other group was making. Now that it is all over I can safely say that in many respects technology may increase equity, despite my vehement arguments to the contrarty.

When available and implemented with sufficient training, technology does make the classroom a more equitable place for those with disablities. Last year I taught a student who was visually impaired and without the ability to send my lessons electronically to our brailists his classroom experience would have been greatly diminished. This combined with his access to an tablet computer and an educational assistant made him one my most engaged students. I cannot fathom how difficult a task teaching him would have been even a few decades ago. What bothers me is that had this student had the misfortune of being born in a different part of Canada, or a different country altogether, his educational experience may have been greatly diminished.

Technology may also be instrumental in helping prepare schools for the needs of individual learners. As Amundson and Ko (2021) observed data systems in schools are lagging far behind the private sector when it comes to delivering meaningful information about individual learners. If Netflix can accurately predict that I want to watch nothing but shows about dogs and food when I come home from a long day of work, how is it that schools can’t even recieve basic information about new student transfering in? We could be doing better, and adimittedly technology could help.

That said the assertion that technology is becoming more affordable is debatable. In the article “Increasing Access to Educaion is Incremental” Matt Jenner predicts that the slow growth of digital learning platforms and tools will slowly reduce the gaps in educational equity and allow everyone to eventually access high quality education. I want nothing more for this to be true (I always hoped the future would be like Star Trek the Next Generation, and less like George Orwell’s 1984), but my experience in the real world tells me otherwise. Education is a powerful tool, it grants access to power structures and wealth, and I can’t see those who currently hold both of these things giving it up so easily. Call me cynical, but I think those that have power desperately want to retain it, and will do so at the expense of others.

Technologically challenged – A day in the teaching life of someone who burns microwave popcorn.

The transformative power of technology has touched all aspects of teaching, learning, and curriculum. Social media allows teachers to communicate with students in ways that would have seemed like science fiction 20 years ago.

I wouldn’t know. I have been hiding with my head under a metaphorical and literal blanket for the last 15 years.

That is of course an exaggeration, but within the lie there is a grain of truth. My day starts the same way it always has, fumbling to stop the screeching alarm emanating from an old Sony alarm clock my grandmother got me when I was 14 years old (hey, it still works so why get a new one?). This sets in motion a routine that has remained relatively stable for as long as I remember: get up (curse my sore joints), exercise (curse my sore joints), and get to school (curse my sore joints).

And so begins my technologically rich teaching day with checking emails: the advanced features of Microsoft Outlook still elude me, but I managed to set up a digital signature a few months back so I am feeling pretty good about myself. Small victories such as these sustain me through the dark times. This is promptly followed by my first interactions with EDSBY, a “cloud-based software application that combines social networking with class and student management features” (according to Wikipedia). It is not quite the arch nemesis of my teaching day, instead it is more like a mid level boss. It’s design apes Facebook circa 2010 with the an incredible feature set that includes hiding useful functions like printing a class list behind 6 submenus and adding students to attendance rosters a full 24 hours after they first arrive in my room. It could be worse, at least I don’t have to send students messages via carrier pigeon.

As students arrive in the room I attempt to engage them in conversation. For most part they stare blankly into their smartphones, their faces illuminated by an eerie blue glow. I have made some headway recently and most respond with rudimentary grunts. My next interaction with technology is with my tablet computer. This is where I start to drag myself out of the early 20th century and firmly into the late 20th century. I have converted most of my notes to Microsoft Word documents which I project onto the whiteboard and edit using a stylus. The students love it because I draw too many cartoons when I should be teaching them how to solve quadratic equations, but the freedom it affords has been game changing allowing me to share notes with absent students and post them to a google classroom. My Google classroom is a repository of COVID era video lessons, notes, and YouTube links that served as my last bastion of teaching during the Pandemic. It is now relegated to helping students get caught up when they miss classes.

Speaking of YouTube it plays an integral role in explaining how mathematics gets used in the real world. Like all good teachers when I panic and can’t explain something myself I turn to smarter people who have done a better job of it.

My electronic interactions with students, parents and teachers is still mostly through the old fashioned medium of email. I don’t tweet, snap or use Instagram. Until I started this course I thought Discord was something that was sown amongst enemies in Arthurian legends. The instant messaging functions available through EDSBY have become increasingly popular amongst my students. They now have new electronic ways of asking me the same question that I answered 4 times during class. It’s neat.