Shawnee Mission teachers raise concerns about impact of 1:1 devices on attention, empathy

Five year after the district rolled out its 1:1 initiative, parents and teachers this week have expressed some frustrations with implementation of the program.

Shawnee Mission parents aren’t the only ones who raised issues about the district’s 1:1 technology initiative with the administration this week.

Teachers appear to have plenty of concerns themselves.

Management of the iPads and Macbooks issued to each of the district’s more than 27,500 students was among the topics that got a good deal of discussion at a meeting of the Faculty Advisory Council with Superintendent Mike Fulton and members of the central office administration Wednesday.

Asked to identify the most important area that the district needed to address to improve students learning, a number of teachers at the meeting cited concerns with the 1:1 initiative. One high school teacher said he was concerned students were losing the ability to concentrate and be empathetic as a result of mounting screen time. At least two more said teachers needed more support for integrating the 1:1 devices into their lesson plans or troubleshooting glitches with the devices.

That such concerns were among the top priorities identified by some of the faculty reps did not surprise Linda Sieck, president of the National Education Association – Shawnee Mission, the union that represents the district’s teachers. She said the NEA-SM has been hearing concerns about the impact of the devices in their classrooms for a few years now.

In the first couple years of the program, most of the complaints stemmed from the technology not working properly. WiFi would go down inside a building, leaving teachers who had built lesson plans around their students devices scrambling to come up with another activity. Or the AirPlay functionality would be glitchy, preventing teachers from demonstrating a lesson on their classroom’s big screen.

Most of those issues have waned as the district has gained more experience with the tech infrastructure needed to support the devices. But new concerns about screen time and distraction in the classroom have popped up in their place. Teachers have found that the iPads and Macbooks can take attention away from learning, with some students surfing the web or watching videos online while in class — a practice that’s very hard to police.

“The 1:1 technology initiative was implemented with very little professional development on best practices for how to get the most out of the devices in the classroom,” Sieck said. “One of the things we’ve heard is that teachers wish they knew more about character education with the devices — how to teach students to use the devices in a beneficial and not distracting way.”

Shawnee Mission stood apart from local peers in approach to 1:1 initiative

As part of the initiative launched in 2014, every Shawnee Mission student receives his or her own Apple device at the start of the school year.

The widespread roll out of so many devices in so short a time back in 2014 and 2015 made Shawnee Mission unique among its local peers. Olathe opted for a less robust tech purchase when it started its program in 2014, buying enough iPads so that there is one for every two elementary students. And unlike in Shawnee Mission, the elementary school iPads stay in the building and never come home with the students. All Olathe middle school students started receiving an iPad they can take home with them in 2015. But Olathe didn’t roll out a 1:1 laptop initiative for all of its high school students until this school year, when they started receiving Dell devices.

In Blue Valley, the district is starting its secondary level 1:1 initiative next semester with high schoolers receiving a Macbook and middle schoolers receiving a Chromebook. Blue Valley plans to conduct a small blended learning pilot program with tech devices in an elementary setting, but has no plans for a widespread 1:1 roll out for its elementary schools at this time.

Still, the push to get modern devices into the hands of students was welcomed by many Shawnee Mission employees five years ago. Jan Bombeck was a librarian at Ray Marsh Elementary the year that the 1:1 initiative was rolled out and said she was eager to have access to such powerful research technology.

“I remember going to librarian conferences and people would say, just have your kids get on their iPads and do this exercise,” Bombeck said. “We were way behind here at the time.”

But Bombeck acknowledges that training on the devices was inconsistent at launch. The trainers that Ray Marsh faculty had access to were great, she said, but she heard from teachers at other schools who had bad experiences.

Bombeck has since retired, but says she still thinks the devices can be a great benefit to Shawnee Mission students if they are properly managed. She thinks building level administrators should probably be taking a strong role in managing expectations about limiting screen time in the classrooms.

And Sieck says that there’s definitely not a push to pull the devices out of students’ hands entirely.

“There is no consensus that teachers want to get rid of any of the tech,” she said. “But what we’re looking for are some better parameters about how and when to use them.”