Shawnee Mission school board candidates on the issues: Technology in the classrooms

In August, we asked our readers about the issues you wanted to hear the candidates running for Shawnee Mission school board address. Based on your feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire touching on the most important issues to patrons of the district.

Each day this week, we have published the candidates’ responses to one of five questions. Today, we are publishing candidates’ responses to the final question:

The district fell short on its projected enrollment in 2020 and 2021 — specifically in its youngest grades, including kindergarten. These drops will likely impact the amount of state funding the district receives in the future and thereby influence future budgets you will be asked to vote on. How can the district prepare for these potential budget impacts? What are your ideas on how to increase student enrollment?

Below are the answers the Post received from the candidates on this issue:

SM West Area

April Boyd-Noronha

As last year demonstrated, too much technology can be a bad thing, but I do think we must prepare students for the workforce of the future, which, like it or not, includes the proliferation of computers and tablets.

The availability of this technology allowed learning to continue during the global pandemic, and that is important to recognize. Virtual learning, while not a good fit for many families, freed some students who may struggle with social anxiety and other social challenges. We cannot view technology in the classroom with a one-size-fits-all mentality because all kids are unique.

With that said, I do believe screen time for younger students should be limited. Kids need social interaction with their peers and time to explore nature. Both are critical to childhood development and social and emotional wellbeing. I am happy to witness our kids back in school enjoying the social interaction with their peers.

The debate between not enough technology and too much technology will continue, but our district should strive to provide learning tools and resources to increase the best learning outcomes for all children.

Sean Claycamp

Technology is here to stay and that is OK.

It was a great resource when schools had to close in the early parts of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. They can be a good tool for educators to use to keep students on track within the curriculum and — as I have seen with my own children — it allows students to work at their own pace. There is also a benefit to the metrics the curriculums and tools on these devices can provide.

However, technology needs to be leveraged appropriately and not all the time because there are pitfalls.

Studies have shown that skills such as reading and writing are negatively impacted by an over-reliance on technology in classrooms. Shifting students from a paper book to reading something on a screen devalues the content in the student’s mind. It is seen as less important because it is not a tangible book or worksheet and can just be swiped away.

As for writing, ask a majority of parents if their 5th grader’s handwriting is bad and you will undoubtedly hear “absolutely.” It needs to be addressed because poor hand writing is a detriment in nearly every career path.

Technology also can negatively impact the student’s relationship with the teacher in the classroom. The relationship becomes more about the device and less about the teacher, especially in elementary classrooms. This lack of human relationship in instruction can create a feeling of isolation for some students. And we know students do better when they feel like they belong.

Some teachers, including many my children have had, do a great job of assigning worksheets that require students to write out answers. This practice should be encouraged further, especially in elementary classrooms and especially with younger teachers who might be less willing to break away from the safety of a device-based curriculum.

To some, this may sound like going backwards but is it?

At-Large Area

Brian Neilson

A lot of constituents hear what I have to say about technology in the classroom, and they assume I am a dinosaur who wants a blackboard and chalk back in the classroom. That is simply not true on its face. I co-founded a software company with a college friend who was working in cyberwarfare. He is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at their Lincoln Laboratories. I was in deep, on the bleeding edge, and we filed for one of the first patents in peer-to-peer data backup systems that we sold to the UK special forces, and — would you believe it — a school district in Mississippi!

Those were fun days. What has developed since those days in the mid-2000s has been nothing short of breathtaking. We need to integrate technology in our curriculum, teach formal logic in a way that translates to computer software languages and prepare those interested students for advanced research in the field after high school.

The problem with technology in the schools is all too often what I hear parents complain about: that dead time is filled with iPad time. Anecdotally, I hear this is decreasing dramatically at my daughter’s school at Brookwood. Further, this year, no iPads are going home with students after school unless there is an assignment. When my now-7th grade son and his friends were bringing their iPads home as early as 2nd grade, they did so to play the games on there. Some were not even educational in the least. I became involved in “Digitally Wise” parents at the time and started attending school board meetings when the issue was on the agenda. Later as my son grew older and the kids found ways to get around district firewalls blocking YouTube, I had to get in touch with administrators. I finally ended up with Darren Dennis (curriculum), Drew Lane (IT), and then-Superintendent Mike Fulton. We worked hard together for a year using my tech background to identify apps in the app store that needed to be blocked that had no educational value and to play whack-a-mole as kids found workarounds to access non-educational websites.

At one Digitally Wise meeting, attended by then candidate for school board Jessica Hembree, we heard of a student that would fire up her district laptop at Indian Woods when her classwork was done and binge on Netflix. I was appalled. In what world was Netflix allowed to be accessed on a district laptop? This was as far back as 4 years ago when this happened, so I hope the district firewalls have improved, and they are blocking anything not related to education. Suffice to say, this was actually the first time that running for school board crossed my mind.

The last point I will make is that I do not believe iPads should be used in any way shape or form from Pre-K through 1st grade. Kids have so much screen time already. I think during the school day they need a break from that. In Silicon Valley, I have read accounts in national papers that tech executives are sending kids to private schools that do not use computers for teaching unless they are involved in actual instruction on how to use or program devices. It’s very limited. Those most advanced in technology recognize that there has to be balance, and too much technology, especially screen time, can do more harm than good.

Heather Ousley (incumbent)

One of the hardest parts of participating in the completely virtual learning experience last year for my children was the full-time screen time. Returning to in-person learning has given them much needed interaction with friends and classmates, which help keep their brains stimulated and interested in the material in front of them.

I am very thankful for the one-to-one technology in a way I was not previously appreciative prior to the last few years; and the ability to have our students use some of the platforms purchased to make COVID learning more manageable (for example, Canvas) have been great. I like that students can turn in assignments online, and parents can immediately see that an assignment has been turned in and can be notified as soon as it is graded. It is a great way to ensure work is being completed and a student doesn’t fall too far behind before a parent is made aware.

That being said, in person instruction that allows students to have a break from a device when they are working math problems, or interacting in a lab, is priceless. Currently, most students have more interaction and somewhat less screen time than they did last year. However, last year was an abnormal benchmark. As we work our way through and out of pandemic learning, it would be good to reengage with our conversations around technology use with the community.

Our attempts to review this were just getting ready to begin in February 2020, and then COVID began in March, and our use of the devices became an imperative. I’ll be interested to have the district hear from our community about on they feel about technology after the last two years, what portions from COVID practices they liked and what they hope to see less of once pandemic is complete.

SM East Area

Zach Roberts

The use of technology in the classroom has brought both positives and negatives to the K-12 educational experience. I believe moderation is important. Some subjects are better suited for digital curricula than others, and many non-digital skills are still important. I appreciate the opportunity for younger students to begin learning basic computing skills such as keyboarding, word processing, spreadsheets and web development. In addition, there are theoretical transparency advantages to having digitally based assignments and curriculum, but I don’t think these have fully been realized.

Skyward (digital report card) should be a resource that helps parents stay on top of student performance. However, each assignment grade defaults to zero until the actual grade is entered, making it difficult to determine whether that zero represents an incomplete assignment or an ungraded/unrecorded one.

The transition to digital curriculum has also become a barrier to parental involvement. Parents should have the same access to online materials as their children, especially when homework becomes the norm in middle and high school. Without access to reference materials, many parents feel insufficiently equipped to help when questions about homework assignments arise. There have been other unintended consequences that have accompanied technology in the classroom for some. These include inappropriate use and Internet etiquette, both of which can be difficult to supervise.

I am concerned about screen time in general. It is important to note that school related screen time also includes homework assignments that are often completed after school. Although the research is not yet settled regarding the developmental impact of increasing screen time, concerns currently under investigation include: speech and language delays, attention problems, obesity, lower school achievement and risk-taking behavior. While the focus for these concerns is mostly for younger children, increasing screen time has been shown to negatively correlate with sleep quality and quantity across all ages. Insufficient sleep among adolescents has been linked with poor academic performance, mental health disorders and increased risk of accidental injury. In one study, 69% of teens reported sleeping fewer than 7 hours a night (when 9 is recommended), and 89% of teens reported having at least one device in their bedrooms.

What students do at home is largely outside the purview of the school board, but the potential impact of evening screen time related to homework is worth consideration.

Mary Sinclair (incumbent)

Core principles of teaching and learning stand apart from any specific tool, whether laptop, textbook, calculator or chalk. Technology in the classroom, nonetheless, is a powerful tool that can amplify and individualize instruction, accelerate growth, engage and empower learners. Computer literacy and digital citizenship are competencies that are now basic expectations for most employers and educational institutions, as well as, for civic engagement.

Shawnee Mission Public Schools has implemented a 1:1 digital learning model for over five years and has learned important lessons along the way. With each year of experience, principals and teachers continue to refine guidelines for screen time use and develop a working balance. I support the district’s technology-use belief statement: “We believe in a balanced approach to the use of technology, and that devices should be used purposefully to collect data, communicate, collaborate and create. Our technology devices are tools and are useful in supporting us as we strive to meet the objectives of the Strategic Plan, including the need to personalize learning for each student.”

Technology use in the classroom is guided by the Big 3 Focus: 1) balance, 2) purpose and 3) communication.

The guidelines for balance include recommended minutes of instruction with opportunities for interaction, device-free recess and academic use only for seminar. Defining purposeful uses for iPads and laptops, such as collaboration or creating information, helps drive academic device use. Communicating with parents by way of the district website or through in-person Tech Tune Up events and such, also increases effective use. Professional development and ongoing support for teachers and principals is essential for the effective use toward the achievement of learning outcomes. District infrastructure support is also critical to safely and affordably maintain and operate the necessary hardware and software.

The global pandemic is somewhat of an extreme example of the benefits of the 1:1 digital initiative. SMSD was able to minimize disruptions to learning, relative to districts without this learning model. Our teachers were able to maintain contact with their students, students with their peers and parents with their children’s teachers. While remote and hybrid learning modes used last year were not ideal, many districts across Kansas and the country were limited to handing out student packets of paper. Other benefits allow learning to move beyond the classroom to museums, libraries, industry, business and people across the state and around the world. Technology can provide greater equity and accessibility.

Read these candidates’ responses to other questions about managing COVID-19 in schools, the district’s approach to diversity and critical race theory, getting kids college and career ready and student enrollment.