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River Town Chronicles: One-to-one computing: A win or a loss?

After reading my recent column about millennials addicted – literally – to digital games and social media (“Screenagers hooked on ‘digital cocaine;’ Kane County Chronicle, June 29), my editor replied, “Scary.” Scarier still, K-12 schools are buying into the shallow promises and skillful marketing strategies of computer companies.

One-to-one computing Wikipedia defines as “academic institutions … issuing each enrolled student an electronic device … to access the internet, digital course materials and digital textbooks.” Sounds awesome, right?

Let’s look behind the screen.

Although “technology can certainly be helpful in a well-supported and thoughtful high school curriculum,” Nicholoas Kardaras, Ph.D., posits in “Glow Kids,” “sticking a radiant screen in the hands of a kindergartener or a child in elementary school is not only not helpful educationally, but … could be neurologically and clinically harmful.”

“Despite no clear benefits,” writes Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., in “Reset Your Child’s Brain,” paying huge sums for one-to-one computing can result in “a decline of gym class, art and music lessons, recess, free play outdoors.”

Why, then, do schools persist? Dunckley cites the “seductive quality to innovation and to the ‘coolness’ of technology.” And the “ ‘promise’ ed-tech companies were serving up.”

To that point, Kardaras outlines the “unholy alliance” between media owner Rupert Murdoch and former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, exposing what can be seen as entrepreneurial, rather than educational, motives for pushing classroom technology.

Moreover, Common Core’s nationwide standards, Kardaras continues, made it easy to universalize tablets’ curricula. With hard-copy books obsolete, schools would use only computers, which would be devastating.

A 2013 Scientific American article opines, “screens … fail to adequately re-create certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that … may subtly inhibit reading comprehension ... screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read. … When reading on screens, people seem less inclined to engage in … metacognitive learning regulation – strategies such as setting specific goals, rereading difficult sections and checking how much one has understood.”

Kardaras reveals students do not learn better simply by using technology. A 2012 meta-analysis showed “just slightly lower levels of improvement when compared with other researched interventions,” concluding, “technology can be a useful tool in already effective schools with effective teachers – but ... technology was not the educational panacea.”

The Guardian describes the Waldorf School of the Peninsula to which “employees of tech giants Google, Apple and Yahoo send their children … there is not an iPad, smartphone or screen in sight.” In at least some grades there, “teachers … prefer a more hands-on, experiential approach. … The pedagogy emphasizes the role of imagination.”

It adds the Organisation (sic) for Economic Co-operation and Development reports, “education systems that have invested heavily in computers have seen ‘no noticeable improvement’ in their results for reading, maths and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment tests.”

The takeaway? Given the right school, grade level and teacher, one-on-one computing proves a helpful additional learning tool. Introduced too early and relied on too heavily, technology can disappoint, drain a school’s budget and encourage young people to spend even more time looking at screens rather than sunsets.

Rick Holinger teaches high school in the Fox Valley and facilitates a writing workshop. His prose and poetry have appeared in numerous literary journals. Degrees include a creative writing degree from UIC. Contact him at

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