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How to do more with less screen time

One of the nicest advantages that some students enjoyed about the spring version of online learning was the relaxation of the bell schedule. However, the attempts to squeeze normalcy into an extraordinary situation removed that luxury in most cases this fall.

In an effort to recover learning time that was lost in the spring - and to neutralize criticisms that distance learning is inadequate - many schools, districts, and education agencies have resolved to create plans for the 2020-2021 school year that allow K-12 students to return to physical classrooms or require synchronous online classes that adhere to a regular school day schedule.

As we have historically seen in education, combatting one perceived problem can often cause many others. With current distance-learning structures, many parents, students, and teachers are concerned with children spending so much time on screen - in some cases, five or six hours a day - for instruction.

Read more: From normal to better: Using what we’ve learned to improve education

The unintended consequence of all-day synchronous distance learning may be screen fatigue. In addition, as this article from Science News for Students tells us, studies on the effects of screen time on children that were completed prior to the pandemic show that there is a potential for even more insidious results to reveal themselves when screen time is excessive, such as mental and physical health issues. What's more, 7 in 10 parents say their child’s screen time has skyrocketed amid the pandemic.

Fortunately, an important distinction was made in a 2019 study issued by Australian health scientist Taren Sanders - that not all screen time is equal. “Passive screen time”, in which students are not interacting through games or social activities, is the type that we need to limit the most.

So, whether you are mandated to be online with students all-day or have some flexibility when it comes to synchronous teaching, it is important to consider how much time your students spend watching the screen in proportion to using it as a tool for interaction.

Read more: Adopting the asynchronous mindset for better online learning

Less passive, more interactive

If you, as the educator, do not have the choice to reduce time online, there are still some things that you can do to help alleviate screen fatigue for your students. One of the best things you can do is to get them moving. Whether the movements are part of the lesson, or intermittent brain breaks, giving your students some physical tasks will actually increase the likelihood of them staying engaged in the mental ones.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but adding action to lesson time, will save you time in the long run - time spent repeating concepts and instructions while students are “zoned out” or managing behaviors precipitated by boredom.

In this article from Cult of Pedagogy, Jennifer Gonzales explains how using such tools as Total Physical Response or simulations can activate student learning. For brain breaks, indoor recess, or even mindfulness, GoNoodle is a website designed to get kids moving. Though they are still technically watching a screen, many children (especially younger ones) will enjoy the opportunity to get out their wiggles - and teachers may find it to be a nice change as well!

Another viable option for stepping away from the screen during distance learning is conducting scavenger hunts. While there are great digital options for scavenger hunts, such as Goosechase or Fliphunts, you may want to check out this advice from John Spencer for incorporating ones that are less device-dependent. Just remember to be mindful of different student home environments when generating scavenger hunt lists.

Videos and games

When possible, videos are better to assign during asynchronous time, but it may be tempting to take some pressure off by showing a video to your class during whole-class instruction. In these cases, make sure the video is less than 10 minutes long, and add closed captions. According to this article describing the #CaptionsOn Reading campaign, research shows that closed captions can improve reading skills. Besides, captions are helpful for those who have hearing or attention difficulties.

Read more: 4 Tips for using accessibility features to promote inclusion

Other ways to move your whole class instruction time away from passive screen time are to play games such as Quizziz or Gimkit, use tools like PearDeck, NearPod, or Google Jamboard to solicit feedback or do formative assessments, and to assign your students to participate in virtual breakout rooms for meaningful group discussions.

Read more: How to facilitate meaningful discussions in hybrid or virtual classrooms

Less synchronous screen time

Unless your district has mandated it, synchronous time does not have to be whole-group instruction. In a recent Twitter thread responding to this question by Dwayne Reed, “What’s ONE thing you would do to make remote/distance learning more sustainable, less burdensome, or simply just better?” many teachers advocated for less synchronous screen time, and several made it clear that whole-group instruction with distance and hybrid learning should be for short periods of time.

If teachers aren’t on screen all of the time with every student, how can we ensure that students get the education they need? Just as they often do in physical classrooms, teachers could be differentiating for small groups of students. In large classes, with diverse needs, teachers are often forced to give generic lessons that don’t address students who may have learning disabilities or advanced knowledge. With shorter periods of whole-class instruction, teachers can use the rest of the school day to work on specific learning targets with fewer students at a time. Doing it this way can ensure that, though students are spending less time in direct contact with the teacher, the time they have is better quality.

Read more: Top edtech tools for digital differentiation

It’s all in the blend

To continue their learning when not in a teacher-directed video conference, students can work on independent tasks that typically need less guidance. This was the original intent of flipped instruction, where teachers would assign videos of their lectures for homework so that students could spend the time during the school day with “the teacher expert” more efficiently by practicing and doing hands-on activities with his or her help. Another advantage of recorded lessons is that they empower the student to watch and listen to lessons at their own pace, with the option to pause or rewind if needed.

To expand the flipped classroom to one that would accommodate small groups, Dr. Catlin Tucker recommends the station rotation model. Using four stations, only one of which is teacher-supervised, students alternate work that can be done independently - such as video lessons, choice board activities, or writing and reflection practice - with time for specific feedback and intervention from the teacher. The result of reducing the screen time is increased student agency and teacher efficacy.

The practicalities of using the station rotation model may intimidate some, as it necessitates time when students will not be under the watchful eye of the teacher. Even after modeling, discussing behavior expectations, and ensuring students know how to use the required technology, teachers may still find it difficult to allow students to step away from the screen during class. The ultimate question to be answered is, “Through which model will my students receive the most benefit?” After all, requiring students to be on-screen the whole time presents its own challenges and may be creating more problems than it solves.

Read more: 4 Models of blended learning to implement in the classroom

The take-away

We know, as educators, that students need a sense of community in order to thrive. Right now, in many schools around the world, the only opportunity to create these connections may be online. Staying onscreen all day may not be the solution we hoped for, though, unless we can focus more on transforming that time into quality interactions that increase physical movement and mental engagement than on extending the minutes students are watching the screen.