ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Shell Shockers, a networked game in which players battle eggs armed with Kalashnikov rifles, is a smash hit played by more than 40 million people. And vast numbers of those are kids playing during class time – as I learned during a semester substitute teaching students huddled over public school-issued Google Chromebooks meant to supercharge their educations.
“We were initially quite surprised to see how popular the game was in schools,” said Jason Kapalka, founder of Vancouver, B.C.-based Blue Wizard Digital, which developed the multiplayer online role-playing game that has swept middle schools across America. “It took us a while to realize that was where all the traffic was coming from.”
Shell Shockers’ success is one side of Silicon Valley’s effort to transform American schools. The other is the largely unacknowledged failure of education technology.
Kids have always played games when they should be paying attention in class, but something new occurred in this decade: Electronic devices became not only tolerated but mandatory for every student, amid fretting over the “digital divide” and the need for underperforming schools to reach “digital native” children.
Through aggressive marketing and cut-rate prices, tech giants like Google and Apple have won an inescapable presence in America’s K-12 classrooms. Some 66% of schools now provide tablets and laptops, according to a 2018 report. Most of these are issued on a “one-to-one” basis, in which each child receives an individual laptop or tablet, typically the Chromebook or iPad, and is expected to maintain that device, charged and unbroken, throughout the school year.
“We've definitely noticed that in areas where Chromebook penetration is high, our usage goes up,” Kapalka said. “For instance, the government in Ontario issued Chromebooks to all students and we saw Shell Shockers usage skyrocket. So, yes, give a kid a Chromebook, and they'll probably play Shell Shockers on it!”
The game is optimized for Chromebook play, and Kapalka praises the ingenuity of kids who can get around school firewalls in a matter of minutes.
“I played it just to see to what it’s about,” said Amanda (last name withheld), a straight-A student at an Alexandria public middle school, part of an underperforming system in one of the wealthiest regions of the United States. “It’s not violent because your avatar is an egg, and all you’re doing is shooting other eggs.”
Oliver and Fabby, two bespectacled students struggling in all their classes, whose full names were also withheld given their status as minors, trashed-talked each other during a recent school day, while also trying to trick the teacher into thinking they were only comparing answers on an “Accelerator” project in Google Classroom.
“You’re trash!” Oliver said.
“Look at him, he’s such a try-hard,” Fabby replied.
This misuse of machines by children might be a worthwhile tradeoff if the many ed tech devices and software marketed to schools showed academic results. They don’t.
A wide-ranging report from Paris-based Reboot Foundation in June found “evidence of a negative relationship between nations’ performances on [the Program for International Student Assessment test] and their students’ reported use of technology.”
Other researchers agree that ed tech is a costly fiasco.
“Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics,” a 2015 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded. “The results show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in information and communications technologies for education.”
The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado called for a nearly complete stop to ed tech expansion in its May Virtual Schools report, citing “overwhelming evidence of poor performance by full-time virtual and blended learning schools.” Eighth-grade virtual students in North Carolina tended to “underperform relative to eighth graders who took Algebra I in a traditional classroom,” according to a 2016 report in Economics of Education Review.
Ed tech advocates, meanwhile, have produced little evidence that their products work. Although a 2017 RAND Corp. descriptive study of “personalized learning,” funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, showed improvement for math students, no longitudinal or comprehensive surveys suggest kids are learning more since the widespread introduction of one-to-one educational tech. Nor have test scores, grade point averages, or graduation rates shown any signs of improvement that could be linked to the issuing of devices to students.
The lack of support for ed tech’s effectiveness is not for lack of available data. Schools are steeped in standardized testing and assessment – to the extent that large chunks of the school year are devoted to test prep.
Increasing use of devices also ensures immediate and analysis-ready statistical information. (Advocates cite that exact point as one of ed tech’s big advantages.) There are years’ worth of classroom data since one-to-one tech took off early in this decade – marked by high-profile efforts such as Los Angeles Unified School District’s scandal-plagued 2013 program to give every student an iPad. Google has immediate access to any potential good news about the millions of kids who now tote Chromebooks, but the company did not reply to requests for comment. The Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative declined to have a spokesperson speak on the record.
“If the tech companies really wanted to know whether their products are working, they would be subsidizing really good research,” Faith Boninger, a director of research at National Education Policy Center, told RealClearInvestigations. “I don’t think there is good news, to be honest. If you were trying to sell a product, and you had that evidence, you would share it.”
This raises the question, Boninger said, of what Silicon Valley is doing with data harvested from nearly every American student.
“The more kids are on devices, the more they can be tracked, and the more they can be marketed to,” she said.
Chromebook conquered local school districts through a combination of price (a factory-new unit retails around $300 or lower); cloud technology that uploads the putative owner’s data to shared storage; and a sales campaign supported by both money and positive press from a network of foundations – many set up by Silicon Valley corporations themselves.
“There are 80 million educators and students around the world using what has become G Suite for Education,” Google director for international education John Vamvakitis announced in a January article for Google’s The Keyword newsletter. “Forty million students and educators rely on Google Classroom to stay organized and support creative teaching techniques. Thirty million more use Chromebooks to open up a world of possibilities both inside and outside the classroom.”
Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, summarized Google’s achievement this way: “Chromebook achieved supremacy through a pharmaceutical industry-type full-court press, aimed at school administrators and I.T. directors, with a really attractive price point.”
Valerie Truesdale, assistant executive director of American Association of School Administrators, defended the use of ed tech but could not point to any positive educational results.
“If the computer is the right tool for a lesson, the student should be on the computer,” she said. “If it’s not the right tool for that lesson, the student shouldn’t be on the computer. An iPad or Chromebook takes the place of a number of really heavy textbooks.”
While agreeing that no objective data exist showing one-to-one devices – or ed tech more broadly – have improved academic outcomes, Truesdale said vendors have presented evidence that the total time students spend on learning tasks is increasing.
“We can’t say one iPad or one Chromebook made the difference for a student,” Truesdale said, adding that teachers “just parking kids in front of the computer” could do more harm than good.
Suspicions about the effects of ed tech have been stoked by revelations that Bill Gates strictly limited his own children’s access to technology, as did the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Three-quarters of students at expensive Silicon Valley Waldorf schools – which maintain a completely tech-free learning environment – are children of wealthy tech industry professionals.
These concerns have spurred an uprising against any further expansion of education technology. Oregon, Colorado, and Maryland passed student data privacy bills in recent years. Students at a Brooklyn school last year staged a walkout, objecting to too much screen time. The nonprofit Summit Learning platform, developed with Facebook's support, has been the subject of parent protests in Pennsylvania and Kansas, with Indiana Area Junior High School announcing in April that it would withdraw from the Summit program at the end of the school year.
While the backlash includes parents who object to a loss of privacy and control over their children’s screen time, as well as individual teachers whose lesson plans are increasingly subject to Silicon Valley decisions, there has been relatively little attention paid to the failure at the center of all these problems: Ed tech is not helping teach kids.
One catch in all this: Nobody ever quite claimed that ed tech would help students learn. For lay observers, the question might seem simple: School is where children read, write, memorize the multiplication tables, learn the branches of government, and so on. As school years get longer, it’s reasonable to expect the volume and quality of learning to increase. But ed tech promises something less quantifiable: “engagement.”
“It should be easy to get a clear answer,” said Matt Miles, a longtime teacher and co-author with Joe Clement of the 2017 book “Screen Schooled.” “When this software was sold to our school district, the person pitching said there’s no proof it improves achievement, but it does improve engagement. How do you prove engagement? Why spend a billion dollars on something that doesn’t improve performance?”
Miles and Clement pointed to another less-discussed aspect of ed tech. While advocates throw around terms like “disruptive technology,” “deeper learning,” “new learning models,” “connected” or “personalized” education, “equitable access to learning tools,” and the like, many of the applications used in schools are little more than old-fashioned worksheets.
“Most of this stuff is just videos of lectures, online worksheets, books in a digital format – basically all the stuff we’ve been doing for years,” Miles said. “The marketing people get ahead of the developers, and they sell stuff that isn’t even possible. The marketing is more important than the product school districts are buying.”
Clement suggested education technology’s dull products help make Shell Shockers look even better by comparison.
“The products really are underwhelming when you see them in action,” he said. “The rationale tends to follow one or both of the following tracks: We have to prepare kids for the 21st century, and we’ve got to reach the kids using today’s methods. And at the end of all that, you get this stuff that kids laugh at.”