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Children’s Use of Media in K–8 Virtual Learning: What Virtual Schools Need to Know When Designing Curriculum

Children’s Use of Media in K–8 Virtual Learning: What Virtual Schools Need to Know When Designing Curriculum

The evidence-based recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) address school-age children’s use of media over a child’s entire day and the entire range of broadcast and social media. It is important for all education technology companies to be aware of these recommendations and apply them to their decisions on how (and how much) children’s media use should be included in virtual school curricula. Let’s take a look into what the AAP’s recommendations are and how Calvert Learning keeps them in mind when designing online curriculum.

Recommendation #1: The use of media can be a significant benefit to learning, but not all media are made the same.

Implication for virtual schools: Review all media carefully against set criteria for quality, and only include media with instructional merit.

In the policy statement that appeared in the journal Pediatrics in 2016, the AAP notes the potential benefits of media for instruction, including providing exposure to new ideas and information and supporting learning. That said, the AAP’s 2018 list of “Children and Media Tips" notes that many apps and sites labeled as educational may not truly be so. Some media touted as having “interactivity” may not require anything more than “pushing and swiping.” The AAP recommends looking to organizations like Common Sense Media for reviews about the educational quality of apps, games, and programs to guide in making the best choices for children.

Calvert chooses interactive activities that add value to the learning experience. For example, science lessons often include interactive science labs or simulations.

This is exactly the approach that we at Calvert recommend, using Common Sense Media and learning sciences principles to guide a process of review and careful curation of all media chosen for students’ use, making sure that the media that are ultimately selected have the capacity to be minds-on and cognitively engaging for students. We have instituted this process to identify media that are worth spending time on, and only these are labeled “interactive activities” in our curriculum. We have also established formal partnerships with a relatively small number of vetted publishers who become our go-to partners to provide media that meet this standard of quality.

Recommendation #2: Media shouldn’t be used by students in isolation.

Implication for virtual schools: Provide guidance specific to each piece of media to help learning guides and teachers co-view and co-engage with students.

The AAP also states that screen time shouldn’t typically be alone time. Co-viewing and co-engaging with children when they are using screens encourages social interactions and, ultimately, learning. It is with this same approach that Mister Rogers turned television from a technology that should be kept out of children’s lives to something we understand as a tool that has the capacity to promote children’s social and emotional growth.

We at Calvert recommend that the virtual school instructional program provides clear instructions to learning guides and teachers on how best to co-view and co-engage with students. These instructions should be specific to the particular pieces of media and, thus, very concrete as to what can be said about the media, what specific questions can be asked, and what specific ways can be used to follow up on student responses that we anticipate. By providing such instructions, co-viewing and co-engagement can truly be supported, and as need be, the capacity for co-viewing and co-engagement can be built in for the learning guide and the teacher. Engaging in this kind of back-and-forth “talk time” has the additional benefit of having been shown by research to improve language skills—much more so than “passive” listening or one-way interaction with a screen.

In addition to providing helpful tips for instruction, Teaching Notes included throughout lessons help learning guides lead conversations to encourage discussion around the media presented.

We at Calvert have taken the following approach to achieve this goal:

  • First, a login for the learning guide at home (typically a parent or guardian) is provided, in addition to a login for the teacher of record. The learning guide login provides access to a large quantity of carefully written Teaching Notes that are inserted into the curriculum at the point-of-use of the media in the flow of the lesson. These Teaching Notes lightly script the specific back-and-forth conversation the learning guide can have with the student about the media. We have drawn on our 100-year-old roots in homeschooling for expertise in supporting just this kind of interaction.
  • Our curriculum also explicitly states the expectation that learning guides are actively working with students to co-view and co-engage in all grades K–8. Even while students in the middle grades will be able to work more independently from a logistical point of view, the amount of learning-focused back-and-forth with a learning guide needs to be maintained for students in the middle grades. 

Recommendation #3: Children learn best when they are re-taught in the real world what they learn through a screen.

Implication for virtual schools: Provide students with the opportunity to use what they learn from the media.

In addition to recognizing the benefit to learning with the right kind of media (see recommendation #1) with co-viewing and co-engagement with an adult (see recommendation #2), the AAP goes on to note that children learn best when they are re-taught in the real world what they learn through a screen.

Our approach at Calvert of including projects in our curricula is intentionally designed to provide this exact opportunity for students to experience the real-world utility of the content they learned with the help of the media in the curriculum.

We develop our projects around the idea that each project is simultaneously engaging from a real-world perspective and standards aligned. We also develop our projects around the secondary criteria that the projects take maximal advantage of the virtual school’s nontraditional setting and schedule, support student voice and choice, require authentic (and assessable) work products and a public audience, keep cognitive load manageable, and support peer collaboration.

Recommendation #4: Set reasonable daily limits on the use of media.

Implication for virtual schools: Provide ways for families to reduce screen time during the school day to achieve the overall daily limit on the use of media.

For children ages 6 and older, the AAP suggests placing consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media and making sure that media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health. Families should also make unplugged playtime a daily priority, and the AAP provides a Media Time Calculator in order to help families set daily goals that balance online and offline time.

While specific time limits are not set for school-age children, for preschool children, the AAP and World Health Organization do recommend a limit of just 1 hour a day of high-quality, screen-based programming. This recommendation acknowledges the benefits of learning with media and media co-engagement even for preschool age children, but similar to the recommendation that reasonable limits be set on school-age children’s use of media, this recommendation for preschool students is based on the need to ensure that these students’ screen time is limited to the remainder of time after preschool-age-appropriate requirements for ample sleep (10–13 hours/day), physical activity (at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous activity out of 3 hours total/day), and other healthful activities are accounted for.

Calvert’s approach:

  • To help families set reasonable overall daily limits on the use of media, Calvert recommends that families begin by using the AAP Media Time Calculator. In accordance with the Media Time Calculator, Calvert curriculum has always asked families to build time for recess and other unplugged playtime into the child’s daily schedule.
  • Calvert provides families with ways to limit school-age children’s use of media during the school day (and thus achieve their overall daily limits) by providing print-based options that can be used in place of screen time. 
  • Calvert chose the e-textbooks that we use carefully, in part due to them having identical print-based equivalents. In our English Language Arts course, e-books and e-readers were chosen in part due to them having print-based alternatives.
  • Students’ daily lesson guides are accessible online, but we also make lessons available as a print-based lesson manual. Print copies of online worksheets and assessments can be printed on demand.

It is in all these ways that Calvert aims to provide families with the means to limit student screen time as little or as much as a given family needs. Families can choose to remove almost all screen time beyond that spent on the instructional media discussed in recommendation #1, which are carefully curated uses of media that provide learning opportunities that simply cannot be replicated in a paper-based format.

Looking for more resources on how technology can be integrated into the learning experience? Check out this blog post on how to make time for hands-on experiences in the K–6 classroom!