With teens spending an average of 4.5 hours per day on their phones, it’s no wonder parents are worried if all the scrolling, snapping, and texting is affecting teens’ brain development, learning, and mental health. Such high rates of technological use beg the question of whether technology can ever be good for learning.
The answer — surprisingly — is yes.
The reality is that technology is very good at capturing and keeping kids’ and teens’ attention. The challenge is to use technology to capture their attention in a way that’s actually beneficial and gives them transferable skills.
To learn more about how technology can deliver richer, more rewarding educational experiences for students, we talked to Dr. Jennifer Winward, the founder and lead instructor of Winward Academy, an award-winning e-learning platform. Dr. Winward is a renowned instructor at UC San Diego, a distinguished 20-year veteran of high school tutoring, and an expert in adolescent brain development and adolescent learning.
Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise with our community, Dr. Winward! To kick things off, how would you describe the role of technology in learning?
Technology should only play a role in education if it’s executed in a way that intentionally enhances the effectiveness of learning.
To be effective, technological solutions must honor 40 years of educational research about how people learn. Online learning tools should help students immediately understand their strengths and weaknesses by providing accuracy broken down by concept and by encouraging students to learn from their mistakes. All lessons should be designed to build a foundation in a new concept and then gradually increase the level of difficulty, so students become more independent and more confident as they progress.
Also, online learning programs should assess baseline and post-lesson accuracy, so students get immediate feedback on their growth and can adjust their studying approach accordingly. Finally, effective online learning programs must give students specific, accurate feedback on all their answers — both correct and incorrect — and should encourage them to paraphrase what they learn into their own words so they achieve a deeper level of understanding. If an online learning tool isn’t offering all of those features, then it’s not going to be effective.
What skill do you think is most crucial for today’s students to learn?
Based on what I’ve seen and heard, today’s students consistently need to work on their writing skills.
As an instructor at UCSD [University of California, San Diego], I’ve graded thousands of essays. Working at Winward Academy, I’ve had countless conversations with principals, school district leaders, and teachers around the country. Across the board, writing is a shortcoming that’s identified with today’s students.
It’s essential that students master the ability to present information in a cogent, well-reasoned fashion. I’m incredibly concerned by the pattern I see of degrading writing abilities and lack of ability to break down, understand, and critique or present a position in written form. It’s crucial that we empower students with foundational grammar and writing skills.
Do you think there’s a relationship between this deterioration in writing skills and the fact that teens spend so much time communicating informally on their devices?
The introduction of autocorrect and texting slang like “ur welcome” definitely don’t help youth learn and practice their writing skills. As formality has been removed from daily communication, we’ve seen those effects seep into students’ writing with a dramatic reduction in the use of standard English.
While it’s an unrealistic goal of mine, I would love if every text message was grammatically correct, so that students always practiced their writing skills (e.g., using “you’re welcome” instead of “ur welcome”). However, from a more realistic perspective, our parents and teachers need to continuously reinforce the value of formal writing so that teens can easily separate how and where to write appropriately. The reality is that a well-written resume, without spelling or grammatical errors, is the key to getting many jobs, and effective written communication is a requirement for many careers. People must be aware of how abbreviations, phonetic spelling, and slang with no attention to grammar and an over-reliance on auto-correct will continue to reduce writing skill.
What was your goal in developing Winward Academy?
My goal was to combine the best of education with the best of technology.
We combined a results-driven, student-centric approach to private tutoring with the convenience and flexibility of online learning to recreate the feeling of a one-on-one experience. I want students everywhere to have the opportunity to vastly improve their mastery of the ACT and SAT, math class, and college applications.
I believe that ed-tech solutions should be the application of technology to education, not vice versa. Using technology that incorporates effective learning techniques into a self-paced, personalized, on-demand platform marries the best of education with the best of technology. The best online education is student-centric.
How should teachers and parents balance personalized learning with digital tools and curricula?
As I noted earlier, education must come first.
Digital tools are a way to enhance classroom and individual instruction. Teachers are responsible for laying the academic foundation for their students’ education and careers. It’s their responsibility to help students identify interests and skills that will allow them to live self-sufficient, choice-filled lives.
The same goes at home. Education must be the top priority — only enhanced by, not replaced by, digital tools — with parents actively encouraging their kids to develop skills and confidence for life.
Parents stress a lot about exam prep, but we should be focused on equipping students with skills and knowledge that ultimately develop a passion for life-long learning, build confidence, and contribute to continued academic, professional, and personal success. Are there digital tools to help with that process? Yes… But only when they’re thoughtfully developed. Parents need to prioritize resources that personalize the learning experience and make it engaging.
A major struggle for parents is how to prevent tech from causing distractions in the classroom or during homework time. Do you have any tips for how parents can balance the good and bad of technology?
Absolutely. Here are three tips for how parents can strike a balance between the advantages and disadvantages of tech:
- Parents need to act as role models for how their kids use technology. If parents have their cell phones out at the dinner table, then that’s the example they’re setting of what’s acceptable.
- Parents should look for ways to balance online and offline activities. Technology can certainly bring people together (watching a movie, taking photos, playing a Wii bowling game), but it must be followed up with offline engagement like talking about the movie, making a photo collage, or spending a family Friday night at an actual bowling alley.
- Parents should also set limits for when and how much technology can be consumed. We must make sure that time on devices is not taking away from in-person communication and connection. Resources like OurPact can help parents set limits by blocking social media and iMessage during school hours and homework time.
How can families leverage the Winward Academy platform to provide more opportunities for their kids?
Technology like that offered in the Winward Academy platform ensures reliability and consistency of lessons with a resource that’s always accessible and accurate. This technology can be used to better prepare students and to ease the anxiety and stress surrounding test prep and the college application process.
Results provide the opportunities all parents seek for their children, and the best part is that students are earning the success with hard work and developing a renewed sense of confidence that they bring with them to college and beyond.
About Winward Academy:
Winward Academy is a research-based, student-centered learning platform for the ACT, SAT, math class, and college applications. The Winward program applies a scientific approach to customize learning for each student, enabling growth for students of all levels and learning styles. Their team of passionate adolescent learning researchers are committed to thoughtfully developing curriculum that improves learning, retention, and test performance — all to build confidence for life.
The Winward Academy curriculum is used by students at home, by teachers in the classroom, and by charities in after-school and summer programs. To learn more about Winward, visit www.winwardacademy.com.