On Friday The New York Times ran an A1 article, Wi-Fi Turns Rowdy Bus Into Rolling Study Hall, about a pioneering effort in Vail, Ariz., to give students with long commutes a break from the bullying and teasing that can happen among teenagers on bus rides and to allow them to work on homework (or Facebook work). The solution: Install a mobile Internet router (marketed by Autonet Mobile) to the frame of the bus.
The article says Karen Cator, director of education technology at the federal Department of Education, said the buses were part of a wider effort to use technology to extend learning beyond classroom walls and the six-hour school day.
I don’t want to make this an I-walked-a-mile-in-the-snow-when-I-was-a-kid story (that was just last week, here in Washington), and I don’t want to sound like an old fogey, but what looked like a good idea on first glance didn’t sit well as I continued reading. I’m all about connectivity and access in the right environments. But the fact is that the average American already spends an average of 8.5 hours a day in front of some sort of screen (according to a study last year from the Council for Research Excellence). Studies show a connection between screen time and increased symptoms of ADHD (see my post in December about computer over-usage).
I’m not a fan of WiFi on jets either (kind of ruins the feeling of escape, where all I can do is dive into a good book) but this bothers me more. School bus-riding-aged kids are still highly impressionable. They are forming habits, learning how to interact, making friends and figuring out the best way to respond when they are teased. (Isn’t being teased at some point just part of being 13?) How can they fully develop these interpersonal skills if they’re consumed with their keyboards? If the behavior on the bus is so disruptive to the driver and so harmful to the students, aren’t there other ways to deal with it besides directing them to what is arguably an electronic babysitter? (This reminds me of another recent Times article about the ban on Dungeons & Dragons by the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin because the prison’s gang specialist said it could lead to fantasies about escape. Seriously? There wasn’t a way to handle this other than taking away one of the few—or only--pleasures the inmates might have had while locked up?)
When I went back to the school bus article online, I found 200 comments, largely reflecting my own feelings about this “advancement.” There were some supporters of the Internet bus, but the overall message was loud and clear: This is nuts. Here’s a sampling:
“Great. Another opportunity for personal interaction eliminated.”
“We're creating an autistic society. Why not just replace them with robots? Much less trouble.”
-yuckydo, New York City
“Why do they need to go to school? Why not just do their lessons from their rooms? Then they can play online sports against each other after school.”
“The school bus used to be a cauldron of interactive, interpersonal socialization, a learning laboratory for youngsters to figure out how to get along with the rest of humanity. I fear for the isolated, insular robot-beings of the future…"
-Surly and Old, Virginia
“Rambunctious teenagers? Give them internet, video games, drugs, anything to prevent that type of normal behavior!!”
“Am I the only one who thinks this is sad? Goofing off and being annoying is part of being a teenager. Now they are all just IMing each other like they do everywhere else.”
And the comment that reflected my very first thought about using a computer on the yellow bus:
“Don't the kids get carsick looking at a screen?”
-engineergirl, Washington, DC