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Opinion: 3 Things to Be Mindful of With Digital Education

While digital devices have brought accessibility and flexibility to education, educators should also warn about their potential for causing annoying and even dangerous distractions, surveillance or ethical problems.

concept of e-learning technology, graphic of realistic computer notebook with book's pages as screen
I love digital education for all that it does to improve learning for millions worldwide. I’ve often shared concerns, and I’d like to discuss three that I hope become lessons we practice as educators and teach to our students.


The power of digital distraction and interference is one concern. It has two parts, one far more serious than the other. The less serious concern is that our digital devices are so engaging (others may use a less polite word) that we can lose touch with people and things around us. Not that I ever do this, but we’ve all seen students and others sitting close but glued to their phones instead of paying attention to or talking with those around them. People with laptops and other screens are equally guilty. The saddest part is seeing toddlers holding an object to their faces and “talking” on the phone, mimicking what they see adults around them doing. (Parents, put down your phone and talk with your kids — really!) At the least, this is bad manners, and at the worst, this is the death of our humanity and what is truly important. Listening to a teen influencer can’t be more important than talking with peers! I call upon educators to take up the topic of ignoring human in-person contact.

The worst issue related to digital distraction is death and serious injury by distracted driving, which is outlawed in almost every state. This topic is often a news story headline, a subject of public service announcements. Yet the tragedy continues. I offer two data points that should be the subject of continuous discussions.

One, while working with educators in Utah, I learned about and read A Deadly Wandering by New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winner Matt Richtel. It addresses the topic through the story of a 2006 car accident in which a teenage driver killed two local scientists, impacting lives across the community and the state. Teenager Reggie Shaw was texting and driving (it took him a long time to realize that he had been texting) and his car drifted over the centerline. Long before I finished the book, I became very wary of even touching my phone while driving. I now plead with everyone I know not to text and drive, and I refuse to let it happen while I am a passenger.

The book not only showed the extent of the tragedy’s effect on the entire community, it provided sobering and eye-opening information I didn’t have about the power of distraction. While it’s not perfect, I recommend this book to everyone who can read it, because it changed my life for the better as I learned in-depth about the tragedy that can occur in moments of distraction. Reggie survived physically but has to live with the tragedy he caused every day of his life, a life committed to telling his story and trying to prevent this from happening to others. His story changes the lives of people who hear it and moves many of them to prevent it from happening again.

The other data point against texting and driving comes from a friend who is a police chief. In all his emails, he attaches tragic videos telling the story of lives ended and otherwise ruined by moments of texting and driving. Here is one of the videos he uses. Many more equally compelling and tragic stories come up when watching these. This must be a digital lesson for us all, something that should be taught and repeated to all drivers and passengers, especially our youngest who don’t always have the best judgment or highest level of maturity.


My second concern is how digital safety affects our students as digital citizens. If they are using a digital service that doesn’t charge a fee, then they, the users, are the product. Information about them and their behavior is a hot commodity, some less innocent than others. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says it well:

“Children are spending more time online than ever before. And they’re getting there sooner. Around the world, a child goes online for the first time every half second.

“Growing up online offers limitless opportunities. Through computers, smartphones, gaming consoles, and televisions, children learn, imagine and develop their social networks. When used in the right way — and accessible to all — the Internet has the potential to broaden horizons and ignite creativity the world over.

“But with these opportunities come serious risks.

“Cyber bullying and other forms of peer-to-peer violence can affect young people each time they log in to social media or instant messaging platforms. When browsing the Internet, children may be exposed to hate speech and violent content — including messages that incite self-harm and even suicide.

“Children can also be put at risk when tech companies breach their privacy to collect data for marketing purposes. Child-targeted marketing through apps — and the excessive screen time it often results in — can compromise a child’s healthy development.”

All of these safety concerns must be part of any digital education program. I found a wonderful 2020 article from the nonprofit Consumer Reports that is still very good. It reminded me that programs and apps, whether free or paid, are designed to maximize screen time. That is always a lesson to be taught. Parents and educators must keep on this topic, and they will find excellent Internet resources on the negative effects of technology on children, with tips for managing technology use and good references. There were good articles on this last fall from Scientific American and the Cleveland Clinic.


My last topic, vital to teaching about technology, is ethics and integrity. Space doesn’t permit more than a dusting of the topic here, but dynamic aspects of this topic include:

  • not using any form of digital technology to harm others,
  • ensuring the ethical use of digital technology about one’s own creations,
  • honesty in taking examinations, applying for jobs, et cetera, and
  • ensuring the accuracy of any information before passing it on.

For educators, the ethical use of teaching materials includes proper acknowledgment of its origin and ownership, and ensuring materials are checked for accuracy before use.

While these are vital and serious topics, they don’t have to dampen our love of the power of digital education to improve the lives of millions. But like any tool, we have to ensure that they are used correctly. I will highlight UNICEF’s words a second time:

“Growing up online offers limitless opportunities. Through computers, smartphones, gaming consoles, and televisions, children learn, imagine and develop their social networks. When used in the right way — and accessible to all — the Internet has the potential to broaden horizons and ignite creativity the world over.”
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.