September 06, 2013

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Common Sense Media’s Darri Stephens on Back to School

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Common Sense Media Back to School Guide

Darri StephensGone are the days of the Trapper Keeper stuffed with tattered homework instructions. Today’s student accessory of choice is the laptop or tablet, which keeps schoolwork under digital lock and key. To help prepare parents for back to school and effectively manage their kids’ digital devices, I interviewed Common Sense Media’s Senior Manager of Digital Learning, Darri Stephens. She addressed Common Sense Media’s 1:1 Essentials program, which equips parents and educators with the tools they need to help students harness the power of technology in school.

TWC: How would you describe the 1:1 Essentials program?

DS: Developed by a team of educators from Northern California, 1:1 Essentials is a one-stop shop of turnkey resources and customizable tools that administrators, teachers and parents can use to integrate 1:1 devices — laptops, tablets and mobile technologies — smartly and safely into the student learning experience. Each party plays a role in making this program effective: Administrators are the visionaries, helping craft the program and the roll out of 1:1 technology. Teachers execute the practice in the classroom. And parents — often underutilized as stakeholders — are the ones that carry the learning on at home, 24/7.

TWC:  Which 1:1 devices are most commonly used?  Do you see certain ages of kids using one type of device vs. another?

DS: Not being an expert in what is actually used in the marketplace, I can tell you what I’ve seen. Laptops are considered 1:1, if every child has access to one. The Google Chromebook is gaining well deserved momentum. And then you have the tsunami of tablets. Apple has a firm head start on the K-12 tablet space and Android-powered Samsung tablets are edging their way in, as well as the Microsoft Surface. In 2011, India announced the launch of the Aakash Android tablet that would be $35 dollars for students and $65 dollars for consumers. So, it will be interesting to see if Apple continues to have a hold on the tablet market, or if folks will shift towards the cheaper Android tablets.

In terms of ages, I see tablets early on, especially in 1:1 pilot programs in elementary school. In high schools, I hear two preferences – tablets vs. laptops. A lot of high schools use laptops because they can run more sophisticated software e.g.  Photoshop, InDesign and Microsoft Office. That being said, the apps market is ever-evolving, and we’re now seeing versions of apps that offer the same creative ability for photo editing, video etc, so we might see a shift.

TWC: What is the primary technology abuse perpetrated by kids at school e.g. piracy, visiting social platforms, plagiarism? What tips does the 1:1 Essentials program offer for remedying this issue?

DS: It’s hard to put a finger on what the primary technology abuse is these days, because it really depends on the devices and infrastructure that the school has set up.  Some schools don’t permit any social media, so it’s not an issue within school walls. Then you have schools that have very sophisticated filtering and monitoring systems, while others don’t.  There are a whole host of challenges with giving kids freedom and bandwidth with their digital devices.  But in doing so, you have the opportunity for teachable moments on how to use technology.

All kids make mistakes, especially when it comes to exploring and experiencing something new.  The difference is that in today’s digital world, the stakes are a lot higher — behavior is permanent in the online world. Empowering kids from the get-go, rather than limiting them, is the best way to guide them towards becoming good digital citizens.

One of the ways that 1:1 Essentials helps govern the use of technology in schools is by helping them roll out Acceptable Use Practices (AUPs), which offer guidelines and best practices for using 1:1 devices in school.

TWC: What are some tips for parents to help manage or monitor their kids’ 1:1 devices – are there any settings or functions they should be aware of?

DS: First and foremost, any settings live within the devices themselves.  Kids know better than parents how to turn those settings off and on.  One thing we always say is that kids and parents should outline the usage expectations of the device together so that the consequences of using them inappropriately are clear.

Back to School with Common Sense Media

We have a Family Media Agreement and Customizable Device Contract that parents can use with their kids to outline when the device will be used.  In doing this, parents empower the student to own how the device is used. The biggest conundrum for parents is that they didn’t grow up with these devices.  Most parents need to do a paradigm shift – away from entertainment, and towards education. On top of that, parents are used to dumping out a backpack or a three-ring binder.  They can’t do that with 1:1 devices.

TWC: f you could pick three applications for parents to download onto their child’s 1:1 device, which ones would you choose? 

DS: I love all the apps that encourage kids to explore and be creative.  If I had to pick just three, I’d go with:

  • Toontastic: A free, user-friendly application that empowers kids to create their own animated story using characters, backgrounds and text.  Download Toontastic for iOS.
  • Scratch from MIT Media Lab: A free web resource that helps get kids coding at an early age, lets them take videos and create games.  Visit
  • Explain Everything and EduCreations (ok that’s four!):   These are two similar presentation tools that allow for creativity and expression.  Kids can use interactive whiteboards to upload video, images and audio files, which they can annotate and record over – making it easy to explain a math problem OR put together a presentation on George Washington.  Download Explain Everything for iOS. Download Educreations for iOS.

Parents can also find a curated selection of app and website recommendations to kick start the school year by visiting



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