Last Updated: April 1st, 2019
One of the things most taken for granted nowadays in education is that technology will make for better classroom experiences and better learning. School boards are actively pursuing the adoption of more cutting-edge devices in the classrooms. Wider access to technology for students is a government priority in the U.S. There’s an expectation that technology will yield knowledge. There’s not a ton of evidence that this expectation is well founded.
Success in learning isn’t measurable, except through standardized means like test scores (which have their own giant problems). Nothing in the world of test scores suggests that there’s a direct link between high-tech and high grades. In fact, Finland consistently outperforms the U.S. in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s international education rankings despite having some of the lowest rates of educational technology use. Other studies have found test scores to be lower when students frequently use computers in the classroom.
Many critics of the rise of technology in the classroom have argued that the problem is that technology has been imported wholesale as a way to improve student performance without a thorough investigation of why performance might be poor in the first place. Computers won’t fix issues with curriculums, parent involvement or teacher training, although they seem to be marketed as though they can compensate for those things. Standardized testing aside, education is unique in every class, every school and every region. Not every technology will be right for every class, but it’s a much more involved process to take stock of what’s going right and what’s causing problems in each case, and much easier to blanket a class with new laptops and call it a day.
There’s some research to suggest that technology can become a crutch for students, too, which can impede learning. Spellcheck and calculators can’t replace actually knowing the rules of spelling and math so a student can apply them to new or more complicated problems. Even something as simple as typing notes out on a laptop as opposed to writing them down has been shown to negatively impact comprehension. A series of studies by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer showed that people who write notes by hand were better at understanding, retaining, applying and integrating the material they were taking notes on than people who typed everything out on a laptop. Laptops allow students to take more notes and notes that are closer to what a teacher has said, but verbatim notes actually make the brain engage less when taking them. Typing verbatim makes people mindless.
As it turns out, old-school (pun 100 percent intended) methods like rote learning, which in our current educational climate are the devil himself, might be the key to improving student success. In Seven Myths About Education, Daisy Christodoulou argues that having basic facts memorized makes higher-level learning easier because the mechanics of a discipline (spelling, times tables, etc.) become automatic processes in the brain that free up working memory and “develop the conceptual understanding” of a subject. Technology can hamper the development of this kind of factual knowledge because of the reliance on our ability to just look things up instead.
Aside from taking away from students’ cognitive abilities, technology in the classroom can also detract from the sense of community that inspires students to engage. Online classes are becoming more and more common, but there’s some doubt over whether this format is capable of keeping students as engaged as a face-to-face classroom would. Even within the classroom, laptops can be a distraction that keeps students from immersing themselves in that particular moment. One recent study showed that not only does multitasking on a computer (i.e. using Facebook in class) bring down student grades, it also brings down the grades of everyone around them, whether they’re on a computer or not.
Personally interacting with other students and with instructors, on the other hand, has a positive effect on how well students do. It’s an effect that’s amplified by face-to-face interaction outside the classroom. This winter I did an experiment with my two undergraduate literature classes. I instituted a policy where I would answer emails if students had an emergency that they needed to make me aware of, but otherwise, if they wanted to get in touch with me they had to come and see me. The results were pretty great. I loved it because it relieved me of the responsibility I know I don’t actually have (but feel I do) so I end up responding anyways to inane questions about administrative things that are explained on the course outline at 10:30 on a Saturday night.
Our meetings were more efficient than an email exchange would have been and they were more useful. My students got a better sense of what I wanted from them and I got a better sense of who they were. We had conversations—like real people. And their work improved. Will they retain their learning? I have absolutely no way of knowing. I do know that I had more thanks-for-the-great-term comments than in other courses and many more unsolicited messages about how much they had learned.
Technology is a tool; it’s not a solution. It certainly has its uses in the education system, but the things that make learning great—curiosity, engagement and sharing interests—needn’t and sometimes can’t be done through a screen.