Banning Computers in the Classroom? Devices in Schools

But now and then, carrying out my institutional duty to observe classes taught by younger colleagues, I move from the front of the classroom to the rear. What a revelation to see what the students are up to.  While virtually all of them have open laptops and most are taking notes, many seem more intent on emailing and texting, posting on social media, reading news sites, shopping online, or looking at YouTube videos.

The preceding quote was written by Mr. Stuart Green in a Wall Street Journal article published on July 11, 2016 entitled, “I’m Banning Laptops From My Classroom.” As a Rutgers Law Professor for over 20 years, Mr. Green detailed the reasons and research behind his decision to ban laptops this fall from his classes.  He noted studies (see a March 2013 article by Faria Sana and colleagues as an example) which have found that multitasking is associated with less recall and understanding.  Findings indicate that even students who don’t multitask regularly score lower if they are seated near peers that do.  Mr. Green also reported that his personal experience supported findings indicating that even when multitasking is blocked, students seem to learn better when taking handwritten notes than on computers.  It appears that while taking notes on a laptop often allows for a nearly verbatim record, handwriting notes force students to synthesize the information presented, which enhances learning and understanding.

Meanwhile, on the same day the WSJ article went to press, NPR published an editorial similarly entitled, “Is It Time to Ban Computers from Classrooms?  Citing parallel research, the author detailed a growing sense that computers in classrooms may be driving more problems than solutions.  However, the article noted that much of the research to date was correlational, not causational, indicating that it is possible that the devices aren’t necessarily causing the problems, but that (for example) those who are inherently more distracted are using them to multitask at higher rates.

However, the NPR article goes on to detail a recent gold standard, randomized controlled study conducted by Susan Carter and colleagues in which students were randomly assigned to different groups in an actual classroom. The groups either utilized a complete ban on devices, permission to have a tablet face-up on the desk, or unrestricted use.  All students completed the same final exam at the end of the semester.  Left to their own devices, the results were rather disappointing.

Students in the group in which devices were banned outperformed students in the other two groups, which didn’t differ at all. Although the differences weren’t huge, they weren’t insignificant either.  The authors compared the discrepancy and indicated that the impact of removing the devices from the classroom “is equivalent to improving the quality of the teacher by more than a standard deviation.”  The authors surmised that although many questions remain about how devices can be integrated effectively, the “findings to date suggest that banning computers from classrooms may be the most sensible policy to adopt, and in many cases it likely is.”

Earlier this year, a review was published entitled “Does multitasking with mobile phones affect learning? A review”.  The article examined 132 studies published from 1999-2014.  Overall findings indicated that mobile devices used in the classroom were associated with increased distraction, and decreased learning and recall.  The authors noted three primary means through which distractions occur:  distraction sources, distraction targets, and distraction subjects.  Distraction sources were associated with issues such as the ring or buzz of a cell phone, which in one study was rated by students as the second most annoying sound (to that of a dentist drill).  Given that ringtones comprise similar sound waves as bells, fire alerts, and other intended noisemakers, they are specifically designed to capture a person’s attention (and do so well).  Findings indicate that when rings or buzzes occur, students exhibit lower accuracy rates.  Similarly, repeated studies found that texting was associated with lower scores and overall GPA.

In regard to distraction targets, multiple findings indicated that instant messaging appeared to decrease reading speed (although comprehension remained largely unaffected) by up to almost 60% even after deducting the time spent messaging. Mobile phone use during lecture is also associated with reduced notetaking, poorer attention, and decreased recall.

The review found that those with higher sensation-seeking and impulsivity characteristics appear to be most at risk for the aforementioned issues. Those with poor executive functioning skills (i.e., higher order reasoning) also seem at greater risk for multitasking as they often overestimate their abilities in this domain.  Interestingly, the review found that girls were more likely to engage in media multi-tasking in the classroom than boys.

There are many reasons and theories about why devices lead to negative outcomes. But meanwhile, even in our own community, we are investing millions of dollars into bringing technology into the classroom at increasingly younger ages.  Schools are also growing increasingly lenient in regards to mobile device usage throughout the school day.  Yet the more that I and others examine the research behind these trends in usage, the more it appears that our immersive, 1:1 approach is not delivering as many are advertising or hoping that it would.

In light of all the research, I continue to think that the current 1:1 shift is not the best approach. Although I do believe that various devices can be beneficial if used in strategic ways, research does not support that giving a device (or devices) to every student to use the entire day is associated with better outcomes.  Not only do I believe that we are wasting millions of dollars in doing this, I believe that increased distractibility and decreased learning and recall is only a few of a number of problems that schools are inviting when they utilize this practice.  If college students can’t manage this arrangement well, what would ever make us think that elementary, middle, and high school students could?

Which brings up my final point. Not only do I think that the 1:1 practice does not have empirical backing, I also believe that using devices as a primary modality in grade school is not supported.  Although middle school students should be taught internet skills, and certain special populations benefit from strategic device usage at higher rates, no clear body of research exists that indicates that grade school or pre-school students develop better when computers are used.  Certainly their use may impart greater convenience and information access for teachers and pupils, but if our ultimate goal is to help students mature in the critical triad of cognitive development—attention, thinking, and learning—then before any devices are employed, we better be sure that they provide clear advantages as the brunt of current research has already illuminated the problems.

Once again, we reach the intersection of truth versus trend. I realize that education (like every other institution today) has become a competition, a constant jostling for position in the open market.  But the stakes are too high to lose track of the only reason that schools exist—to best develop the youth of today into the productive, healthy adults of tomorrow.  State of the art classrooms and mobile connectivity mean nothing if we compromise the most basic qualities we are trying to develop.  The time has come to ask the question:

“Should we ban (and reinforce the ban of) computers and devices from many of our classrooms?”

I think you know where I stand.



For more perspective on technology in the schools, see the August 2015 article in my Just Thinking column and the New York Times article, A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *