In Defense of Computers in the Classroom

I didn’t think I would have to write this post. But apparently someone needs to write it. This past week a highly acclaimed organization (NPR) put out a story where a college professor denounces the use of computers in the classroom, based on the research of “taking notes by hand vs taking notes on a device” (and then how well those students did on a multiple choice test).

First, let me say that this post is NOT going to be about:

  1. Taking notes by hand vs taking notes on a device
  2. How well technology prepares students for multiple choice tests

Those arguments are for somewhere else. I don’t care how students take notes, or if they take notes at all. If you take notes and your learning benefits from it, that’s great. Notes suggest a system in place where students have to “remember” what the teacher said in class in order to get a good grade on a multiple choice test.  In my experience, almost all of the questions on these types of tests can be Googled or answered with a simple search online. But enough about the power of computers, let’s get back to real crux of this debate: The new digital divide isn’t about access to technology so much as access to creative opportunities. 

The new digital divide isn't about access to technology so much as access to creative opportunities

In the aforementioned NPR article, “Is it time to ban computers in the classroom?” by Tania Lambrozo, the author makes this opening statement:

This bounty of choices, and the multitasking that often ensues, may be the very problem that drives some instructors to ban devices altogether. In fact, evidence suggests that computer-based multitasking can reduce student learning, not only for those students using devices but also for their distracted neighbors. Even when computers are used for the praiseworthy purpose of taking class notes, computer-using students tend to do more poorly on later tests than their peers who took notes by hand.

The rest of the article seeks to support these claims that computers might be a bad idea in the classroom. They don’t help students take notes better (at least the research supports cognitive recall by hand), and their test taking abilities don’t improve with the use of devices either.

Feel free to read the rest of the article, but my thoughts fall into three different areas as I seek to defend, support, and praise the use of computers in any classroom:

  1. Computers are about creative opportunities, not consumption and recall
  2. Computers are a tool that is ubiquitous in the real world (so why not in the classroom)
  3. Computers are not meant to support an old system, they are meant to change it

Computers are about creative opportunities, not consumption and recall

In our book, LAUNCH, John Spencer and I make the case for a new digital divide: creative opportunities. We’ve seen the achievement gap ebb and flow in the past few decades, but in today’s world the “haves and have nots” are often divided by digital access, and what that means to them as learners.

As Seymour Papert once elegantly wrote:

One might say the computer is being used to program the child. In my vision, the child programs the computer, and in doing so, both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intense contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building.

The crazy thing about this quote, is that he said this 20+ years ago, just as computers were beginning to make their way into society and schools.

When we allow (yes, that is the word we have to use now that almost every kid has a device) for students to use devices in school, we open up a world of creative opportunities that did not exist prior. Computers aren’t meant to program our children and they are not meant to improve the recall on a standardized test. Computers are the vehicle that can take students across the bridge of opportunity that learning provides.

When we denounce using computers in the classroom because of their lack of help in taking notes and acing multiple choice tests, we completely miss the point. Computers infuse, support, and empower students to be creative, think critically, solve unique problems (often collaboratively), and communicate at a feverish pace with their peers and mentors in and out of the classroom.

Computers are a tool that are ubiquitous in the real world (so why not in the classroom)

In the article that is in question the author describes the study as follows:

In a working paper published last month, they report the results from a study of 726 sophomores distributed across 50 offerings of a highly standardized course in introductory economics at West Point. The students were effectively assigned at random to versions of the course that adopted one of three policies: a ban on all devices, unrestricted use, or permission to have a tablet, face-up, on one’s desk.

At the end of the semester, all students completed the same final exam, which included multiple choice and short answer questions. The exam grading was automated, resulting in the same objective measure of learning for students across all versions of the course. The researchers could thus assess whether differences in computer use policies across the otherwise similar versions of the course resulted in differences for student learning.

In short, let’s run a study about the benefits/drawbacks of devices in a standardized economics course, and the only way we can make it objective is (wait for it)…by using computers to automate the grading.

The study was aided, and made academically relevant, through it’s use of computers. The academic study was then peer reviewed by people using computers. Placed online for others to search and read around the world, on a computer. Found by this professor/journalist on their computer, who then wrote a story about it on a computer, shared it via computer to NPR who put it up online, on their web site, all via computer.

I’m probably missing a few more interactions with computers along the way, but you get the point…

Computers and devices are ubiquitous in the real world, so why shouldn’t they be ubiquitous in our classrooms?

The study fails to miss the complexity that these West Point students were preparing for, one that requires computers, communication, and collaboration to be a part of their every day work and lives. As General Stanley McChrystal put it in his book Team of Teams:

The environment in which we found ourselves, a convergence of 21st century factors and more timeless human interactions, demanded a dynamic, constantly adapting approach. For a soldier trained at West Point as an engineer, the idea that a problem has different solutions on different days was fundamentally disturbing. Yet that was the case.

Computers are not meant to support an old system, they are meant to change it

Articles, like this one from NPR, get me fired up because they support a notion that our old system of educating is still working for today’s students. They give those that want to ban technology from schools, classrooms, and hallways a voice. They give those with purchasing power (School Board directors for one example) a reason to say no when given the choice of whether or not to provide technology to our students who need it the most.

To the authors of this study, I’d like to make a suggestion: Allow those students to use their computers while taking this test.

You’d soon find out that the device, when being utilized by a student, can create a powerful learner who can not only master the knowledge and recall levels, but also use it to assist in analyzing, applying, adapting, creating, and evaluating.

I’m allowed, supported, and praised when I use my device to assist in my daily work. It is a requirement for success. It is a necessity for quality and effective execution of my current, past, and future roles/jobs.

So why shouldn’t our students be given that same support?

What would happen if our students took their SATs, and ACTs, and state standardized tests with their device? We’d point out, rather quickly, that a system designed for recall and analysis without a device is one that is not preparing our students for this ever-changing and complex world General McChrystal speaks about in his book.

I’m defending the use of computers because whether we like it or not, they are the most powerful learning, creating, and communicating tool ever created. Why wouldn’t we want our students to use them in the classroom?

Quote from A.J. Juliani in Learning By Choice

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  • Scott says:

    Two things–
    1. I recently completed a teaching degree. I used Evernote on my tablet to take notes in class. But I also searched for unfamiliar terms mentioned by professors, quickly scanned Web sites they referenced, looked at book summaries on other resources recommended. This made me a more informed learner and helped generate deeper questions (deeper than “What does that mean?” The tech helped me instead of hindered me. (And I’m NOT young.)
    2. I recently read this quote from Plato. As writing became more prevalent, he said: “This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.” (So writing is bad for memory, too?)

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Love these thoughts Scott! We are often so quick to dismiss something new as “not helpful” or not worth changing for…and yet, it is often these innovations that make new experience for life that we will one day value as another innovation comes along ready to change the status quo again.

  • I saw this article, too, and felt annoyed by the conclusion drawn by the author based on this study. The key, I think, is that the computers were not necessarily integrated deliberately into instruction (either by the student or by the teacher). I think anything—electronic device or otherwise—can be distracting and negatively affect learning when not used purposefully. Around the same time of the original West Point study findings, Education Week actually published findings from 10 studies that found that 1:1 computer initiatives actually boost student achievement.

  • Jennifer Mortensen says:

    With some coaching, I permitted my sixth grade Science students to use their devices in class, and most of them didn’t; however, my favorite day was the day one student held up her phone and blurted out, “I didn’t know what you were talking about, so I looked up a picture, and now I get it!” These are students who are just beginning to learn how to use tech. I bookmark websites in lecture, take notes in Evernote like Scott does above, and generally make my personal experience in the classroom a little more three-dimensional. We need to model this productive behavior for students and maybe even give them an outlet for it–a Twitter feed, Today’s Meet, etc. OR just change our model, as the 90 minute lecturer is a bit of a dinosaur.

  • Dear Mr Juliani:

    I cannot agree more with what you said!
    I´ve been trying to use the computer lab in my school but they are only for computing classes. Hence, I make my Ss work with their phones, which actually resulted very well taking into account parents pay for the school fee but the school doesn´t provide free wifi access for all of us Ts or Ss. I have to work with some technology in my English as a Foreign language classes if not I get asleep and bored! Testing, getting ready for International examinations is great for the Ss resumes but we all end up Zzzz / snoring especially during the last part of the class! Your post encouraged me even more and I am thankful for that! Greetings from Buenos Aires!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks so much for sharing this story! Would love to hear more about your journey and what students are doing.

  • Cyndi Kuhn says:

    Now work, thank you for defending all of us!!

  • Damien says:

    I’m just trying to get my head around this.
    At West Point they teach Economics (in 2016) by text book and lecture, devices are only used for ‘praiseworthy’ tasks such as note-taking, exams are multiple choice memory tests, and then they make conclusions about the use of electronic devices? And NPR also thinks that’s the way to go?
    Well, OK, ban them then! How did we become so deluded?

  • So, I agree with all these comments, and with the general point in AJ’s post. However, I take exception with the notion that googling/computer access to knowledge is enough. If creativity is an essential skill in the 21st century, as the Partnership for 21st Century Learning has held and numerous others have claimed (I believe it’s also in LAUNCH), then I’d ask you to consider these two instances:
    1) I’m in a board room. I happen to have studied hard, made mindmaps of the information in my bio-mechanics classes while in college, and participated in project based learning that helped me integrate my rote learning with the real world. The Big Boss Man posits a question about the landing gear for a new fighter Jet that allow it to absorb impacts that are 3x stronger than traditional gear. My colleagues are busy whipping out iPhones trying to figure out the correct search terms, but I’ve a mind full of knowledge which I have learned to use flexibly, and to elaborate upon. No amount of frantic thumb typing is going to allow my peers to access the fact that the legs of a wasp provide a biomechanical advantage that we ought to investigate. Only the rote knowledge I learned without my computer, through careful observation of the natural world and attention to details both in and out of class allow me this: The legs of a wasp provide a biological model for such a device. (If memory serves, this is, at least in part, the genesis of the landing gear for the Navy’s F-18 Hornet.

    2) the more I know, just rote and off the top of my head, the more creative I can be. Creativity is, as writer William Plomer once noted, the power to connect the seemingly unconnected. The more I know, the more flexibly I can think, the more connections I can make without my iPhone.

    Neither of these deny the use of computers in the classroom, but they do question the messianic notions that we seem to apply to them, and the often too quick dismissals of a mind disciplined to retain information. In the end, I’d rather have a doctor who doesn’t need to consult google to diagnose me than one who does, though I’d appreciate that both doctors would access databases that verify their diagnoses.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Really like this viewpoint Garreth and it is definitively something I missed in the semi-rant I wrote above. Let’s not dismiss amazing power of our brain to retain information and then use that to inform, analyze, apply etc on the fly. My bigger issue is that the study and article misrepresent the benefits and uses of technology in any learning environment.

      Thanks again for sharing! We need to catch up soon!

      • Paula says:

        Excuse me if I intrude, but Garreth’s objections, although noteworthy, are made from an expert’s point of view. He is describing the behavior of someone who has mastered knowledge through study and experience. It is certainly what we expect in a health care professional or on an airline pilot. Someone who can quickly scan a situation an draw from all of their instruction AND experience to make a quick call or a creative connection.
        When we discuss computers in the classroom, the only expert is the teacher. Students are there to start building these connections and computers will be part of their performance as experts when the time comes. They’d better be used to them when that time comes!

  • mura says:


    what do you think of the argument that with your point 2 (Computers are a tool that is ubiquitous in the real world (so why not in the classroom)) you are confusing performance with learning;

    i.e. yes computers are used “in the real world” by people perfotming various tasks where this performance may not reflect what is needed to be learnt in order to achieve such performance


  • Ari Yares says:

    A.J. – it was refreshing to read that I wasn’t the only bothered by the spate of stories that were condemning the use of technology in classrooms. The assumption was that learning wasn’t changing as a process, but it clearly is. It’s great that we know that handwritten notes help students learn better in lectures, but I don’t want to see teachers solely using lectures as their only means of teaching (i.e. the West Point example). The articles have also not taken into account the need to teach the student skill of note taking. If we haven’t explicitly developed that skills and shown them how technology supports building better understanding, then it’s no surprise that handwriting yielded better results.

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