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:
- Taking notes by hand vs taking notes on a device
- 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.
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:
- Computers are about creative opportunities, not consumption and recall
- Computers are a tool that is ubiquitous in the real world (so why not in the classroom)
- 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?