Ban the Laptops?

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Peter Arkle

Does technology help or hinder learning? Putting the question so baldly likely will not lead to meaningful answers. However, as many social commentators call for deeper reflection on the impact of technology on our lives, increasing attention has been focused upon not only the benefits of technology in education, but also the drawbacks to true learning and human formation.

I’m hardly a Luddite, but I often advocate for discerning engagement with technology, including social media. In fact, our entire family was challenged to rethink our technology strategies while reading Andy Crouch‘s book The Tech-wise Family, a forced family read-a-loud while I was on sabbatical this summer.

Then, I encountered the following article in the New York Times, “Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting,” by Professor Susan Dynarski from the University of Michigan. At least take a moment to read some of these excerpts below, if not the entire article, and let me know your thoughts:

with laptops, students can, in some ways, absorb more from lectures than they can with just paper and pen. They can download course readings, look up unfamiliar concepts on the fly and create an accurate, well-organized record of the lecture material. All of that is good.

But a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them. It’s not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms or that they hurt productivity in meetings in all kinds of workplaces….

The researchers hypothesized that, because students can type faster than they can write, the lecturer’s words flowed right to the students’ typing fingers without stopping in their brains for substantive processing. Students writing by hand had to process and condense the spoken material simply to enable their pens to keep up with the lecture. Indeed, the notes of the laptop users more closely resembled transcripts than lecture summaries. The handwritten versions were more succinct but included the salient issues discussed in the lecture….

The best evidence available now suggests that students should avoid laptops during lectures and just pick up their pens. It’s not a leap to think that the same holds for middle and high school classrooms, as well as for workplace meetings.

[Read the entire article here.]

2 thoughts on “Ban the Laptops?

  1. Part of the distraction, I think is that to type we are involved with multitasking, something we don’t do well at all. I remember studies in the early 70s that showed those who took NO NOTES did better for short term memory. Those with notes did better in tests that we given at a later time as students had access to notes to review the material. Of course, this all makes sense. Also, we tend to want technology to do the work for us while we just lay back. In truth, most learning much like writing itself is about 98% legwork. Even if I were to speak this using Dragon Dictate, the legwork would remain. There is just no getting around it.

    • Good point. I have read some other studies that confirm taking written notes during a lecture will increase long-term retention of information. The key for any form of learning is not simply information retention but grasp of knowledge that leads to wisdom. That is something entirely different, and distraction certainly does not aid in that work.

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