Laptops, Tablets, MacBook Air, Trios.... The list of expensive electronic devices that K-12 schools are buying to achieve so-called “1-to-1” broadband media access is endless. And the cost to school districts for buying these short-lived devices is even more astounding. At least you would assume that all of the research shows that this technology provides a better way to learn. You would be wrong.
In this June issue of Psychological Science, researchers Mueller (Princeton) and Oppenheimer (UCLA) published their multiple experiments with college students who either took notes on a laptop or wrote their class notes by hand. The results were clear. Students with laptops typed out what the professor said, much like a court recorder, without really thinking about what was being said. Meanwhile, students who took handwritten notes listened to the instructor and then rewrote in their own words what they understood.
Many teachers see this in class everyday. I taught one recent class in a large lecture hall. A first-semester freshman came in ahead of class each day to take a seat alongside the wall where there was an electrical plug-in. He unpacked his new laptop and plugged it in. He also had a cell phone that not only recorded my lecture and class discussions, but had an “app” that converted the recorded words to text. On top of that, he typed out what I said on his laptop.
My freshman classes have a quiz at the end of class every day. Half of making it through school is showing up and some need to develop that habit. That daily quiz gives both of us a day-by-day indication of how well they understand the textbook, the teacher and the student discussions. My new student, armed by all of the technology that his family could buy him, started the semester with the illusion that his technology would give him an advantage. Instead, it pulled him down. He was so busy typing and managing his equipment that it kept him from paying attention in class and taking notes based on what he understood. In spite of all of his high-tech toys—indeed, because of them—he dropped out of his classes halfway through the semester.
This is the time of year when college students meet advisors to enroll in spring classes. Not only do many good students prefer to avoid online courses and “PowerPoint Profs,” they also try to avoid instructors who deliver all assignments online through various “Learning Management Systems.” Many have stories about professors who place all assignments online. The student has to access the materials, do the work, and then upload the finished assignment back to the teacher. Sometimes it works smoothly. But often it does not. Students are reluctant to complain that they spend more time trying to download and upload lessons than they spend actually completing the assignments. In some cases, a three-credit hour course should actually award two of the credits for tech-management and one credit for the content, since that is the actual proportion of time spent on that “classwork.” And what “tech” they learn will be obsolete in a few years.
At the K-12 level, school administrators get together and brag how they have eliminated textbook fees and gone paperless. Instead of paying $80 a year for textbook rental, the family is expected to have broadband internet at home and an updated computer—total costs that exceed a thousand dollars a year!
In higher education, administrators likewise tout their “techiness.” They consider any problems to be a failure of Luddite teachers. But again, actual research shows that the “millennials” are not any more tech-savvy than K-12 teachers and college professors across all ages. Instructional technology support at universities now exceeds the cost of the largest department and contributes to the fast-growing cost of a college education.
But when it comes to improving education, skill with a video-app on a cell phone or typing on tablets simply does not translate into improvement in classroom learning. Indeed, the Mueller-Oppenheimer research indicates that technology can be a handicap.