In the last few years, I have read a continual stream of articles on how computers in the classroom are detrimental to learning. A few of these articles are linked below. The classroom should be a learning zone that maximizes your ability to absorb new knowledge and information. While computers can certainly enhance learning, they also offer dozens of ways to distract us. I know. I often attend meetings with a laptop or an ipad. And when I do, I’m only half engaged.
Problem 1: Computers distract us. If your laptop is open, it is almost impossible to refrain from checking email or surfing the Internet, even if you don’t want to. I know because I have the same issue when I take my computers to meetings. Sometimes I get bored during a topic I’m not interested in and start playing a game (2048 is my current favorite), then zone out and miss a context switch when we go to something I am interested in. Published studies have found that demonstrate that this kind of multitasking impairs learning. If we’re accessing email or on the web, we cannot pay attention to the material being taught in the class. So far, I have not seen evidence that practice makes us better at multitasking. Practice certainly hasn’t helped me.
Problem 2: Computers distract our peers. Some of you might think that whether and how much you learn in class is up to you, and none of my business. There is some truth to that; by the same logic, I cannot force you to study, do homework, or read the book. Unfortunately, studies have found that when one student goes off topic with a computer, that also damages the learning environment for other students. One study found that not only did students who used computers in the classroom do worse on tests, so did other students who could see the computer. That is, if you are distracting yourself with a computer, you are also distracting others! (“What is he doing?” “What’s that on her screen?” “Is that a new game I should try?”) I was at a conference last year where one guy was playing 2048 on his iphone. By the end of the 90 minute session, four other people had downloaded the game and were also playing.
Problem 3: Computer use distracts me. Your faces are much more interesting than the back of your laptops, no matter how entertaining you decorate them. When you’re typing at the wrong times, or your eyes are intent on the screen when I’m talking “beyond the slides,” or you’re clicking when we open up a discussion topic, I start to lose my focus. (“What’s she doing?” “Is this material boring?” “Do we need to take a break?”)
Problem 4: Using a computer means you can’t contribute. I sometimes want the classroom to become an interactive environment, where you contribute to the discussion and the learning. That’s hard in a class of 50 or 100, but it’s impossible with students who are focused on a computer screen. I certainly do not know everything, and we will all learn more if we are actively engaged with each other to exchange knowledge.
Problem 5: We learn less when we take notes on computers. I read an interesting study that says we comprehend more when taking notes by hand. It was something like when we type, we type exactly what the speaker says without thinking or processing. But when we write, we “translate” the speaker’s words into our own, and therefore understand them better. We also have the opportunity to annotate hand written notes with sidebar notes, figures, and arrows.
So given all this, can we survive 75 minutes without email, facebook, twitter, and Clash of Clans? My favorite part of getting on a plane is that realization that I am free from the burden of constantly checking if someone wants something. My pocket computer becomes simply a music box. Ear candy instead of eye candy. And when I get back down from the clouds, I’m often surprised at how few facebook notices I have, and how the email that arrived two or three hours ago is still patiently waiting.
Let’s try making this a computer-free learning zone together. It can’t hurt, can it?