Computer Use in the Classroom

Lectures at Sydney UniversityAt my school, we are constantly having discussions around appropriate computer use for our students.  We are a 1:1 school from 6th grade on and younger than that, we still have many devices that are used for learning in the lower grades.  How and when to use them, and how to help our students use devices outside of the classroom effectively is a regular topic of discussion among the faculty.  Two recent posts on this topic caught my attention, and both illustrate in different ways how fraught the topic is, and how little evidence we actually have for what kind of impact using computers has on the learning outcomes of our students.

First, let me start with Professor Jeff McClurken’s post.  I’ve known Jeff a long time, and I’m not surprised by his take on the recent calls to ban laptops in the classroom.  The context for most of those bans has been in large lecture halls, but some of the op-eds and articles he points to are from high school teachers or from teachers of smaller classes.  Jeff rightly points out the many of the studies that show negative outcomes for students (i.e. that taking notes longhand is better; or that grades improved when laptops were banned) are from large lecture classes.  It’s hard to attribute positive outcomes to one single factor.  He points out that most faculty don’t have a plan for how to use the laptops in class.  In fact, they may never direct the students to use the laptops in any way during class and simply lecture at them while the students, in theory, take notes on their device of choice.

He also points out that increasingly, students are showing up at college having used laptops or other devices in their classrooms since middle school or earlier.  Banning laptops for students used to using them for learning is going to frustrate some of them.  A corollary to this point that he makes is that banning laptops makes faculty look pretty out of touch, which isn’t helpful when you’re in a climate where faculty already seem disconnected from the real world.

The rest of Jeff’s post mostly offers helpful advice and/or positive ways in which laptops and the access they afford contribute to a solid pedagogy.  Like many of us who believe that laptop use can be good, he’s not advocating for a binary, all or none situation.  Certainly, a teacher has the right to ask students to close laptops for class discussion or for any other reasons.  What Jeff has a problem with is when there’s a big old note at the top of the syllabus or announcement at the beginning of class that says NO LAPTOPS EVER!

The other post on this topic that caught my eye was one by Anya Kamenetz which looked at several studies that show mostly either negative results from using technology or no better results than students who don’t have technology.  As she points out, most of the studies are flawed and none can really be compared to each other because they are all different populations (colleges, middle schools, high schools) and different aspects were studied.  How the technology was used, for example, was different in all cases, and a lot of the studies didn’t go into a huge amount of detail.

I personally know, that many public schools are using technology strictly to facilitate test taking or test prep.  So poor learning are being blamed, it seems, on the technology rather than on the tests themselves.  (Note that the outcome measure was a different test, not the one being prepped for via the technology).  Also, a few of these studies were not about the use of laptops within a teacher-guided classroom, but about taking online courses or using online resources to extend classroom work.  Kamenetz points out that in many cases it was unclear how much training the teachers got (when they were facilitating the use of software) or when and how often the students were using the software.  So it’s hard to know if maybe the teachers were poorly trained and not using the software as effectively as they good or if the students were bored and not using the software much, so that it could have had a positive impact.  There’s no way of knowing if longer use led to better outcomes.  All we have is these kids used software and these didn’t.

Much more work is needed, of course.  There’s no denying that any device offers some level of distraction.  I remember years and years ago, when we were about to switch from terminals to pcs in my workplace, the CEO was highly upset about the possibility of workers playing solitaire instead of working. And those were adults he was talking about.  I have a conversation with my students every year about responsible device use, and I encourage my colleagues to as well.  I approach it from a standpoint of natural consequences, mostly, basically saying that if you’re distracted and not listening to what I’m saying, I don’t have to repeat myself and that it’s up to you to get the information you need.  And then I approach it with a little bit of humor, joking with students when I see they’re off task about how whatever it is doesn’t look very computer science-y.  And then I just give them enough to do that they don’t have time to go off task.  Not perfect, but it works for me.