A study just appeared in Education Next, under the title “Should Professors Ban Laptops?” The study worked like this:
Researchers went to West Point and tracked students in three sections of Principles of Economics. One section was technology-free—no laptops or tablets permitted in the classroom. A second section gave students the freedom to use laptops and tablets at their discretion, with no controls or requirements. A third section was “tablet only,” a method “designed to replicate the intended use of Internet-enabled technology as a non-distracting resource during class.” The aim of this section, and of such methods generally, was to implement technology in the classroom while preventing students from hijacking it for non-academic purposes.
The experiment was run with 50 classrooms and 726 students over two terms. Each instructor, too, taught at least one no-technology section and one of the other two sections. The decisive measure was performance by students on the final exam. The results were striking—and disappointing for people who believe that better classroom technology and implementation will produce higher student achievement.
Here is the finding for unrestricted technology use relative to no technology use: Exam scores dropped by 0.18 standard deviations.
And here is the finding for restricted technology use relative to no technology use: Exam scores dropped by only slightly less, 0.17 standard deviations.
The small difference suggests that attempts to streamline classroom technology to academic purposes alone are ineffectual or, when they are effectual, indicate that something inherent in the technology is part of the problem.
When we convert the numbers to GPA measures, the finding goes like this:
[A] student in a classroom that prohibits computers is on equal footing with a peer who is in a class that allows computers and whose GPA is one-third of a standard deviation higher—nearly the difference between a B+ and an A- average, for example.
There is more. When the researchers broke the sample up into subgroups by race, gender, college-entrance exam scores, and high school GPA, “in no group did students appear to significantly benefit from access to computers in the classroom.”
The findings support those of us who have banned technology from our classrooms for many years. We have been called “Luddites,” people captive to “moral panics,” and get-off-my-lawn curmudgeons. Just the other day, in a puerile defense of Twitter and texting as writing platforms in the Wall Street Journal, an English teacher referred to people who bemoan the writing that takes place on social media as “schoolmarms.” (The piece stands behind a paywall.)
But while the pro-technology innovators have typically cast traditionalists as hidebound and unempirical people caught up in myths and anxiety, the truth is the opposite. Technology enthusiasts are the real ideologues in this debate (and a lot of them make a whole lot of money on the wiring of schools). The empirical evidence against computers in the classroom is mounting (the Education Next article reviews several other studies).
At the very least, the jury is out on the value of computer-assisted instruction. Some day we may have evidence of genuine academic advancement arising from the outfitting of classrooms and students with the latest devices, which cost millions of dollars. Until then, teachers should draw back, return to pencil and paper and chalkboards, and determine for themselves whether the promises of digital instruction are just so much hot air.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.