Saturday, October 31, 2015

From Technology to No Technology

Technology has slowly been entering into multiple aspects of teaching and learning. Classrooms are one such space where people are trying to integrate technology in various ways. Colleges are pushing for the use of technology in classrooms. For example, in 2007, the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech made it mandatory for each incoming freshman to own a tablet-PC. The purpose behind this move was to change the way engineering classes are instructed at the university. However, at the other end, there are professors at various universities who are doing away with the use of electronic gadgets in classrooms. Tal Gross who teaches at Columbia University and Clay Shirky who teaches at New York University recently banned the use of technology in their classrooms.

Tal Gross, who teaches public health at Columbia University recently banned the use of laptops in his classes. He argues when students take notes using laptops in class, given their fast typing abilities, they tend to copy down almost everything that is said in the class. As a result, the classroom does not remain a place for dialogue and conversation anymore, rather it becomes an “exercise in dictation.”

Gross supports his decision by citing a research study conducted by Pam Mueller at Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer at UCLA in which 67 undergraduates were asked to watch a video lecture. Half of them were randomly assigned to take notes using pen and paper while the other half was asked to take notes using a laptop while watching the video. After that, the students were asked to take an exam. It was found that the students who took notes using pen and paper did much better than the ones who took notes using laptop on conceptual questions.

A few months before Gross pulled the plug, Clay Shirky, a social media professor at New York University, banned the use oftechnology in his classrooms. Shirky observed that distractions due to electronic devices grew over the years in his classes. Moreover, he notes whenever he asks his students to shut down their electronic devices, "the conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students."

Shirky’s move to ask students to shut down electronic gadgets was aimed to prevent them from multi-tasking and engage with social media. He reasons multi-tasking is bad for high quality cognitive work and cites a study from Stanford that suggests heavy multi-taskers are not good at choosing a task to concentrate on. He further adds “the problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework.”

Finally, Shirky cites another study that suggests participants who were multitasking on a laptop during a lecture had lower scores on a test as compared to those who did not. In addition to that, participants who were in direct view of another participant who was multitasking scored lower than those who were not. This suggests laptop multitasking distracts not only the one who is doing it but also the one who is sitting nearby and can see someone multitasking.

The above stories suggest technology is not always beneficial for students in a classroom. Hence, we, as educators, must engage in enough deliberation before asking students to use technology and electronic gadgets in classrooms.


  1. Thanks for discussing this important topic. I think technology is important to be used in classes... by teachers, etc. However, for students to be on their computer, from my own person experience... Is as you mentioned distracting to that student and others.. In fact, the example of how much people regurgitate information that's handwritten is true... Many times we can type away mindlessly... to the point that we can't really slow down enough to understand what we're typing... While hand writing, there is less of that distraction.

  2. Thank you for discussing the use of labtops in classroom. I still remember in primary school, parents bought a computer to children to help them learn, but most of us used it to play video games or chatting 90% of the time. Apps or settings that can prevent students from entertainment when they are studying.

  3. I'm also really intrigued (and have partially embraced) the return to note taking by hand. At first I thought it worked better for me because my brain was initially wired for analog note taking, but these studies suggest that other factors are at work too -- that the physical act of moving your hand to write and synthesizing / summarizing what's been said is a more active form of learning than "taking transcription" on your laptop. But I think we need to be careful to not conflate one particular application (taking notes on a laptop) in certain contexts (there are still lots of times when I take notes in OneNote or Evernote), with the value of "technology" in general. Afterall, a pencil is also a technology, and there are lots of ways to use digital technologies in the classroom that do enhance cognition and learning. Thanks for linking to all of these recent studies!

  4. Great post! I totally agree with you that "multi-tasking is bad for high quality cognitive work and heavy multi-taskers are not good at choosing a task to concentrate on". I do not know whether one day we can have the technology in class like: the instructor can decide the internet access for certain website. Therefore, even though student bring their electronic device to class, they are still only allow to certain academic website close related with the class. Besides, teachers may guide their students how to take notes instead of watching their students copy their slides in class.