Don't give students more tools of mass distraction -

Don’t give students more tools of mass distraction

Texting, tweeting and surfing have nothing to do with learning and no place in the classroom


Dominik Butzmann/laif/Redux

The role of technology in the classroom has no doubt been a contentious issue since the first Roman student brought an abacus to his grammaticus. Using the most up-to-date equipment in school has always seemed to be a necessity. And yet the process of learning hasn’t really changed that much since ancient times: teachers still need to teach and students still need to pay attention.

Last week Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty sparked a national debate on the role of technology in Canadian classrooms. Asked about a proposal to relax a ban on cellphones in the classrooms of Toronto-area high schools, the premier seemed rather agreeable to the idea. “Telephones, BlackBerries and the like are conduits for information and one of the things we want our students to be is well informed,” he said. “It’s something we should be looking at in our schools.”

McGuinty has a point. It seems inevitable that some sort of hand-held wireless device will eventually become part of education systems across the country. The cost and complication of traditional textbooks makes electronic delivery of course material straight into the hands of students a rather attractive proposition. For this reason alone, electronic tablets or smartphones such as the BlackBerry likely have a place in the classroom of the future. The prospect of linking students together via communication technology also holds great educational promise.

At the same time, we can’t ignore the enormous and obvious downsides of such technological intrusions. Cellphones may be conduits for information, but they’re also tools of mass distraction. Texting, tweeting, surfing and updating your online profile have nothing to do with learning and no place in the classroom. Yet it’s even become commonplace for parents to text their children during school hours. What are they thinking?

Any effort to make cellphones part of the official school day must solve the problem of their non-educational use, either by setting strict rules of acceptable conduct or blocking access when it’s not appropriate. And we should recognize that there’s a big difference between integrating wireless devices into the curriculum and simply inviting students to bring whatever diverting gadgets they might possess to class. The fact not every student owns a smartphone must also be addressed. Regardless of what the future holds, it’s far too soon to be advocating widespread use of cellphones in the classroom.

It’s also the case that the value of technology to learning is frequently oversold by eager advocates. A long series of educational revolutions via technology has been promised throughout the years: from television to video to desktop computers to laptops to SMART Boards to cellphones. Despite claims that these innovations will change the educational experience for the better, there’s no evidence technology actually leads to higher marks for students.

The ubiquitous presence of wireless laptops on university campuses in many ways anticipates the presence of cellphones in public schools. A study from 2008 in the academic journal Computers & Education looked at how these laptops have affected classroom behaviour. “Results showed that students who used laptops in class spent considerable time multitasking and that laptop use posed a significant distraction to both users and fellow students,” the research observes. “Most importantly, the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning.” Students with laptops had lower test results than those without. The reason? They were often not paying attention to their teacher. We should expect the same thing from cellphones.

Similarly, a 2009 study looked at students who sent instant messages during class. Texting students took longer to perform simple tasks such as reading a written passage than those who did not. Consider it another blow to the alleged benefits of multitasking. An investigation into PowerPoint lectures found students enjoyed them more than traditional presentations, although this did nothing to raise test scores. Clickers, small hand-held wireless devices used for in-class quizzes that are popular with students and teachers, similarly have no discernable impact on marks.

Technology may lower school costs, make marking more efficient and even raise student satisfaction. But it can’t produce students with better grades. And this means technology will never replace the timeless need for skilled teachers capable of catching the attention of easily distracted students and engaging their minds. The smartest phones may be the ones we keep outside the classroom.


Don’t give students more tools of mass distraction

  1. Another problem with the idea that more technology doesn't seem to raise test scores is, what do test scores really have to do with whether or not a student has learned higher order thinking? We are stuck on the old forms of evaluation at the same time as we have never before had such easy access to information, tools, and colaboration opportunities in education.

  2. You make the point that technology can’t produce students with better grades. The bulk of educational research and practical experience with technology in classrooms would disagree. All across North America, and indeed the globe, students are being empowered to extend their learning – with technology. Teachers are able to create more relevant learning opportunities using the research and collaborative potential of technology. With it, students are able to discover, hone and use their passions to demonstrate their learning in ways that make sense to them as digital natives. The research is clear, with proper implementation, technology use does improve student performance.

    In the end, it makes little difference what we think about technology. As digital immigrants, we will never truly match our students in their fluency with digital tools. Our students are the digital natives. They live in a digital, wired world when they aren’t in school. Yet when they arrive, there are still edusaurs out there who believe that they can be engaged by sitting in rows and a “one size fits all” curriculum.

    Student engagement is a serious problem in every educational jurisdiction. The integration of technology is going a long way to address this issue in addition to providing relevant rigorous learning opportunities that routinely go deeper than traditional education. Cell phones and other mobile devices are tools of the digital generation. If education doesn’t wake up and embrace what is, then the world economic trends outlined by OECD are certain to become reality. Manufacturing is gone as a staple of the Canadian economy. It isn’t coming back. An education system predicated on the needs of an economy that no longer exists will lead us directly nowhere.

    I would encourage all Canadians to Google “21st Century Skills” (use your cell phone if you’d like). Do some research. Look at the cost of not taking advantage of our students digital nature.

    A pen and paper was good enough for me. Those were the tools of my generation. We should no more expect our students to rely on them when better, more efficient and capable tools exist. No more than I would expect to be treated by leeches in the ER.

    • Your leech example is surprisingly appropriate: medical leeches are still used when they're the best option available.

      Similarly, the current best option for education is pen, paper, and attention. I'm writing this on my laptop in class, waiting for things to get rolling. I use my laptop in class every day and honestly, I completely agree that laptops are probably more a distraction for most people. The only reason I use mine is that I find it easier to organize my notes and that my typing is far quicker and neater than my writing, which is atrocious as I have become so used to using the keyboard. Pen and paper notes means paying more attention to the professor and you can actually do more with pen and paper much of the time as there's often more to lectures than just words.

      Sure, tech is nice when it makes sense to use it, but it really isn't that great 99% of the time. I mean really, here I am typing this reply, being distracted when my prof is talking about what's required for our essays. That kind of says it all.

      • It certainly says a great deal about the style of instruction you are receiving. One of the greatest dangers is technology in an environment where its potential is ignored. Educators need to take advantage of the tools at hand and do more than talk about the essay they are assigning. If we fail to take advantage of the power if the technology in kids hands and place relevant tasks and problems before them, then we have wasted our time and money. The integration of technology into classrooms also means integration of technology into instruction.

        Will there be situations where technology takes a backseat? Absolutely. Is it always the best tool for the job? Of course not. It is however the most versatile, equalizing, and powerful teaching tool in the educator’s toolbox. Assuming, of course, that they know how to use it.

        • Right now, my professor is in the process of showing this class all of the resources we can access through the library website: she's on the computer up the front, which is projected up to the front of the class. There is an absolute ton of material that has been made available for us online, which is exceedingly useful for students when we're out of the classroom.

          I'll repeat that: it is exceedingly useful when we're *out of the classroom*. In the classroom, in the hands of students, technology is is often irrelevant and distracting. As it is now, while I should again be paying more attention.

  3. Texting a friend during class = passing notes across the room, just more efficiently

    Updating a profile is probably not much more useful than doodling in the margins of the notebook during a long lecture…that students lost interest in 25 minutes ago…

    There will always be distractions… do not take away what is a valuable learning tool becasue teachers are unwilling to change their ways.

  4. I've been teaching mathematics at university for nearly a decade, and have seen the electronic PD revolution. I use technology as an aid when I feel it's appropriate or furthers student learning. I also see, increasingly, students texting or updating their social-networking websites, and not paying attention to key mathematical exposition in class. A lot of them end up in my office hours asking for help – and continuing to text as I try to explain the concept again. I've observed a direct correlation between the inability of a student to work through a detailed logical argument, or solve a non-trivial problem, and their electronic distractability. They are ostensibly taking university-level mathematics because *someone* – employers, their families, society – thinks it is important for them to have material and the problem-solving skills they should be learning. Meanwhile, the students who try to extract their money's worth from their classes are zooming ahead, but it's a shrinking population.

    I've frequently been asked to wait, in my office, while some students respond to "an urgent phone call" while they are seeking my help. Is this an efficient way to learn for them? And wouldn't this be called rude a century ago?

    I withhold judgement, I'm not their mother. Maybe there really is no point to one-on-one interaction with a professor without electronic interference. Meanwhile, the Canadian taxpayer is footing the bill. Every minute of mine that is spent waiting on a student to stop texting is a minute not spent helping a student who really wants to learn.

    Would it not be better to just shut down our universities, and point the students to the free online courses from MIT? They can watch inspiring lectures over and over again at their own pace. I realize I'm arguing to be fired, but if technology in a classroom is an unalloyed good, why have a classroom?

  5. To state that integrating technology into classrooms does not increase learning is absurd. A good teacher that integrates technology into his.her lessons is morivating students to learn and be self directed.

    Example: I use Twitter in my classroom as a way to post daily homework assignments. Students can check their homework assignments from home using Twitter. Students find this way of checking homework more motivating which means more of them will complete the assignment.


  6. First, please apologize my poor English… I always had a little trouble with strong opinions like "this is correct or not correct." When used in an appropriate educational setting, technologies can be very useful. This morning, I attended a video conference where we talk about the using of Facebook to monitor students who are training outside of their college. Teachers and students greatly appreciate. In addition, research shows that, when used properly, technologies have a positive effect on motivation and student's outcomes.

  7. Your opinion of technology in classrooms is quite surprising. Basically your saying we should keep the teacher-student model even if businesses have moved on to a self-taught, computer based, Internet model. Your model would greatly endure students entry into the workforce. Students have developed computer and social skills which enable them to reach for the top of the knowledge tree. You can't expect them to stay motivated listening to a single teacher. Teach them the basics reading, writing, counting and get out of the way as quickly as possible. Move from the teacher role to a facilitator one where you can have an impact instead of being an obstacle.

  8. who is the author of this article?

  9. I'm with Kelly,
    Can you tell us who wrote this please?