Students using laptops in the classroom Photo by Wikimedia / original article

Advances in technology are generally seen as a good thing in our society. Remember the adding machine? Remember the calculator? For the most part, these tools have moved aside for newer models (such as the smartphone). But there are still a few last frontiers where technology is seen as, at best, a double-edged sword. One of these has long been the classroom.

Debates about laptops in the classroom aren’t new, but have grown increasingly vehement. On the one hand, psychological studies have shown that simply having a laptop near you (much less actually using one yourself) is more distracting than taking notes longhand. Moreover, laptop note-takers tend to learn material less deeply than longhand note-takers. On the other hand, there are many reasons for using a laptop: disability, poor handwriting, and the ability to share notes more easily are the most obvious.

The simple solution would be to grant a blanket exemption to those with documented disabilities. But this answer is increasingly unpopular as more and more studies show that students with disabilities — even ‘invisible’ learning disabilities — are more frequent targets of peer and instructor harassment (bullying; see links below). Depending on the class, this stigma may put students at risk.

Others are turning to instructional integration of technology to help made personal computers less distracting. The problem here is that everyone needs to have access; this is not always true even at the university level, and certainly not in K-12. Although specialized classrooms for learning and technology have existed for years, it’s impractical and not cost-effective to do this across-the-board — yet.

More recently, the debate has turned to questions not just of how students use their computers in the classroom, but even how they do their homework. One professor complained that online reading, whether on a computer, e-reader, or tablet, offers a more superficial reading experience. Although some have argued that her own arguments are superficial, others have suggested that she is correct — deep understanding cannot be achieved via screen.

Clearly, there is much still to learn about the role of computing in a classroom setting. Some of the differences may be due to personal preference, self-control, and degree of distraction, but at this point, there is no conclusive evidence for or against digital approaches to learning.

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About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.