Public education “reforms” are forcing the shift to online testing and learning. Clearly, the potential for profit is enormous. The move to all-access devices in the classroom is a largely unproven experiment on our kids. A recent paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that removing laptops, iPads and other technology from classroom lectures vastly improved student outcomes on tests. It found that the presence of digital devices is distracting, resulting in reduced test scores for both low- and high-performing students. Apparently the organic experience of handwriting notes improves learning.

According to the study, students who use their tablet or computer to take classroom notes may actually be “surfing the Internet, checking email, messaging with friends, or even completing homework for that class or another class. All of these activities could draw a student’s attention away from the class, resulting in a lower understanding of the material. 

The findings are all the more interesting because they examine economics students at West Point where there is a student teacher ratio of 18:1.

The Guardian notes: The researchers suggested that removing laptops and iPads from classes was the equivalent of improving the quality of teaching.

The study divided 726 undergraduates randomly into three groups in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years. The control group’s classrooms were “technology-free,” meaning students were not allowed to use laptops or tablets at their desk. Another group was allowed to use computers and other devices, and the third group had restricted access to tablets.

“The results from our randomised experiment suggest that computer devices have a substantial negative effect on academic performance,” the researchers concluded, suggesting that the distraction of an electronic device complete with internet access outweighed their use for note-taking or research during lessons.

The research had an unusual twist: the students involved were studying at the West Point academy in the US, where cadets are ruthlessly ranked by exam results, meaning they were motivated to perform well and may have been more disciplined than typical undergraduates.

But even for the cream of the US army’s future crop, the lure of the digital world appears to have been too much, and exam performance after a full course of studying economics was lower among those in classes allowed to use devices.

HANDWRITING NOTESWe really have to wonder about the long term effects of a level of screen time where “life has no on/off switch.” Psychology Today recently explored the impact of screen time on the young that has far reaching life-time consequences:

The brain’s frontal lobe is the area responsible for decoding and comprehending social interactions. It is in this corner of the mind that we empathize with others, take in nonverbal cues while talking to friends and colleagues, and learn how to read the hundreds of unspoken signs—facial expression, tone of voice, and more—that add color and depth to real-world relationships.

So how and when does the brain’s frontal lobe develop? Not surprisingly, the most crucial stage is in early childhood, during that same critical period, and it’s dependent on authentic human interactions. So if your young child is spending all of his time in front of an iPad instead of chatting and playing with teachers and other children, his empathetic abilities—the near-instinctive way you and I can read situations and get a feel for other people—will be dulled, possibly for good.

We live in a world where pre-teens and high schools students are obsessed with social media, texting and the insane notion that doing all of these things while driving or some other equally important activity is “multi-tasking.”  Students think nothing of studying for a test while impulsively checking for updates, messages and chat threads in an obsessive need to “know.”

Is it any wonder that even ultra motivated West Point Cadets are distracted by taking notes on laptops and tablets?  Parents and educators take heed. Zero proof exists that device-driven learning and testing is high quality, safe or effective. While the philanthro-tech crowd sees little value  in the high-touch act of hand writing class notes, we must never forget that their point of view comes with an enormous pay day for them at our children’s expense.


A portion of this piece appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, May 14, 2016