- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2016

Although technology-in-education advocates are quickly tearing down the boundaries between the computer lab and the classroom, a study examining the influence of laptops and tablets on collegiate performance indicates that, as with Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, innovation can come back to harm the innovator.

A group of economists went to West Point to measure the effects of integrating computerized devices into the classroom by prohibiting laptops and tablets in some introductory economics course, while permitting them in others.

One-third of the classes allowed students to use laptops or tablets to take notes during lecture, while one-third permitted tablet use only for the purpose of looking at course materials, and one-third prohibited electronic devices outright. Researchers found that, in the permissive classes, 80 percent of students chose to take advantage of the technologies available to them to some extent.

The results: The technology-ridden classrooms scored 1.7 points lower on average in a 100-point exam than their pen-and-paper counterparts.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said he is not at all surprised by the results given studies that have shown the human mind’s limited ability to multitask and the Internet’s unrivaled temptation to (try to) do that.

“I’m not at all surprised that there’s erosion in student performance,” Mr. Wood said. “The result of the study is hardly jaw-dropping. I don’t know who thinks laptops in class are a good idea. Apparently some professors do, but most of us don’t.”

The study’s findings hold even when accounting for factors such as GPA and standardized test scores. In fact, students with higher ACT scores took the biggest hit when technology was introduced, perhaps revealing the hubris of top students who think they can skate by without paying attention.

The study also found that men perform much worse in the presence of technology than women. Although the results may be skewed by West Point’s heavily male student body, women did as well regardless of the availability of laptops and tablets, while men may have been more likely to succumb to the Internet’s various distractions.

The disparity may also be due to the difficulty of processing information typed onto a screen rather than written down in a notebook.

A 2003 study in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education found students who typed notes during class had more trouble remembering the content of lectures, while a 2014 study showed students who took notes longhand understood the concepts they wrote about better than students who typed them out.

Despite studies demonstrating the pitfalls of multitasking, and a dearth of evidence to support the link between technology and academic performance, innovators continue to usher screens into the classroom.

The U.S. now spending more than $3 billion every year on digital content in public schools — part of a budget that equips one in five students with a computerized device, according to Education Week.

Mr. Wood said part of the problem is interest groups, such as technology and digital manufacturers, who contract with the government and have a financial incentive to promote education technology. On the other hand, critics possess less of an immediate incentive to halt the spread of such devices.

“High schools and grade schools now are increasingly going all-in for this technology, and there are plenty of folks who benefit from it — that is, the manufacturers of laptops, sellers of software to companies who are singing the praises of technology all the time,” he said. “The skeptics are less heard from.

“Given the large amounts of money at stake, I think we need a better voice for techno-skepticism than we generally have.”

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