By Peter C. Herman

For years now, teachers at all levels have been told that the more computers in the classroom, the better. Digital improves learning, and besides, since our students can’t be parted from their devices, we had better join them, since beating them is out of the question. So textbooks migrated to tablets. Writing migrated to laptops. Teacher-student interactions turned into e-mail or twitter exchanges. Even the classes themselves took place on the web. Over and over, we were told that the traditional, brick and mortar classroom is dead. Dissenting voices were dismissed as Luddites at best, obstructionist dinosaurs at worst. Long live the virtual classroom!  Bill Gates is the new pedagogical guru (never mind that nobody much likes Windows).

But two recent studies confirm what most K-12 and university teachers already know: that computers not only do not necessarily help education, they can actually hinder it.

A laptop-filled classroom at Ohio State University. Photo courtesy Ohio State
A laptop-filled classroom at Ohio State University. Photo courtesy Ohio State

The New York Times recently reported on a 2012 study proving that kids who learn to write on a keyboard are at a distinct disadvantage to kids who learn handwriting. It seems that when children learn to write by hand, they “remain better able to generate ideas and retain information.” The key word here is “remain.” Learning to write on a keyboard stunts their brain development. Kids who wrote by hand, on the other hand, “consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.”

The Times study focused on preschool, but another study by researchers at UCLA and Princeton University proves that when college students take notes by hand, they learn a lot more, because “the act of taking notes on a computer actually seems to interfere with their ability to remember information.” The notion that lecturing to students is “passive learning,” and so the “sage on the stage” is a relic of the past, turns out to be completely false. Listening to a teacher and then summarizing the lecture as it goes along turns out to be entirely active, because you have to evaluate the material, decide what is important, and write it down in your own words. Taking notes with a laptop encourages kids to record the lecture verbatim. More words, but less learning.

None of this is news to me.  I realized long ago that allowing laptops in the classroom is a recipe for distraction, that students will inevitably attend to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr rather than the lecture. So, I banned them. And not just laptops. I ban everything that connects to the web. My usual line is: if you can turn it on, it goes off. And the grade goes down by one letter for each infraction.

Nor am I alone. The New Yorker recently published a short article by a computer scientist at Dartmouth College on why he banned laptops in his classroom, and how others in his department did the same.

But here’s the surprising thing: not one of my students ever complained. Not in person. Not in the anonymous evaluations. Instead, they seem to find it a relief to not be connected. For an hour or so, it’s as if they find shelter from the digital storm. And they like it.

The point was really driven home to me when I looked at my student evaluations from Literature and the Problem of Technology. This was a “hybrid” course. Meaning, we met twice a week, and the third class period was devoted to online activities: a journal, which I alone read, and a class blog, in which students posted and commented on each other’s ideas.

Students loved the course. My evaluation numbers shot through the roof. But it was not the digital part of the class that made the difference. Instead, students praised the class discussions. They liked that I knew how to use Powerpoint effectively (I didn’t read from the slides). They liked that I would “TEACH . . .  rather than talk.” As for the online journals and blogs, they hardly mentioned them. Instead, they appreciated a course that explored how literature gave them the opportunity to think deeply and complexly about technology, led by a teacher who knew what he was talking about, and wanted them to learn. What they liked was exactly the sort of class we’ve been told over and over is so old-fashioned it should just wither and die.

Personally, I really liked the journals and blogs, and the writing those exercises generates showed that the students got a lot out of them as well. But that’s not what students really valued. Instead, they valued the traditional classroom experience.

So maybe the pendulum is starting to swing back. After the mania for replacing teachers with screens and books with tablets, after the MOOC fiascos, maybe we are finally figuring out that while computers have their place in the classroom, that place is on the side. Digital supplements analogue, not the other way around.

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism. 

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