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Inside the wired classroom...

Aruna Sankaranarayanan discusses some of the prevailing views on the effects of using digital devices in classrooms
Last Updated : 27 September 2017, 18:51 IST
Last Updated : 27 September 2017, 18:51 IST

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As Bob Dylan famously sings, “The times they are a-changin.” Perhaps, nowhere is this more apparent than our rapid embrace of technology in virtually all aspects of life. Most of us are so dependent on our smartphones, that we actually feel less smart if we are bereft of them. Despite the rampant use of digital devices in almost every domain, classrooms in our country have been relatively slow in adopting technology. Of course, most schools and colleges are fitted with smartboards so teachers can access the Internet and show videos to students with ease. But students, for the most part, still write in notebooks (not the digital type) and use longhand.  

While a small minority of institutions allow students to use laptops and iPads during a lesson, should we encourage more schools and colleges to follow suit? Are students more engaged in class when they are connected to the Net? For obvious reasons, schools and colleges insist that students switch off or even deposit phones in a box before entering class. Teachers don’t want to deal with surreptitious instant messaging when they are discussing derivatives or expounding on a Shakespearean sonnet. While students in the pre-digital era also passed notes slyly to one another, having a phone at your fingertips makes it more tempting to check the cricket score or send a review of a new flick to a friend.  

Hinders learning
An article by Professor Cindi May in the July 2017 edition of Scientific American suggests that students are ‘better off’ without laptops in the classroom. While high school and college students greatly benefit from having computers and Internet access for research and submitting assignments, they do not need individual laptops in class.

In fact, Cindi cites research conducted at Michigan State University, USA by Susan Ravizza and colleagues that indicates that laptops may actually hinder classroom learning. Even as students are busy tapping away at their keyboards when the professor is talking, most of them are not necessarily taking notes diligently. Instead, they are, by and large, engaging in non-academic pursuits that include social media, online videos, shopping, reading news bulletins and instant messaging. The laptop, it turns out, is as distracting as the phone, which educators ban inside classrooms.

Further, the researchers found that in a 100-minute class period, students engaged in non-academic computer use for as much as 40 minutes on average. In contrast, they spent less than five minutes using their laptops for course-related work. Unsurprisingly, students’ scores on the exam were inversely related to their usage of the laptop for non-academic purposes. Cindi also cites another study by Faria Sana and colleagues that found that not only students who were using laptops, but also their nearby peers got distracted by flickering screens.  

Research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer also discredits laptop usage in the classroom. According to them, even when students use laptops exclusively to take notes, learning is still diminished compared to those who take notes the old-fashioned way using pen and paper. Laptop users tended to type what the professor was saying verbatim whereas those who wrote in longhand wrote less but paraphrased what was being said, which possibly led them to process the material at deeper levels.

When the pen is indeed mightier
In her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle speaks with Harvard Law professor Carol Steiker. Like many premium institutions, Harvard Law School felt that it was cutting edge when it introduced classrooms connected to the Net. But professors soon found that students were more inattentive when they were typing away on their laptops.

Carol’s observation that students simply wanted to transcribe what was being said echoes the research described above. Carol then blacklisted laptops from her classrooms and found that students were more rapt learners.  As they cannot write as fast as they type, students are forced to cull the main points and note down only relevant details. In contrast, on their laptops,
students are more like automatons, not actively processing the material.

So, what is the take-home for students? Leave your laptop at home or in your hostel when you go to class. Take notes by hand.  Instead of simply parroting what the lecturer says, summarise they key points in your own words. Draw diagrams. Make flowcharts. Use arrows to make connections between points. Insert question marks when you have a doubt, which you can then clear when an opportunity arises.

The more actively you engage with content in class, the more likely you are to understand and remember it. Then when you go home, you can use your laptop for searching the Net for relevant articles or videos that extend and reinforce your knowledge in meaningful ways.  

(The author is director, PRAYATNA, Bengaluru)

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Published 27 September 2017, 16:01 IST

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