Excessive technology use harms student learning

Photo courtesy of Sydney Cope

Steve Mohapp

stmohapp@ursinus.edu

We have all had professors who incorporate varied forms of technology into every class. They show videos, create assignments using computer software, and post all of their PowerPoint presentations online. We have also had the exact opposite in a professor: You’re not sure if your professor has used the internet since the annoying sound of dial-up was no longer necessary.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about the use of technology in the classroom. On one hand, I think that technology that directly connects to the course material and provides a novel way to learn is great. On the other hand, the unnecessary use of technology can be distracting and can take away from the learning experience.

A myriad of technologies can be helpful in the classroom. Videos and films can add to students’ understanding of material in various courses. Surprisingly, using projection screens to watch films in film classes is helpful! Videos are also useful in any other department because they can help students engage the information in a way different than they do during lectures. Computer software programs can also allow students to engage with course information in a new manner. The environmental studies department now offers a geographic information systems course, which would not be possible without computer software.

In a 2011 study at University of Michigan’s Center for Learning and Technology, a group of researchers–Erping Zhu, Matthew Kaplan, R. Charles Dershimer, and Inger Bergom–compared a classroom utilizing interactive laptop software called LectureTools to a control classroom allowing students to take notes on their laptops during conventional lectures. The authors found that “about 60% of the LectureTools students strongly agree[d] or agree[d] that laptops increased their engagement versus only 39% of the control group.”

This study demonstrates how helpful technology can be to increasing student engagement with course material. When technology is carefully and deliberately incorporated into the classroom, it can enhance the learning experience because it allows students to engage with the curriculum in new and useful ways.

However, technology can negatively impact learning if it is not necessary or fully incorporated into the class. The most apparent example of this phenomenon at Ursinus is using laptops to take notes during a conventional lecture or a discussion-based class. Taking notes on a laptop can be distracting for the student. Instead of focusing completely on the class, the student can go on social media websites, play games, or just play with the mouse and buttons. I know I am guilty of repeatedly highlighting sections of my computer screen when my attention flickers.

In a 2008 study about laptop use in a college course, Carrie B. Fried, a psychologist at Winona State University, found that “the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning, including self-reported understanding of course material and overall course performance.”

In this instance, laptop use to take notes during lecture proved detrimental to the students’ learning. The laptops were distractions to both the students using them and other students in the classroom. Taking notes on laptops also does not allow students to draw diagrams.

Additionally, I believe that professors are occasionally guilty of unnecessarily using technology to the detriment of their students. I know that many students enjoy PowerPoint presentations, especially if they are uploaded to Canvas. They provide students with neat, verbatim notes that can easily be accessed outside of class.

However, I do not think that they provide the same learning opportunities as notes written by the professor on a chalkboard or whiteboard. First, old-fashioned notes require students to copy them down in a notebook, rather than just looking them up online. But written notes on a board provide other ways to learn that a PowerPoint presentation cannot. Students can recall the order a professor wrote the notes or the spatial relationship of the notes on the board. Students may also remember a professor erasing a point and rewording it in real time. Both the original thought and the revised phrase are important!

At the end of the day, the helpfulness of technology comes down to how each individual student learns. But, technology will more likely be useful if it has a specific function within the classroom, rather than replacing tried-and-true teaching methods.

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