Technology in the Classroom: Does it Help or Hurt?

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

A recent study by scholars at the London School of Economics has revived the argument over using mobile technology in schools, and whether students should be allowed to use their own devices. The study found that schools that banned cell phones had a 6% stronger test score improvement than schools with no such policy.

Although personal devices have been around for over a decade, many schools continue to reconsider their policy on student technology use. There are many different strategies: some schools have complete bans, where students must hand over any devices when they step on school property; some schools have an open use policy, where students are allowed to use their devices in the classroom (within reason); and some schools (such as HISD high schools and many Houston private schools) pay to have laptops or tablets distributed to students, often fitted with special software that prohibits certain usage, such as games and social media.

The Case Against Tech at School

The study found that 4 schools’ phone banning policies resulted in greater test score improvements than comparable schools in the area that had no such phone policies. Some educators are turning to this and other similar studies to claim that technology on school grounds stands as a distraction, and limiting or banning that distraction will allow students to focus on the lessons. While the study suffers from the classic media folly of over-sensationalized results (the study only looked at 4 phone-banning schools and the effect a rather small 6% improvement), anecdotal evidence from teachers shows that students seem to have a hard time prying their eyes away from the screens.

Given that nearly every student has a wifi-powered phone, it is also important to consider the implications of students using school internet access for their own means. Although schools have software in place to prohibit access to certain websites, google shows some 300,000 pages that show students how to ‘jump the firewall’, accessing whichever sites they may choose. While most unauthorized access will be devoted to social media, the very possibility of extra-curricular web exploring still presents a distraction from the task at hand.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

The Case For EdTech

Given the influx of technological developments in the past few decades, it should come as no surprise that researchers have been examining technology’s effect on learning as early as the 1960’s. A research paper that compared 25 different studies from the past 30 years showed that general computer use in the classroom tends to improve performance by one-third of a standard deviation over slide-and-lecture based lessons, on average (the equivalent of every student improving their course grade by 3 percentage points, or improving their SAT scores by 25 points).

The study which found a connection between banning cell phones and improvements on tests also found something which could be used as an argument for technology in schools. Demographic information showed that test scores improved differently by race, with minority and under-privileged groups improving their performance most. It seems that higher socioeconomic groups, which will obviously have the best technology, will also have the most potential to utilize technology-based education programs. Thus, those who are unable to afford edtech will improve the most in a tech-free environment. But does this mean schools should ban all tech, and thus ban all education that can be gleaned from tech, or does it mean that education grants should be devoted towards edtech, so that all students have an equal ability to benefit from it?

When students are given equal access to technology in the classroom, the education landscape changes. Research summarized in this publication shows many studies of schools that granted every student a laptop. The studies found that laptop usage improved student engagement and writing scores, but the biggest result was that schools that treated technology as a supplement did not do as well as schools that structured their curriculum around technology. As technology has become ubiquitous in daily life, perhaps it should become just as integrated into our schools. Of course, the downside here is the start-up cost of providing every student with a laptop.

Another less vocal, yet gravely important argument against blanket technology bans is that it throws out the benefits of mobile technology in an emergency situation. That is, students lose the ability to call parents and the school population’s overall ability to call for assistance in an emergency is drastically reduced, limited only to teachers and administration. Given recent events involving school shootings, some are resistant to taking away student phones, which provide the opportunity to call for help if separated from their class, as well as the ability to record any incident for video proof.

Moving Forward

Any technological development has the potential to help students learn. New videos, games, and applications allow study material to be presented and reviewed in new ways, strengthening the students’ learning. If schools want to make use of laptops, tablets, or even smartphones, they have to do so with a mind towards suppressing the distractions without covering up the benefits.

There may never be one system that works equally well for all schools. As long as there are different learning styles, there will be different tech policies. Ultimately, it comes down to the question “Is the technology able to aid learning without becoming a distraction?”, and each school board will have to base their policy on how they answer that question. New York City has already made this option available, lifting the blanket technology ban to allow schools to make policies on a school-by-school basis. As technology continues to evolve, so must our policies pertaining to its use.

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