Enhancing education or digital distraction

Does new technology in class hurt more than it helps?

When Kerri Pries walks into one of her classes at the University of Manitoba, it’s not unusual for her to find that half of her classmates have laptops open on their desks. Those that don’t have a laptop almost always have a tablet or smartphone with them.

“At some point throughout every class they’re on there, whether they’re studying or not,” says the 29-year-old education student. “I know for myself, I’ve been distracted from the course by my phone or by my neighbour’s phone quite often, but I know that I also have seen people be really productive with their technology.”

New technology extends people’s minds in both helpful and unhelpful ways, says Kevin Schut, chair and associate professor of media and communication at Trinity Western University’s School of the Arts, Media and Culture.

Laptops can empower students by allowing them to take notes more effectively than they might be able to with a paper and pen. Additionally, having access to extra information via the Internet can be helpful in classroom discussions.

At the same time, technology can distract.

“Screens have a magnetic visual pull for students,” Schut says. “It also allows the mind to sort of go on tangents. Tangents can be helpful and they can also be unproductive.”

Schut says he uses a laptop to take notes in meetings he attends because it makes it easy for him to organize and format his notes. At the same time, sometimes he follows his impulse to check out a sports page online, which distracts him from the meeting.

“I know my students do the same thing,” he says. “The elephant in the room that nobody ever talks about is Facebook, and most students with a laptop at least have a tab open and are flipping back and forth to it.”

Studies show that people are much worse at multitasking than they think they are, Schut adds. So while students may think they can keep one ear listening to the lecture as they click to Facebook to update their status or check out a friend’s photo and retain the important information, in reality, they aren’t fully doing either task.

“The quality of engagement in the lesson can suffer quite substantially,” Schut says.

A Canadian study published last year in the journal Computers & Education suggested that using computers during lectures hurt students’ grades and also lowered their classmates’ marks.

The study, conducted by two doctoral students, included two experiments. In the first, all participants used laptops to take notes during a lecture, but half were also asked to complete unrelated tasks, such as online searches for information, on their devices when they felt they had spare time.

For the second experiment, some students worked on laptops to take notes during a lecture while others used pencils and paper. Researchers wanted to know if the computer screens would distract the students taking notes the old-fashioned way.

The authors of the study found that those students who multitasked performed much worse on the final test and those who were seated around peers who were multitasking also performed much worse on the final test. The students in the first experiment averaged 11 per cent lower on their quiz, while students in the second experiment scored 17 per cent lower.

“We really didn’t think the effects would be this huge,” one of the study’s co-authors, Faria Sana, told the Canadian Press last August. “It can change your grade from a B+ to a B-.”

David Balzer, assistant professor of communications and media at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, says he has seen faculty respond to laptops in a variety of ways.

“Some faculty say, if you want to surf your life away and spend your money doing that, you’re 18, so go at it,” he says. “Others say, I owe it to you to create an environment where you’re going to learn something” so they ask students to leave their electronic devices at the door.

When Balzer teaches, he includes a statement in the course syllabus that allows students to use their laptops. If he finds that their computer use is distracting, however, he reserves the right to have a conversation with them about it and ask that they stay on task.

“I’ve had some pretty profoundly disappointing moments when I’ve actually gently invited people to stop doing what they’re doing on their laptops and join in the class, and they have, without reservation, disregarded my concern when I verbalized it in the class and went on with their behaviour,” Balzer says. “It’s unnerving.”

Balzer—like Pries and Schut—does not believe technology is necessarily bad. Students today have grown up using it, and are thinking in different ways as a result.

“The key word for me is the word negotiation,” Balzer says. “I see some incredible potential in technology, but it’s up to us to determine how we use it.”

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Aaron Epp is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer, Musical Routes columnist, and former Senior Correspondent for ChristianWeek.

About the author