Should tablet computers become the primary way students learn in class?


There is no question that the prevalence of technology in our daily lives has, figuratively and literally, taken a load off of our busy shoulders. As students, we constantly have somewhere to go, someone to see and something to do, which means that the use of laptops in the classroom allows students to be both organized and efficient in their use of class time. However, statistics show that technology use in the classroom, especially when taking notes, compromises certain fundamental aspects of one’s learning experience, which would otherwise be present when handwriting those same notes. Components of the learning experience which are affected include one’s short-term (immediate) understanding, long-term memory retention, and focus in class. All of these components are essential for students to be able to comprehend and extract lecture information, and to be able to engage in the critical analysis required by university courses.

The laptop’s ability to create, save, load and send documents faster than you can tie your shoes seems to validate the inevitability of technology’s future in the classroom. The fact that it can store textbooks, assignments, music, and much more on a microchip as small as your thumbnail makes study — material, and even the classroom itself, entirely portable.  But for all its convenience — and organization-related advantages, laptops provide for a different experience for note-taking, with negative implications for both retention and recall of information. In a study done for the series Developments in Marketing Science by Debra Zahar and her associates, a set of mock exams yielded results indicating that test scores were higher when students hand wrote their notes instead of using mobile technology to take notes, or not taking notes at all. Scholars suggest that when students who handwrite their notes cannot write information down as fast as the instructor can speak it, they have no choice but to summarize the content in a more efficient manner. It’s no question that this prioritization while note-taking contributes to the level of a student’s understanding of the content which he or she summarizes.

Results from a similar study done in Canada, wherein students were asked to recall information from a lecture they previously took notes for, suggested pen-and-paper note-takers scored 11 per cent higher than those who used a laptop to record their notes. What’s more is that pen-and-paper note-takers who sat beside students using a laptop scored 17 per cent  lower than other students who hand wrote their notes. McMaster University’s Faria Sana, co-head of the study, inferred that the correlation between the use of laptops in note-taking and the difference in test scores stemmed from students’ misconception of their ability to multitask adequately.

“It’s a huge concern because [laptops] provide students with the opportunity to do other things and they are tempted to do them,” said Sana in an interview with CTV News. Sana went on to suppose that typing up notes on a computer is actually too easy for students, such that there is no need to comprehend the information a student receives before replicating it via a keyboard.

A professor at McMaster University once referred to using laptops in note-taking as, ”a garbage chute for your temporal lobe (segment of the brain responsible for memory)”. Of course, his analogy is satirical and to be taken light-heartedly by laptop-note-takers. However, his comparison does suggest that there are essential elements of taking notes which scientifically enhance a student’s learning experience.

Counter-productively, I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the incredible possibilities in all industries, especially learning and education, which are attributable to technology. It would be impertinent to suggest that laptops in the classroom only cause you to forget what you wrote down five minutes ago or their prominence in distracting other students, without mentioning why we actually have technology in classrooms in the first place. The fact of the matter is that although laptops may present opportunities to become distracted in lectures, they likewise present the redeeming possibility of providing access to answers to every possible question that you could come across. While scholars will say that technology absolutely has a place or role within the classroom, the details regarding these roles have been up for debate for some time now.

When referring how technology will transform the classroom, Ron Canuel, CEO of the Canadian Education Association, told the Globe and Mail in an interview that “it’s an important shift… but how widespread it is, we don’t know.” And as Globe and Mail journalist Kate Hummer highlights,  the problem facing this shift towards incorporating technology in the education system becomes more of a matter of “how teachers are using technology in the classroom and what barriers exist to maximizing these newest teaching tools.”


-Jonathan Lewis, Contributor 

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