On Computer-Free Classrooms

Computers today are everywhere, and it is understandable that many students and their parents feel with some urgency that technology needs to be part of the classroom. At Abelard, we do believe that technology has a place (in our computer science class, for one), but we continue to resist allowing students to use technology in most classes for several very important reasons.

At a practical level, when students’ use of technology is not being structured by a teacher’s assignment and supervision, it can be distracting. Although we certainly see students preoccupied by phones every once in a while at Abelard, it isn’t only our observation that makes us wary of the free-for-all use of computers. A study published last summer in the journal Labour Economics looked at how unstructured technology use impacted test scores and found that, “highly multipurpose technology, such as mobile phones, can have a negative impact on productivity through distraction” (Beland and Murphy). This distraction, they found, was reflected in poorer results on test scores across all grades. A distracted student is less successful.

Further, and perhaps even more importantly, our focus at Abelard is University preparation. At the core of University studies is the ability to think deeply and critically, and there is evidence that students who take notes by hand develop these skills better than those who use computers for note-taking. In a paper published in Psychological Science, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer study whether digital note-takers perform better than their long-handed counterparts and unequivocally land on the side of students who take notes by hand. Their primary observation is that computers facilitate a verbatim transcription of notes, while people who take notes by hand organically synthesize and summarize ideas. This in-situ mental processing develops precisely the critical thinking tools that our students will rely on in University.

There are further reasons for limiting technology use in the classroom that have to do with social development, learning focus and attention, and improved work ethic, but for us these are secondary to the measurable beneficial effects of an old-fashioned classroom on our students’ success both at Abelard and in the future.

Works Cited

Beland, Louis-Philippe and Richard Murphy. “Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance.” Labour Economics, Vol.41, 2016, pp. 61-76.

Mueller, Pam A. and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological Science, Vol. 25, No. 6, 2014.

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