The advent of digital devices—tablets, laptops, and smartphones—in our K-12 classrooms is being embraced by some and denounced by others. Some of the digital enthusiasts are without reservation. They believe that increasing the amount of available technology and information inevitably makes students better. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that students will stop learning and just engage in distracted, possibly destructive activities with their new tools.
In the middle there is a pretty good ongoing debate about whether, why, and how we should be implementing this massive change. Let’s look at some of the benefits and drawbacks of students using these digital devices in the classroom, and look at how we could mitigate some of those drawbacks.
First, it’s useful to look at what students are doing with these devices—or at least what we hope they are doing. The basic roles of a digital device in the classroom are:
Some of these tasks are clearly done more easily on a digital device. Research can be done more quickly using a wider variety of resources. Consuming and creating multi-media are both tasks the digital device is obviously good at. Communicating digitally is something possible now that was not before.
Of course not all teachers want these activities to be as easy as they are now. We may not want students using their devices during tests to look up information we’d like them to know. And we may want them to pay attention to what’s happening in the class instead of using the variety of communication options available on their digital devices.
When we get to reading and writing, though, the research is unclear. Some researchers suggest reading material on a screen does not give us as deep an understanding, and there are even studies showing that writing and taking notes in long-hand provides better retention. On the other hand, some writers believe that screen reading is a separate ability that can be improved.
But even if digital learning doesn’t give us the deeper knowledge that old fashioned reading and note-taking on paper provided, it may still be a better choice because it teaches students how to interact with the real world. The new reality is that most people are never far from all the knowledge available in Wikipedia and Google. Looking up a fact is often faster than trying to recall it from our memories. How much do we really need to retain? Do we need to know the capitols of 50 states when we can look up the capitol of any country in the world in just seconds? This article goes into more detail on how we are treating information on the web as part of our brains.
Even as digital devices become common, we also need to decide when to introduce them to children. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that by the 4th grade, students can use computers for test-taking, though the don’t compare the results with paper and pen testing.
Our take is that the take-over of classrooms by digital devices is inevitable. We may lose some of the deep learning and comprehension that physical books and pen and paper note-taking provide, but we gain too much in terms of research, communication, and convenience. More importantly, learning and using digital devices is itself a core skill for our century. We do look forward to more studies, like this one which will take two years.
More importantly, we will be looking for the key to success: the wide sharing of experience, both good and bad.
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