Back to school: Leave the iPad at home

Hey, teacher, leave that pad alone. / Photo: Sean MacEntee, used under Flicker Creative Commons license.
Hey, teacher, leave that pad alone. / Photo: Sean MacEntee, used under Flicker Creative Commons license.

WASHINGTON, September 1, 2014 – The Los Angeles Unified School District announced last year that it would provide every student and teacher in the district with a new iPad. The total cost of the project would be $1 billion, half going to upgrade Wi-Fi and other network infrastructure in the district, and half going to Apple and Pearson.

The iPads were to be loaded with materials tailored to the Common Core standards. This would including testing software provided by Pearson, the British educational testing and publishing giant that owns Penguin Books, Addison-Wesley, Prentice Hall, and the Financial Times.

The contract generated a great deal of controversy, and it has been suspended because of apparent conflicts of interest and improper bidding. But the basic idea of tablet computers in the classroom remains almost unchallenged and popular across America.

Educational institutions around the world have so far purchased over 10 million tablet computers, and the number is growing rapidly. Fans of the technology tout it as a way to unleash student creativity and explore new territory in student collaboration. They point to cornucopia of apps and potential uses: science apps that create virtual laboratories on the desktop; math apps that allow students to visualize difficult mathematical concepts; the possibility of creating riveting, multimedia presentations that can then be turned in to the teacher electronically; testing with immediate feedback to detect and correct student weaknesses; instant access to the ocean of information that is the internet.

The list is nearly endless. All that’s missing is the evidence that any of this will produce well-educated students.

Evidence is beginning to come in, but it isn’t encouraging for tech-smitten educators. The technology remains promising, and it seems genuinely helpful to some students in some narrow areas, but it is also destructive.

A European study on reading found that people who read a story on an electronic device were less able to remember the order of events than people who read it on paper. A lead researcher on the study, Anne Mangen, reported, “The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, i.e., when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.”

In a related study in Norway, researchers found that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.” A group of European researchers chaired by Mangen claims, “research shows that the amount of time spent reading long-form texts is in decline, and due to digitization, reading is becoming more intermittent and fragmented,” with “empirical evidence indicat[ing] that affordances of screen devices might negatively impact cognitive and emotional aspects of reading.”

Why reading a printed text should make it easier to remember conceptual material than reading it on a screen is a subject for further research. Some researchers have focused on the tactile element of reading a book. Scientific American quotes Microsoft Research’s Abigail Sellen, who says, “The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized. Only when you get an e-book do you start to miss it. I don’t think e-book manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book.”

Screens may be more effective for reading short articles than for reading books. The advantage to books may have to do with your ability to navigate the text. Scientific American quotes Mangen: “The ease with which you can find out the beginning, end and everything in between and the constant connection to your path, your progress in the text, might be some way of making it less taxing cognitively, so you have more free capacity for comprehension.”

As an easy way to carry around large amounts of light or informational reading, Kindles and other readers seem unexcelled. But if you are reading for concepts, or if you are reading a lengthy text, you’ll probably do much better with a real book.

If they aren’t the best option for reading, how do tablets and laptop computers do at taking notes and recording lectures?

A study published in Psychological Studies, by Pam Mueller, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, and Daniel Oppenheimer, a professor at UCLA, came down strongly for taking notes on paper.

Under conditions designed to replicate the college setting, students were told they were going to be tested on the material and then given a week to prepare. Students who took notes the old-fashioned way, on paper, consistently outperformed those who took notes electronically.

Writing is slower than typing. Students who write notes by hand are forced to pre-process the material, to decide during the lecture which material is more important, to put the material in their own words, to organize it so that it makes sense to them. It forces students to go beyond simply transcribing information and to think about the information that they record.

According to Cheryl Bracken, a professor of communication at CSU, “It’s the cognitive effect involved in converting the spoken word into letters and words … It takes effort to convert what is being said into your own words, which is why taking your own notes is better than copying a PowerPoint slide.”

Beyond this, there are other downsides to using electronic devices in the classroom. Students in middle school, high school and college are often distracted from lectures to engage in social networking, browse the web, and otherwise check out of the lecture.

Muncie Community Schools in Indiana have distributed about 4,000 iPads to students this school year. The idea is for them to use the tablets in class for class work, but as reported by The Star Press, that is often not what they do with them.

A survey conducted the Muncie Teachers Association last year showed that students often use their iPads for messaging and gaming during class. Messaging has had to be locked down in the middle schools, but in the high schools, that would defeat part of the purpose of the devices (messaging between teachers and students). In college, that isn’t practical at all.

According to the Star Press, teachers also reported that students “rarely” finished homework on their iPads.

E-readers and laptop computers have a great deal of potential to add to the educational experience, but this requires more creativity from teachers who want to include them in the curriculum and more diligence from students who use them. The evidence is strong that electronic devices make people more passive in reading and in note-taking, two basic activities and skills essential to academic success.

There are more and more useful apps appearing in the market, and electronic devices can be a godsend to special-needs students. But in the endeavor of education, tablets and laptops remain a luxury rather than a necessity. They are a necessity in research, but that is as well done on desktop computers, outside the classroom, and almost always provided by schools. Your money – and your school district’s money – is much better spent arming your student with notebooks, pens and books. Once those have been mastered, then it might be time to consider adding tablet computers to the mix.

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  • Laurie

    I think it’s important to note that the iPad is not the problem, but the way teachers implement them. You can’t just hand a a student an iPad and expect there to be improvement in test scores. For example, electronic note taking is a learned practice. Students have been trained to take notes by paper and pen and at one point, had to learn how to properly take notes. IPads are used to enhance. You can still write your notes on the ipad, even highlight and use the search function. Before looking at the advantages/disadvantages of the iPad, researchers need to make it an equal playing field.