IMAGE: Cathy Yeulet — 123RF

About computers in class

A new study argues in favor of bringing back paper and the pen to the classroom, arguing that computers are a distraction and don’t help students understand what they are being taught. The study comes amid much academic debate on the subject, with people I deeply admire, like Erik Brynjolfsson, weighing in on the side of banning laptops and smartphones in the classroom.

Returning to paper and pen in the 21st century would be a grave error, simply validating poorly designed, ill-thought out studies. The idea, for example, that writing helps develop psychomotor skills is just an excuse by some teachers to continue working as they have always done; the problem is that the tests designed to evaluate that approach to education are based on erroneous approaches, and so therefore, the conclusions they reach are erroneous.
 Sure, computers combine communication with entertainment and can be a distraction in the classroom. But we have to remember that few students have been properly trained to use a computer in class and are used to taking notes by hand rather than on a keyboard. To argue that we should continue taking notes with paper and a pen and then photocopy them and give them to our friends is frankly an insult to intelligence and more importantly, an obstacle to understanding the potential of education.
 Therefore, the first thing we have to do is teach children how to use a computer properly. Using a computer in class requires discipline, and above all, bidirectional communication: the traditional approach, whereby the teacher talks and the students listen, produces poor results for many reasons. What is the point of teaching through dictation? Why not just send the info through a link rather than forcing kids to write down what you are saying? Copying simply distracts from what you are telling them! Instead, ask them to concentrate on your explanation, to interrupt you every time they do not understand something.

And please, let’s stop this “if they copy it in class, they remember it better” nonsense, because remembering things should not be an end in itself. Instead, flip the class and use the time to interact, not to waste it copying useless notes. 
 Memorizing is a vastly overrated skill and comes from a time when information was difficult to obtain, but we now live in the Google era, when memory is fed with RFV algorithms (we remember the most Recent, the most Frequent and what we attribute the most Value to), and trying to achieve this by spending hours poring over notes is a waste of time. Knowing stuff by heart doesn’t make you an expert: what education should encourage is understanding things and knowing how to recover information from a file to which we have permanent access via a simple device: what is really important, what we need constantly, will be memorized only through repeated use.

Judges, notaries and property registrars are no better at their job for having spent an average of four years locked a room studying a list of subjects and never going out or washing to be able to pass an exam. They will be better professionals not because they have prodigious memories, but if they have understood their studies: why a law is the way it is, why it evolved as it evolved, when it makes sense to apply it and when it doesn’t, as well as exceptions and their origins… even something as precise as the law can learn from the new methodological needs of teaching.

Thus, it makes no sense to evaluate computers by means of tests based on the retention of information. It is a mistake because the classroom it is evaluated as part of is obsolete in terms of the goals of education. As long evaluations are carried out in this way, students will remember less when they use computers, because they have not been taught how to use them and will continue taking notes with paper and pen. Why not with cuneiform writing? Surely the effort required to copy notes on a clay pad will help memorize their notes.

It makes no sense, and never did, simply to see education as cramming facts into students’ heads. Obviously, if students’ chances of passing an exam depend on their note-taking abilities, they will spend the whole class copying or typing, without even processing it. At best, they will become expert note takers, and possibly learn little else.

It is very hard to talk about education with people who think there is no problem with carrying on as we have for centuries, when the sad truth is that our education systems are a disaster, inefficient, and based on repetitive routines that detract value rather than adding it.

Education needs a radical rethink based on differently designed processes, focused on ways to make students learn and improve, rather than just regurgitating stuff for exams and that is just forgotten a week later. Until we do so, trying to remove computers because they “hinder retention” is irresponsible.

At this rate, educational institutions will end up isolated from the rest of the world, places where students cannot enter with “the devil’s tools” because they “be distracted”, and where they will have new downgraded brains implanted to limit their ideas to those of the last century and before.

In short, we need more computers and devices in classrooms, not fewer, as well as to rethink how we teach and if taking notes, memorizing facts and other approaches still make sense in the 21st century.

(En español, aquí)