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To Ban or Not to Ban? Technology, Education, and the Media

I am honored to co-author this article with Joshua Eyler, Adjunct Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University.

Our conversation began in July when a smattering of articles from reputable sources emerged in concert with back-to-school season. From Scientific American and the Brookings Institute to NPR and Inc, editorials warned students, parents, and educators about the perils of technology for learning. Referencing a handful of studies, the authors of these editorials asserted that laptops, tablets, and smartphones should be eradicated from classrooms if students hope to effectively take notes and learn content.

These editorials cited Mueller and Oppenheimer's (2013) The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard, Carter, Greenberg, and Walker's (2016) randomized control trial of technology in West Point economics courses, as well as Hebrook and Gay's (2003) report on the effects of multitasking in the classroom to make wide-sweeping claims about technology and learning. Whether the researchers of these studies ever intended for their results to be generalized to broader populations and settings or not, their work has become a rallying point for anyone decrying the impact of technology on students' learning. As has been discussed on this blog in the past, empirical research requires critical analysis before making causal claims.

We do not want to impugn the research of other scholars, nor do we intend to make our own claims based on interpretation of those studies. Instead, we feel that a more important conversation needs to occur -- one that addresses the underlying assumptions behind these articles.  Each of these editorials approached the research with a view of education based on an industrial era model. The writers assumed a traditional model of education without questioning what could be possible given advances in technology. This approach led to the editorial writers, and potentially the researchers, making three assumptions about the ways in which technology may be viewed as a factor in learning.

The first assumption is that all learning is synonymous with memorization and facts. Certainly, students need to know information and facts before they can move on to higher order skills like synthesis and application, but there is so much more to learning than what Paulo Freire called the "Banking Concept" of education, where an instructor deposits information and students withdraw it for exams.  Connected to this concept, the studies seem to assume that all learning environments are lecture-based.  Many instructors use active, rather than passive, methods to at least some degree, and taking notes in a discussion-based course would be very different from the conditions these studies assume to exist in the average classroom.

The second fundamental assumption inherent in these pieces is that learning is primarily an individual rather than a social endeavor. However, classrooms are social spaces, and our students are human beings who interact with each other -- and with us -- in order to build knowledge.  Decades ago, the social psychologist Lev Vygotsky developed the concept of a "zone of proximal development" in his posthumously published book Mind in Society.  Vygotsky explained that individuals can only achieve so much on their own before they need a teacher or a knowledgeable peer to help them learn even more.  Some learning gains are possible when we work by ourselves, but there are limits to our ability to reach a level of mastery if we do not work with other people.   

The final assumption guiding these editorials is that everyone learns in exactly the same way.  Research on accessibility in higher education (as well as K-12) and Universal Design for Learning clearly contradicts this assumption.   Some students might be better off taking notes by hand, but other students -- such as those with specific kinds of learning or mobility disabilities -- may require laptops or tablets to successfully complete the work of the course.  Still, others might use learning strategies that make mobile devices an important tool to support them as learners.  Simply put, a fully accessible course allows for the use of any technology by the students.

In 2010, educational researchers Collins and Halverson wrote that digital technologies fundamentally challenged the structures on which schools base their identities. No longer are students confined to a single time, space, teacher, or class in order to learn. The presence of laptops, tablets, and smartphones therefore not only challenge the fundamental system of education but also the assumptions on which teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers have made decisions for years. We hope that this will be the first of many posts to question those assumptions and shift the conversation towards creating environments that support all learners.

References:

Collins, A., & Halverson, R. (2010). The second educational revolution: rethinking education in the age of technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 18-27. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00339.x

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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