According to the Institute of Education Sciences, the working paper, “The Impact of Computer Usage on Academic Performance: Evidence From a Randomized Trial at the United States Military Academy” by Susan Payne Carter, Kyle A. Greenberg and Michael S. Walker has found what many instructors already suspect: Access to technology during class does not always improve student performance. Specifically, their study compares the performance of students who had either limited or unrestricted access to the Internet in their classrooms versus those who did not. The report concluded that an increase in final exam scores for those students who were denied access to a computer or tablet “were statistically significant,” by “approximately one-fourth of a standard deviation.” It seems that students who take traditional, non-digitized notes, retain their knowledge longer than those who do not.
In some ways this is not surprising given that studies have shown for years that writing ideas, concepts and the like longhand accesses one’s long term memory. In addition, not all students are able to type as fast as they can print notes, so it stands to reason that students can take more and clearer notes faster in print than they can by using a keyboard. Since some devices, such as tablets and smartphones have much smaller keyboards, it also stands to reason that students may make errors while taking electronic notes, or may fall behind or miss taking down crucial information that non-electronic note takers do not miss during class lectures, discussions, labs, and activities.
While this study focuses on second year economics courses, it opens wider the question of how and whether computers, specifically those connected to the Internet, pose a significant distraction from classroom activities in other disciplines, such as English. There may be a need for other studies which assess whether the same results would be obtained if the researchers analyzed longer samples of student writing, research skills, or reading comprehension instead of mainly the final exam’s multiple choice, and short answer questions.
If the students were not using the technology without a specific aim, it may prove too much of a distraction for bored or otherwise unengaged students who can easily access web applications irrelevant to the course objectives. For instance, this study suggests that it is hard to determine whether students who did not know how to use these devices for effective note taking, or did not use them for that purpose, were more likely to see a drop in their class performance’ or if their lower performance was solely due to Internet distractions.
Since many students are moving toward renting or used digital or etextbooks they too many find themselves not staying on task, even in English courses, where note taking and testing is less common than reading, writing and responding to texts. Even having access to the course LMS may provide just enough distraction to create the same results as are found in the authors’ study.