Computers and education: An example of conventional wisdom being wrong

We’ve written innumerable proposals for programs to give students computers or access to computers. Some, like “Goals 2000,” have already been forgotten by anyone not named Seliger. Others, like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, continue to exist, although the original federal version got broken into state pass-through funds. All of them work on the presumption that giving students computers will improve education.

The problem is that, as we’ve written before, most research demonstrates that this isn’t true, even if it seems like it should be true. Another study, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” just came out against computers improving educational outcomes. Some news report have covered it too, including “Using Laptops In Classrooms Lowers Grades: Study” and one from the Times of India. But the important takeaway is simple: computer access in and of itself doesn’t appear to improve educational attainment.

That doesn’t really matter for the proposal world, in which the conventional wisdom is always right and where these studies can be used to make minor changes in program design to overcome the problem of distraction. But they’re interesting on a real world level, especially because they confirm what many of us know intuitively: that computers are great for wasting time.

I’d define “wasting time” as any time spent nominally doing a task that doesn’t result in some tangible product or change at the end of that task. Reading Slate instead of writing a novel, to use an example from close to home, is time wasted; reading Slate to relax isn’t. The danger with the Internet (and, for others, computer games) is that it can feel work-like without actually accomplishing any work in the process.

Personally, when I need to do serious writing that doesn’t require data research, I use the program Mac Freedom to turn off Internet access. I paid $10 to not be able to access the Internet. I know the Internet, like the Force, has a light side and a dark side. The light side is research, connection, learning, and human possibility. The dark side is an endless carnival of noise, blinking lights, and effervescent distraction. As Paul Graham wrote in “Disconnecting Distraction:”

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

Now, if people like Paul Graham (or me!) have trouble doing real work when the Internet black hole is available, what hope does the average 15-year-old have—especially given that Graham and I grew up in a world without iPhones and incessant text messages? This isn’t “Get these darn kids off my lawn” rant, but it is an important anecdotal point about the importance and danger of computers. Computers are essential to, say, computer programming, but they aren’t essential to reading, writing, or basic math.

I went to a law school for a year by accident (don’t ask), and everyone had a laptop. They were sometimes used for taking notes. More often they were used for messaging in class. Occasionally they were actually used for porn. These were 22 – 30-year-old proto lawyers. On one memorable occasion, a guy’s computer erupted with a sports ad that blanketed the room with the drums, trumpets, and deep-voiced announcer promising gladiatorial combat. Evidently he’d forgotten to turn sound off. The brightest students were highly disciplined in their computer usage, but many of us, like addicts, didn’t have that discipline. We were better off not sitting in the room with the coke.

To be sure, computers can be useful in class. My fiancée wrote her med school application essay in class, since she was forced, due to academic bureaucratic idiocy, to take basic cell bio after she’d taken advanced cell bio. The laptop helped her recover time that otherwise would’ve been wasted, but I suspect that she’s in the minority.

I get the impression that the average student has no problem learning to immerse themselves in buzzy online worlds, and the exceptional, Zuckerberg-like student has no problem using digital tools to build those online worlds. What we should really probably be doing is teaching students how to cultivate solitude and concentrate. That’s what we need to learn how to do, even if that isn’t a particular subject matter domain.

Finally, like a lot of ideas, computers in schools might be a bad idea right up to the point they’re not. Adaptive learning software may eventually make a tremendous difference in student learning. That just hasn’t happened yet, and the last 20 years demonstrate that it’s not going to happen by chucking computers at students and assuming that computers are magically going to provide education. They’re not. Computers are mirrors that reflect the desires already inside a person. For students, 1% will build the next Facebook, another 3% will write angsty blog posts and perhaps become writers more generally, and 100% will use it for porn and games.

EDIT 2015: I just wrote about Kentaro Toyama’s book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology, which describes… wait for it… why technology is not a panacea for education and may make it worse.

A few astute readers have also asked an important question: What could make or help technology improve education? I don’t have a good answer (if I did, I’d be starting the company that will deploy the answer). But I think we will see experimentation and slow, incremental steps. Many massive online courses (MOOCs), for example, started off as filmed lectures. Then they morphed towards having multiple camera angles and some quizzes. More recently, those classes shifted towards small, interactive chunks with quizzes that test comprehension interspersed among them. Each step improved comprehension, completion, and student engagement.

But MOOCs don’t seem to improve the ability to sustain concentration, be conscientious, or read in-depth. Without that last skill in particular, I’m not sure how much education of any kind can happen. Technology can give us the text, but it can’t make us read or comprehend the text or deal with it imaginatively.

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