How do laptops affect student work?

Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University have just completed a study on the effects of using laptop computers on the way students handle college work. Specifically, the study “examined whether laptops affect the nature of the instructor-to-student or student-to-student interactions in and out of the classroom; how students conduct their out-of-class work in terms of location, time-on-task, and physical and social setting; and the process and quality of student work.” The findings:

* Students interacted with a broader audience and received more diverse sources of feedback while using laptops. Laptop students were more likely to show their work to and get feedback from nondesign students. Instructors saw this increase in diversity of audience and critique as a positive learning experience for students.

* Students who used laptops spent more time on assignments and worked for longer periods of time than students who did not use laptops.

* While laptops led students to devote more time to their assignments, this did not translate into higher quality work. Students often interrupted their work to check email and surf the Web, or they spent significant time searching the Web for pictures or diagrams they could have created more quickly themselves.

* Students with laptops were more likely to work from home and reported home as their preferred place to work.

* Students with laptops were more likely to work alone than other students.

It’s tempting to see laptops — or really any kind of technology — as having the inherent ability to improve student engagement and learning. After all, this is supposed to be the digital native generation, and providing high technology is merely teaching to the way they learn. And therefore we need to get laptops — or PDA’s, graphing calculators, iPods, or whatever technology gets you the grant money — into the hands of as many students as possible.

But this study suggests this is not the case. In fact, it appears that the laptop use was associated with an increased level of dis-engagement, at least among classmates. (Although I don’t see what’s so negative about working from home.) And the author of the study seems to have the right idea:

“It’s not that laptops are good or bad for learning. It depends on how they are used,” said Anne Fay, author of the study and director of assessment for the Eberly Center and the Office of Technology for Education. “Laptops can provide students with new creative tools and resources, adding to their intellectual toolbox of strategies, techniques and skills. The problem arises, however, when students use them as replacements for all their other tools. Used in this way, laptops serve to narrow the range of students’ skills, not broaden them.

No technology has any inherent educational value, any more than a tool in my garage has inherent house-fixing value. If I don’t have the intellectual tools to use the technology, the technological tools can only be misused. Technology only has educational value when used in the context of having excellent teachers with a solid grasp of the content knowledge and a good curriculum aimed at teaching students that content and the concomitant intellectual skills. Outside that context, the technology is just a toy.

[Hat tip:]

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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

2 responses to “How do laptops affect student work?

  1. JimMc

    I’d be interested to see if this study made any attempt at controlling the huge number of variables involved. For instance, the type of educational environment the laptops were placed into, how much training/guidance both teachers and students were given on ‘proper’ use of the laptops, how the laptop OS and network access was configured, etc.

    You could let martians try driving automobiles and watch them repeatedly bump into things and attempt to conclude that cars are not very useful. But that wouldn’t be valid.

    My gut feeling is that we really haven’t figured out how to use technology properly for education yet.

  2. According to the CMU web site, the study was done on students in sophomore classes in the CMU School of Design. It says they chose the Design School because of the centrality of computer technology in design work. So it seems that this group of students would be reasonably tech-savvy but not in a computer-geek kind of way. They definitely don’t appear to be computer novices. But then again I don’t know much about the specifics of computer use in a design curriculum.

    And I totally agree with your gut. Right now it appears people are trying to create good PR about ed tech, and call it “proper use”.