Does Having Electronic Devices in School Help to Learn?

Forget pen versus sword. Digital devices are the pen’s contemporary classroom competitor.
... William Thomas Cain/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Schools are shelling out big bucks -- billions, even -- to upgrade and integrate technology into classrooms, according to a 2011 report in “The New York Times.” That’s all well and good, except there’s not much evidence that gadget- and digital-focused efforts are boosting learning. But before we all rush to revert back to the days of slate writing boards and No 2. pencils, technology specialists are quick to point out that this niche in education is evolving -- and, increasingly, it is essential.

1 To Be or Not to Be

Technology in the classroom is a double-edged sword. To effectively engage modern students -- so-called “digital natives,” for whom smartphones and social media are a way of life -- educators feel they must integrate digital teaching strategies. At the same time, many of the modern electronic devices that are introduced into classrooms lead to student distraction and can even undermine learning. In a 2012 report in the “Electronic Journal of e-Learning,” researchers indicate that digital devices in the classroom have been repeatedly shown to boost engagement between teachers and students. At the same time, the authors show that notebook computers, for example, are linked to in-class distraction.

2 Devices for Learning

A 2011 report in “Rural Special Education Quarterly” makes the case for appealing to students’ strengths via technology. The writers argue that tools like multimedia lessons and virtual learning can immerse students in a real-world experience, helping them understand and absorb the curriculum. As such, a 2010 study in the “Journal of Educational Technology & Society” investigated mobile devices -- perhaps today’s most talked-about technology, when it comes to classroom applications. The researchers found substantially positive outcomes on learning when students used a PDA-style device as they explored a historic site during a field trip and then created a topical presentation on what they learned. Notably, students in the study also rated the experience highly.

3 The Case for Tech

Writing for “EDUCAUSE Review Online,” instructional design professional Berlin Fang says that completely restricting laptops or mobile devices isn’t beneficial to learning, either. Technology is so thoroughly embedded in modern culture that neglecting or ignoring its presence in the classroom only means students will be ill-prepared to face realities at the next level of learning or in their careers. Further, scholars of all ages are already using tech tools in their personal and academic pursuits, presenting an open door for teachers to meet students where they are at. Fang describes this as the proverbial “point of no return,” and calls on educators to seize this opportunity to better involve students with technology.

4 Harnessing Technology’s Promise

One thing is certain. Technology hasn’t made teachers’ jobs any easier. If anything, continuing education to stay abreast of available tools and classroom applications is more relevant than ever before. In a comprehensive 2012 report by the British National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, or NESTA, the authors note that progressive thinking about technology in the classroom means using it to support learning activities that educators already know are effective. For example, they write, technology may offer new and exciting ways for students to practice essential skills or complete assessments -- already staples of school learning that can be reimagined through digital devices.

Based in Los Angeles, Monica Stevens has been a professional writer since 2005. She covers topics such as health, education, arts and culture, for a variety of local magazines and newspapers. Stevens holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, with a concentration in film studies, from Pepperdine University.