Are computers worsening the performance of kids in school? Sort of.

There is a moment in life when you can begin to see yourself not just passing through a generation but as the product of one. Among the affects produced by my generation of kids raised during the 1980s and 1990s was an unqualified faith in the power of computers. In those days, they still required command-line know-how, which seemed to betray a higher intelligence compared to those of us scrawling out algebra with pencil and paper.

Computers were portals to enlightenment capable of making students smarter by sheer proximity. And so we were told tales about a magical future when computers would be everywhere in schools, and our dumb notebooks and constantly dulling pencil leads would seem prehistoric. In the intervening years, we were able to bring this fantasy to life, and in so doing we are now discovering how wrong we were. 


Computers enhance our ability to produce things, but they weaken our connection to the processes behind them...


A new study published in Computers & Education examined the now common habit of having computers in the classroom and found they actually lower a students overall performance and comprehension. In the first part of the experiment, students were asked to take lecture notes with a laptop while others were given pen and paper. The students with laptops were also given a list of supplementary tasks to accomplish during the lecture which included looking up facts through online searches.

At the end of the lecture students were given a test to measure their comprehension of and those with laptops scored 11 percent worse than those students who'd been handwriting everything. In a second experiment researchers focused on students sitting adjacent to laptop users and found they performed even worse on the final comprehension test, 17 percent lower than the control.

There is a large body of research that confirms that the human brain quickly breaks down when asked to focus on more than one task at a time. You can hold two different phones in your hands but most people are unable of having two conversations simultaneously. As we have built a central place for computers of all kinds into our productive spaces we have begun to think of ourselves as multitaskers, but it's truer to say that we simply switch between different tasks with increasing rapidity, something computers excel at but humans don't.

In five seconds you can alt-tab from email to a spreadsheet to a video game to an image editor to an Internet search to an MP3 player. In each of these applications, the computer automates the most tedious parts, alphabetizing your records, or doing a quick-search through a history text to get to the part about the Magna Carta. This ability to do mundane things at high speed was central to the magic of the computer, as Steve Jobs described it.

If you perform a basic calculation, nothing special has happened. If you perform a million basic calculations in a single second, it will seem as if something magical happened, even though the reality is just a difference in perceptions of time. Computers were never able to make us smarter, only more mundanely productive.

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