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.

 

Computers remove the ability to build familiarity over time, and instead create an environment that favors rapid task switching. Affecting photo exposure is exponentially easier on a computer, but the theory behind exposure and its connection to a physical process that came to have an influence on how photos were captured is obscured by digital photo editing.

Computers enhance our ability to produce things, but they weaken our connection to the processes behind them, turning the chemistry, light physics, and the strange little accordion boxes built to capture something through them, into a slider bar that can be drawn between extremes in a millisecond. This is not to say that computers are innately bad or corrupting but that the gains they make possible in some areas come with losses in other areas, and we shouldn't consider those two elements in relation to one another. 

In the years of my adolescence, there was a wild optimism about computers because the benefits remained mostly theoretical. Like factory chimneys a hundred years ago, computers are clotting our lives, drawing us into ways of working and socializing organized by their abstracted limits and less and less our needs of one another. And rather than seeking out human limits on our relationships with computers, Google's Conversation Search group is attempting to graft them into an even more central place in our lives.

"What we’re really trying to do is enable a new kind of interaction with Google where it’s more like how you interact with a normal person," Scott Huffman, head of the group working on the company's speech recognition and user interfaces that don't require screens and keyboards, told Quartz. "Today, automatic speech recognition is not as good as people, but our ambition is, we should be able to be better than people."

Statements this distressingly hostile to human limitations should not pass without contestation. The generational naiveté contained within its fantasy begins to seem more and more like an affect of kids like me raised in the days of NASDAQ booms and real estate bubbles.

Perhaps the smartest thing to do at this stage is to think about meaningful ways to limit our dependence on computers, and instead become more comfortably familiar with our own limits, instead of trying to impoverish one aspect of our lives so we can seem to have been enriched in another. 

Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.