Do Laptops in Class Help or Hurt Kids' Learning?

Oct 1, 2018 at 4:00 p.m. ET
Laptop with book image on screen
Image: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

My son started high school this year, and lucky him, his entire freshman class is getting laptops to use at school and at home. And while most of the students are very excited about this, the parents have mixed feelings about the introduction of laptops into the daily classroom experience. Will they help expedite note-taking and take learning to another level? Or will they be distractions that are far too easily abused?

Are spiral notebooks and three-ring binders really too dated as learning tools? Dr. Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University, thinks so: “It’s clear that paper is becoming less and less prevalent," he tells SheKnows. Of course, back in pioneer days, kids took notes on personal blackboards with chalk, which seems absurd to us today. Is paper going the same route?

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It's clear today's kids are digital natives — meaning they have grown up with technology their entire lives. And digital literacy will be key for this generation regardless of what field they ultimately choose to work in. According to a recent Microsoft Education survey, 50 percent of parents believe coding and computer programming will be the most beneficial subject to their child’s future employability. Elias explains, “[C]omputers give access to tremendous sources of information. For instructional purposes, especially if students are doing individual or small-group research, laptops with supervised internet connections can be great tools.”

Proponents of laptops in class argue that technology can engage students more effectively than lectures, blackboards and textbooks. JumpStart Games CEO David Lord tells SheKnows, "[T]he use of technology in the classroom is a growing trend — one that can be harnessed in multiple forms to enhance an instant digital interaction between the teacher, the student and the parent. These technologies engage students at their own pace and actively involve both parents and educators. Every learner is unique and has an intrinsic pace and style. The advent of adaptive learning technology is a powerful tool to further refine instruction.”

Kathy Uhr is head of lower school at Fort Worth Academy in Texas, where they have used laptops in the classroom since 2007. Uhr tells SheKnows, “Knowing how to access information and evaluate its accuracy and relevance is a skill that can only be acquired through the use of modern technologies. Today’s education is not about memorizing facts but rather evaluating information and making connections. Teachers at the academy seamlessly integrate technology in their classroom in a manner that allows students to learn, create and collaborate in ways that prepare them for their futures in a world saturated with technology.”

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But even though there are many positives to allowing laptops into the classroom, there are also some big concerns and limitations. While typing notes may be more efficient for some students, especially those with poor handwriting, there is something to be said for transcribing notes the old fashioned way. “We know students' handwritten notes yield better learning than notes typed on a computer," Elias says.

While tech may have a place in school, it’s not a substitute for the interactive learning of a classroom. Maria Stein-Marrison, director of the Manitou School in New York, tells SheKnows, “I have toured schools where every child is on a Chromebook for every class, and there is no engagement with the teacher and fellow students.”

Moreover, there's the concern that laptops in the classroom can be a distraction to students. Access to the internet allows students to download games and access nonacademic sites instead of focusing on the teacher and the topic being discussed. Cybersafety is a prime concern of parents, although in the case of Chromebooks, supposedly students are unable to download applications such as Skype, Photoshop, iTunes, etc. But Stein-Marrison says, “No matter how good the security is, students find ways to get around it and use the devices for their own purposes.”

In the same Microsoft Education survey, 63 percent were concerned about their kids spending too much time on devices at home. The classroom used to be a chance for kids to disconnect with tech for a few hours, but laptops in school means more tech time.

Is technology truly the future of education? While Stein-Marrison is not a proponent of every student having a laptop in school, she admits, “I have seen schools where children get no technology at all and then are at a disadvantage later on in life.”

Lord concurs and adds, “Technology is now an integral part of life, especially for teens. We are not going to win the battle for limiting their time on their tablets and smartphones because they’ll use their devices every chance they get.”

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So, is this an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them situation? It’s not necessarily that simple. If laptops are used in the classroom and at home, parents and teachers need to make sure students use these tools responsibly. Lord says, “It's important for parents and teachers alike to help shape a child's view of technology as a positive tool for learning — not just a vehicle for mindless consumption. Parents can assist their children in downloading games and apps that are beneficial to 'core-concept learning’ and that expand upon what kids are learning in school.”

Parents and administrators also need to commit to giving kids more time “unplugged” times, both during the school day and at home. “By carving out big chunks of time [for] outdoor play and other tech-free activities," Lord says, "kids and teens can learn to detach from their devices."

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