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Does classroom technology hurt or help student learning?

It’s a question steeped in anecdote and teacher frustration: does technology help or hurt learning in the classroom? Given the complexity of schools and the nuances of learning, the answer is a resounding “it depends.” How technology is used and for what purpose will determine its effectiveness. In other words, does the pedagogy come before the technology?

Here is a primer on what research tells us about classroom technology.

recent online survey of 20,000 teachers and students from 100 countries by Cambridge International found that the trend towards increasing technology use in the classroom was only gaining speed. Used well, it can enhance learning. Used poorly, it can lead to poor outcomes.

Technology’s shortfalls

First, the distractions.

In a small-scale study, researchers reported in Education Psychology that students with phones out in class achieved at half a grade lower than those who did not. This was partly because students thought they could multitask more effectively than they could.

Moreover, another study found students who took notes on paper retained more conceptual information than those who took it on a laptop – even though the volume of notes were greater on the laptop. This is explained because students are forced to sift through the volume of information and process it at a deeper level.

But does this mean we should march smartphones and laptops out of the classroom? Not so fast.

Technology’s benefits

Used well, computers can make a great teaching tool.

Banning computers in the classroom is likely to disadvantage groups of students with disabilities for whom computers are helpful. After all, computers have helped record numbers of students get ahead in the classroom.

There are other benefits to technology. Processing information in a variety of multimodal ways increases student retention. Rather than simply reading a slab of text, technology has the power to open up the world of learning and understanding through audio, visual, and movement – as the trend towards gamification increases student engagement.

And let’s not forget technology’s geographical reach and its ability to tailor learning to individual students in the classroom.

Final grade

If we follow the belief that technology is simply a tool alongside the pen or the chalkboard, then we wheel back around to a core educational belief: that it is the teacher and the design of the learning that matters.

If technology serves deep learning, then it can be an effective classroom support. However, if students are left to their own devices, it is tempting to wander off into the Internet and find themselves far away from the lesson aim.

Technology or no technology, the fundamentals of good teaching remain. Set goals, provide structures and challenges, and support as needed. The best tools in the world won’t help if the basics aren’t in place – but if they are, then the sky’s the limit.