There has been a big push in recent years to increase the availability of computers and tablets in schools. Now many primary schools in Australia are introducing ‘bring your own device’ policies for younger and younger kids. This puts a strain on families who feel they have to purchase such devices for their children and concern over them missing out if they don’t. Teachers are also increasingly using devices in classrooms to teach everything from graphic design to literacy and maths. Further, websites such as Reading Eggs and Mathletics are often being added as expected homework. But is all this screen time really helping our kids learn?
In fact, there are several decades of research showing that learning on a screen is less efficient and more tiring than other learning, and we retain less information than when we learn or read on paper. The reasons for this are multifaceted, but the bottom line is that devices are not optimising our children’s ability to learn.
Four major reasons screens are not ideal for teaching our kids are:
1) Screens don’t allow the reader to easily flick back and forth between paragraphs or pages like a book or handout. One has to scroll up and down and it can often be harder to find what you are looking for.
2) When scrolling up and down there are no links or anchors that can be used to remember where you are or where you read something, which makes it harder to remember the content.
3) The same importance or value is not placed on the digital form as it is on a real solid book or handout.
4) Reading or learning on a screen is more tiring and stressful compared with using paper.
Many studies over the past decades have shown that students score higher on testing when they learn content from paper than from a screen. For example, Mangen and colleagues (2013) split 72 primary school students into two groups. They had one group read a paper handout and the other group read the same piece on a screen. Both groups were then tested for what they remembered: the paper group performed significantly better than the digital group. Professor Mangen’s group has been investigating this difference in performance for many years, and they believe one of the causes is that we cannot navigate as easily on a screen. On paper we can easily move back and forth within a page and between pages. On a screen, we have to scroll up and down which makes it more difficult to find a certain passage or page. They suggest that this makes learning and remembering more difficult in digital than paper forms.
There is also evidence that having good comprehension and recall is supported by memory of the structure of the piece (Cataldo & Oakhill, 2000). When trying to remember something we have read, we often use the cues such as where in a paragraph or on a page the section was written. For example, Cataldo and Oakhill showed that students who performed better on subsequent tests were also able to remember when and where the information was written in the text. In digital form this information is not available as the page scrolls up and down on a screen. When we then try to recall information, we lack the extra cues, which contributes to poorer memory for the content.
Another aspect to the poorer recall and memory of pieces read in digital form compared with paper is a lack of permanency in the digit form (Ackerman & Goldsmith, 2011). When we read in digital form less value is placed on that information because it is perceived as temporary and therefore not as valuable. Ackerman and Goldsmith (2011) found that when they gave students unlimited time to study a written piece, the students on a digital device spent less time reading the piece and did more poorly when tested. The students given the piece on paper spent more time studying the piece and performed better when tested. The authors suggest that this additional time may be due to greater value being allocated to paper over digital content.
Finally, working or learning on a screen is more tiring than when from a book or paper. Computer screens and tablets shine light directly at the observer and the glare and flicker of active screens are more tiring than the ambient light when reading from paper. Wästlund and colleagues (2005) demonstrated that when a large group of University students completed a test on screens they were significantly more stressed and tired afterwards compared to those who completed the same tests on paper. Obviously, stressed and tired students are not ideal for learning, raising questions about the appropriateness of introducing a device into the classroom.
Of course, there is the argument that technology is a big part of our kids’ lives and they will be left behind if they don’t learn how to use it now. However, when I was at school there were no digital devices in the classroom. In fact, laptops, tablets and smart phones didn’t even exist and computers were rare. Yet, I haven’t been left behind and I’m guessing neither have you. These devices are designed by very smart people to be intuitive, that is, they are very easy to use, so that they can sell them to as many people as possible. Have you ever seen a kid struggle to use a tablet or smart phone? They don’t need to be taught how to use them. Also, technology evolves very quickly. By the time the current kids are old enough to go out and get a job, laptops and tablets will be old-school and there will be something new taking its place. I don’t know what that will be but neither does anyone else. The plain truth is that whatever the new technology is, it will also be very easy to use. Our kids, whether they do or do not use current technology in primary school, will be able to use future technology with ease.
Plenty of research suggests that learning on screens is less efficient, more tiring, and results in less retention of material than learning from paper. The current push to increasingly use screens and devices in schools seems at odds with this research. There is room for technology, but not at the expense of optimal learning for our children. We don’t know what the world will be like when our children are adults but we do know that being smart and resilient is the best way to create curious kids ready for whatever comes next.