September 2017

Should Children Have Laptops in Class?

Author: Kent Thune

We all want to see our nation’s children receive all the tools they need to succeed in school, which will presumably help them succeed in life and ultimately make the world a better place to live. But are today’s education tools—laptops and tablets—a help or hindrance in the classroom?

Yes, the world is becoming increasingly interwoven with technology. For evidence of this, one need not look beyond ongoing and current trends, such as the behemoth online retailer, Amazon.com, Inc., crushing traditional retailers like Kmart, Sears, and Macy’s. And then there’s the rise of mobile phones, which have placed a world of commerce, entertainment, and social media at our fingertips.

Now return to the question of technology in schools: Should children, specifically those in grades K-12, have their own laptop computers or tablets in the classroom? Answering this broad question requires reflection on two related questions: Are laptops more of a distraction than a learning tool, and are they worth the financial investment?

Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in the presence of technology in schools. More specifically, there are increasingly higher numbers of schools implementing one-to-one laptop programs, which provide each student with their own computer device, either a laptop or tablet. This growth in technology available to children in grades K-12 is easily verifiable, and there are some positive results to show for it. For example, the biggest gains have been with students from low-income households who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a computer. However, the overall effectiveness of this learning is still not clear.

To gain insight from the classroom, high school English teacher Giles Scott shared his thoughts on computers in the classroom with The Washington Post in 2016. Scott, who described why he decided not to allow his students to bring laptops and tablets into the classroom anymore, said, “If a student is visually keeping one eye online while simultaneously listening to a discussion of the significance of Gatsby’s shirts, they’re actually, mentally, doing neither. And YouTube clips and Facebook distract not just the immediate viewer, but anybody within a three-foot visual circumference.”

Scott went on to support his reasoning for keeping screens out of the classroom by citing several studies that reveal how students retain more information when taking notes by hand as opposed to on a laptop.

So, we know from studies and from experienced teachers that there are pros and cons to using technology in the classroom. But what about the financial cost? For a bit of perspective on the financial aspect of laptops in Lowcountry schools, a recent story in The Beaufort Gazette reported that a combination of tablets, keyboards, chargers and protective covers used by 52 students was not returned at the end of last school year. At a cost of more than $700 per student, the loss in taxpayer dollars may surpass $40,000.

Although it was expected that most of the technology would be returned over the summer, one overriding point rises to the surface: Putting mobile technology into the hands of each child in a school is expensive. A school the size of Hilton Head Island High School, with a student body that could reach 1,400 in the 2017-2018 school year, may have as much as $1 million worth of technology in the hands of students. That’s not to mention the ongoing cost of support needed for management, repairs and replacement.

We all want to see the youth of our nation equipped with every advantage possible to succeed in today’s world. And technology is certainly a large part of that world; therefore, the financial cost of putting laptops and tablets into the hands of children can be considered one of the best long-term investments we can make in our lives. But it can also be one of the biggest mistakes.

Like any powerful tool, there is a balance to be struck, which is to maximize the teaching capacity of modern technology while minimizing the distraction. That balance comes down to classroom management—to the teacher—an educational instrument much more powerful than a laptop.

Most people would agree that the task of education is to teach students how to effectively navigate the challenges of the world in which they live, but it is also the task of schools and teachers to provide them with alternatives. Students won’t learn critical thinking if their ideas are cut and pasted from a website.

The modern educational balance also must include that of embracing technology while finding appropriate times to push back against it. Think of this irony: The greatest inventions of the modern world, including the computers and smart phones, were created by people who didn’t use laptops in their schools.

With the world at a child’s fingertips, it can be difficult to choose philosophy or classic literature when pop-up ads for the 10 most insane skateboard stunts or the 50 cutest kitten images are blocking the path.

When it’s time for students to focus, they must close the laptops. Teachers have the power to make this happen. The future leaders of our world need to learn how to stay focused on the task they are given (and learn to communicate thoughtfully rather than recklessly on Twitter). But they must also learn when technology can be used to their advantage.

The classroom can be a place where life and screens can co-exist. Traditional learning styles put astronauts on the moon, but a balance of the old and the new can put them on Mars and beyond. But too much of one and the absence of the other may be a disservice to today’s students. Again, balance is the answer. Teach students how to live with screens, but also teach them how to live without screens.

Perhaps it would be fitting to go back more than 2,500 years to Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher and founder of The Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world, and end with some of his words of wisdom (which came from his mind, not Wikipedia): “Ignorance of all things is an evil neither terrible nor excessive, nor yet the greatest of all; but great cleverness and much learning, if they be accompanied by a bad training, are a much greater misfortune.”

Kent Thune, who has taught classes at the high school and college level, is the owner of a Hilton Head Island investment advisory firm, Atlantic Capital Investments.

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