Tina Korbe Dzurisin | September 8, 2016
‘Technology in the Classroom’ Comes at a High Cost to Concentration
Tina Korbe Dzurisin
Since at least the mid-1990s, tech mavens and education experts have vociferously vaunted the promise and potential of “technology in the classroom”—and have solicited and spent funds accordingly.
Yet, research increasingly suggests that extensive screen time undermines the ability to focus, one of the most basic prerequisites not only for acquiring knowledge, but also for relating well and living deeply.
In 1996, just 14 percent of K-12 classrooms in the United States had access to the Internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission website. Today, “virtually all schools and libraries have Internet access.”
The sources of funding for classroom Internet are many and various, both coordinated and uncoordinated, from private donations to federal subsidies—but they amount to billions of dollars spent annually nationwide.
Every year, for example, up to $3.9 billion in subsidies are available to public schools for Internet access through E-rate, a program directed by the FCC and paid for by taxes on telecommunications service providers. (The FCC website notes dryly: “The FCC does not require this charge to be passed on to customers.”) Oklahoma schools and libraries receive millions of dollars annually.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission is mandated by state statute to direct a similar program at the state level.
Federal and state bureaucrats—and, indeed, many local school administrators and others—assume increased Internet access in the classroom is wholly a boon.
If they were right, the material costs of wired classrooms might be more, er, immaterial. Unfortunately, classroom Internet access might come at the even higher cost of students’ powers of concentration.
In The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, English professor Mark Bauerlein suggests that some of the very “benefits” of screen time are also its biggest drawbacks: It encourages non-linear, non-hierarchical thinking, which is fine when the user already knows how to think linearly and hierarchically, but a problem when the user really doesn’t understand the basics of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, as, all too often, today’s users do not.
“Forming reading and thought patterns through screens prepares individuals for only part of the communication demands of the twenty-first century, the information-retrieval and consumer-behavior parts,” Bauerlein argues. “The abilities to concentrate upon a single recondite text, to manage ambiguities and ironies, to track an inductive proof … screen reading hampers them.”
The fluid screen entails incessant context-switching, which short-circuits the brain, according to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
School administrators might attempt to facilitate concentration at the computer by restricting access to sites that are not educational in nature—but they’ll still be hard-pressed to change the way students instinctively use the Internet. Users, especially teenagers, tend to browse and scan, not read, according to research from Nielsen Norman cited by Bauerlein.
It might be that the advocates of extensive Internet use in the classroom assume that, in the course of browsing and scanning, students will acquire more knowledge than they would through in-depth reading, but study after study shows that students who regularly use computers in the classroom perform no better on academic assessments than students who don’t.
A 2006 study by two University of Chicago economists (cited by Bauerlein), for example, looked specifically at E-rate and concluded: “The additional investments in technology generated by E-rate had no immediate impact on measured student outcomes.”
Recent attempts to modernize and control the costs of administering Internet access subsidies might very well render these government programs more efficient, but they do nothing to assess the validity of the premise underlying them, which is that students need Internet access in the classroom to succeed in the twenty-first century.
Technology—particularly technology that enables remote learning—still has a place in the classroom when used effectively and sparingly. However, research continues to suggest that a reliance on internet-based learning in lower grade levels impairs the very brain development students need to succeed.
If Internet use merely trains students to robotically retrieve and rearrange information rather than to engage their minds and contemplate difficult material, however, it might ironically render students more rather than less replaceable in the information economy.
Tina Korbe Dzurisin
Formerly a staff writer at The Heritage Foundation, Tina Korbe Dzurisin is a wife, mother to four small children, and an OCPA research associate.