Computers in the Classroom: Friend or Foe?

Posted on Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Author: Julie Thérèse Bilodeau

Students in class with their laptops

Put away your erasers, the time of loose-leaf paper and HB pencils is long gone! Today’s professors and their students are living in a wireless, digital age with an ever-increasing number of communication platforms at their disposal. When university students open their laptops in class, you can expect them to have YouTube videos, Facebook pictures and Buzzfeed articles open as well.

And this sea-change has motivated Department of Psychology researchers at the University of Ottawa to study the effects of using laptop computers in class. To do so, professors Patrick Gaudreau and David Miranda, along with doctoral candidate Alexandre Gareau, called upon 1129 uOttawa students, the vast majority of whom agreed to participate in a self-reporting survey of their in-class use of technology. Researchers then looked at a smaller sample of this group to observe any correlation between online behaviour in class and academic results at the end of the session.

These two studies revealed that students who use a laptop to view non-academic content in class have lower grade point averages than those who use laptops in class solely for note-taking or course-related research. What’s more, those who stuck to note-taking were more satisfied with their academic experience overall. “These studies show that laptop use in the classroom can be beneficial when it is used for academic purposes,” says Professor Gaudreau.

But what do students think? Opinions vary. According to communications student Ahmar Tayyabi, computers should not be used in class. “I have no problem with using a computer to overcome a disability, but for any other reason, I would say absolutely not. The minute that the prof feels the need to regulate the use of computers in class, it’s a no-go.”

Minimizing the effects and maximizing the benefits

Fourth-year student Érika Decock says that balance is key to student success. “I think that it’s important to strike a balance. There will always be students who will abuse in-class computers and wireless internet access, but these students probably won’t care if their marks suffer as a result. However, I find that when a class goes on for hours, staying focused can become exhausting, and a little online “distraction”, in moderation, can sometimes help students re-focus on the class.”

To create a setting that fosters academic success, researchers urge students to self-regulate their computer use. Professor Gaudreau explains that “the student-prof relationship is not the same as an employee-employer relationship, but by learning how to self-regulate their online behaviour, students can become self-reliant, a skill they can use once they enter the workforce.”

Professors decide whether to banish computers from their classroom

The authors of the study state that banishing computers from class could hinder students who benefit from digital study aids, and could lead to an increased use of smart phones or tablets, which are less practical for note-taking and more often used for online leisure activities. But what about the computer-use policies that some professors impose? According to Professor Gaudreau, we should avoid pointing fingers and show respect for a variety of teaching methods. “We are resistant to change. Consequently, it’s normal to want to maintain as familiar an environment as possible.” If some professors allow computers in the classroom, while others prefer to limit their students to pen and paper, students can use the opportunity to develop their adaptability, another asset for the job market!

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