The latest research would suggest that this is the case. A new study published by MIT prohibited the use of computers within randomly selected classroom of an introductory economics course at the United State Military Academy (West Point). The randomly assigned groups of 726 undergraduates were monitored over the 2014-5 and 2015-6 academic years. Average final exam scores among students assigned to classrooms that allowed computers were 18 % of a standard deviation lower than exam scores of students in classrooms that prohibited computers. The study also suggested that this negative effect could be seen in classrooms where the use of computers and tablets was unrestricted, and classrooms where tablets could be used if they remained flat on desktops, presumably so the instructor could manage “correct” usage (https://seii.mit.edu/research/study/the-impact-of-computer-usage-on-academic-performance-evidence-from-a-randomized-trial-at-the-united-states-military-academy/).
The study concluded that the distraction posed by devices with internet access vastly outweighed their use for research purposes. The laptops in question all had access to the internet, and it is not known if a similar impact would have been observed if laptops had been without internet access and only suitable for note taking. As the students were attending West Point, where candidates are ruthlessly ranked by exam results, they may have been more motivated to perform than normal undergraduates. The study predicted that in environments with “lower incentives for performance”, fewer disciplinary restrictions on distractions and larger class sizes, the effect would be magnified.
ResearchED education group, who are currently leading the largest ever UK government-commissioned review of smartphone use, noted that digital devices can prove distracting even for the brightest students (http://www.workingoutwhatworks.com/). There isn’t a great deal of research into this issue as device use has only become so prevalent very recently, and the West Point study is the first to analyse student performance in classrooms, rather than controlled artificial environments.
Solving this problem in your own classroom seems relatively simple, even if you don’t have the power to turn off the Wi-Fi for set periods. You could attack the problem with alacrity, banning all digital devices from your classrooms. Many UK schools adopt this approach, only allowing internet access in IT lessons or research periods. The internet access available naturally features extensive controls. Students caught with their phone on campus at any time have them confiscated. After all, most of us completed our entire education during a period when all notes were taken by hand. Research published last year by LSE found that this approach helped low-achievers but had not impact on high-achievers (http://cep.lse.ac.uk/_new/publications/abstract.asp?index=4639). If using a digital device is not necessary in your lesson, then why are they there? Aren’t digital devices a little too omnipresent in our lives already?
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