Technology’s Role in Education

In our third seminar of the semester, we discussed how the internet began to expand to reach more mainstream consumers throughout the 70s and 80s and the important choice to build a simple, dumb network with smart endpoints. This decision made it more feasible to increase the scale of the internet because the endpoints (or, hosts) would check if packets had been corrupted when being transferred and correct them, so there was no point for the network itself to do the same. As we all get into the swing of things in the next school year, this discussion of internet expansion had me start thinking about the role the internet and technology does and will play in our education.  Will students eventually go to school on the internet without leaving the comfort of our home? Will handwriting notes become a relic of the past?

Many professors here at Harvard seem to be limiting the use of technology in their courses as they realize its detrimental side effects. Although it has become widely practiced to record lectures so that students can view them on their own time and not bother showing up in person, no lectures are recorded in Economics 10a and lecture attendance is mandatory. Professor Mankiw explained during shopping week that the social aspect of being in a lecture together was conducive to an effective learning environment. Professor Malan has decided to take a similar approach with CS50: “Unlike last year, students are encouraged to attend all lectures in person this year; students with conflicts may watch later online” ( Now that it is no longer a given, educators are beginning to increasingly value the face-to-face interaction between students in a classroom environment that develops collaborative and social skills and helps students learn and analyze the material together.

Another surprising decision made in two of my courses, Economics 10a and USW 35, has been a no-laptop policy. Course Heads Professor Mankiw and Professor Merseth have similar reasons; firstly, that laptops can be a distraction to both the user and students sitting nearby. A study by the University of Michigan found that there is a “significant, negative relationship between in-class laptop use and course grade” and that “higher levels of laptop use were associated with lower student-reported levels of attention, lecture clarity, and understanding of the course material.” The same study also reported that, by a narrow margin, students are slightly more distracted by their peers’ screens than their own. The study did note, however, that learning was enhanced when laptop use was specifically integrated into the class (

Both professors sited a second reason to restrict laptop use in class: handwriting notes leads to greater comprehension than typing notes. An NPR report explains the research-backed philosophy behind this: When students type notes, they tend to take down the professor’s words or slides verbatim. Meanwhile, since a student can’t possibly handwrite notes as quickly, he or she is forced to paraphrase and write down selective information. This process of filtering and personalizing information leads students to interact with the material more and enhances comprehension. In the same study, students  were asked to type paraphrased notes to see if their comprehension would be comparable to handwritten notes. Even then, they could not fully overcome the urge to record the class verbatim, and the students that paraphrased less performed worse on tests. (

So,  it seems that physical classrooms and notebooks are not yet obsolete. Although the internet is an incredible tool that, when used specifically, can boost classroom learning, it cannot yet serve as a substitute for the learning we get through real, physical socialization and handwritten note taking. So for now, I think it’s safe to venture that even if an omniscient dictator could digitize our education system with the wave of a wand, she wouldn’t.


1 Comment

  1. Another interesting example of your first point, about the importance of the social aspect of learning, is in the online learning world. Companies like edX and 2U spend a lot of their design time thinking about how to connect the students together through message boards and other social networks. No one (good) is aiming to build an online version of the old correspondence courses you could take by U.S. mail. I haven’t seen the silver bullet in this space yet, but lots is being tried.

    I’ve also seen studies like the ones you reference about laptop use in the classroom. In many ways, I feel that some of today’s distractions from laptops were simply distractions from newspapers in my College days. I can vividly remember being distracted in class by the person next to me reading their (large) newspaper and doing the daily crossword puzzle. Note taking on a laptop shouldn’t be all about typing. There’s an opportunity here. And classrooms are not perfect. We should be getting together, but we need more than fixed-seating, lecture-style classrooms.

    Great stuff!

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