Tablets or Textbooks?

God has instilled in us a passion to learn and a need for knowledge. Education as we know it has been with us for over two millennia, but the tools of learning have changed. In biblical times, texts were meticulously copied onto scrolls using nothing but a sharpened reed and ink. Over time, reeds were replaced by feathers, nibs, pens, and keyboards, and parchment was replaced by printer paper and touchscreens. Newer technology has made information amazingly accessible.

Technological advances, however, are a mixed blessing. Entire surgeries can now be conducted by robots making only the slightest incision, men and women are being sent to do research in outer space for months at a time, and self-driving cars are rolling among us. But for every lifesaving technology there is one that disconnects or damages or distracts.

As Ellen Glasgow once said, “All change is not growth, all movement is not forward.”

We should be especially wary of inviting technology into our classrooms. Proponents of tablets in classrooms cite health benefits, convenience, and a crackdown on cheating as primary advantages of tablets over textbooks. Tablets are just one of the next big trends and will soon enough be replaced by some newer educational tool. The tablets-versus-textbooks debate has precipitated a divide in the academic community, and in this technologically-enthralled world, the device seems to be winning. Still, textbooks have stood the test of time and have proved to effectively help students succeed in school.

Some experts argue that students develop back pain from carrying around heavy backpacks, and that using tablets instead can alleviate this. When a heavy backpack is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the weight’s force can make the spine compress unnaturally, leading to shoulder, neck, and back pain. But people who are pro-textbook argue that many students develop health issues over time with the use of tablets as well, mainly vision and neck problems. There are valid arguments on both sides, but abandoning a time-tested and proven tool of learning just because of a heavy backpack seems an overreaction.

Advocates also point to the convenience of educational technologies. Technology, they argue, can turn any place with an internet connection into a classroom, bringing lesson plans, books, worksheets, and videos outside of the physical classroom. But the selling point of a tablet is also its downfall: It is one little device that provides constant access to the wider world. Without proper controls, students who are supposed to be reading or working on their tablets can easily close their schoolwork and covertly open another app or watch a video or text their friends. To combat this a teacher must spend precious class time, not making sure students are understanding the material, but making sure they are even paying attention to it.

When people are constantly tempted to multitask, they are not working as hard on what they are supposed to be doing. They are pulled this way and that, and over time the ability to stay focused on any task fades. Backers of tablets think that textbooks do not hold students’ focus well enough. In reality, though, they should not have to hold attention. By the time students get to high school age, they should be able to go to the task at hand and stay focused on it for an extended amount of time.

In “How Today’s Computers Weaken Our Brain,” Tim Wu observes,

Today’s machines don’t just allow distraction; they promote it. The Web calls us constantly, like a carnival barker, and the machines, instead of keeping us on task, make it easy to get drawn in—and even add their own distractions to the mix. In short: we have built a generation of ‘distraction machines’ that make great feats of concentrated effort harder instead of easier.

In his article, “Humans Have Shorter Attention Span Than Goldfish, Thanks to Smartphones,” Leon Watson points to a Canadian study involving two thousand participants that showed a significant decline in the average human attention span. At this rate, future generations using educational technologies will have much more difficulty in school. The simplicity and single-minded purpose of textbooks allows students to focus on the task at hand and learn deeply, without added distraction.

People who are against textbook use often believe that tablets are a better choice because they make cheating more difficult. It is true that there is software that allows faculty and staff to monitor what is being displayed on iPad screens, but it is not a fool-proof option. Systems fail, students get around having the software downloaded, and there are always other ways to cheat. Carol Baker, president of the Illinois Science Teachers Association, said, “Today, kids are used to obtaining any kind of information they want [online]. There are so many things that are free out there, I think kids don’t have the same sense of, ‘Gee, it’s wrong to take something that somebody else wrote.’ The Internet encourages all of us to do that.” Cheating has become easy with tablets and computers as accomplices. Instructors should not have to monitor these learning tools so closely, thereby losing time that could be better spent lecturing and helping students grasp the topic at hand. Rather than making it harder to cheat, technology has made it easier.

There is also the argument that textbooks can only provide knowledge, while tablets have tools that help make learning more fun and engaging. There is nothing wrong with having fun in class, but the main focus of education is not how enjoyable learning is. Parents do not enroll their children in school to entertain them and keep them engaged, but to teach them how to think. Using tablets in school will prepare students to be a part of this tech-savvy world, but they must be able to think on their own as well. Textbooks create opportunities to focus and excel in the classroom, where tablets create opportunities for distraction.

Technology has given mankind some amazing opportunities, but it also presents some significant drawbacks. Children who should be spending their time exploring, learning, and making discoveries are wasting time on iPads. Students who should be reading and reasoning and soaking in information from textbooks and teachers are navigating apps and playing “educational” games. Textbooks don’t magically improve a student’s concentration, but they don’t innately erode it in the way that tablets do. Paper and pencils don’t eliminate the temptation to cheat, but they don’t invite opportunities the way many educational technologies do. Giving up on textbooks altogether is not the solution to heavy backpacks. Tablets in classrooms are a growing fad, but the advantages and deficiencies should be carefully weighed.

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