Does Technology Inhibit Positive Classroom Relationships?

But, I’ve also heard the call from some to ban, or severely restrict, technology in our schools — that technology is actually getting in the way of learning. There’s too much screen time and not enough face-to-face time.

For me it’s about balance — a balance that might be different based on student age and abilities. I’m also a big proponent of our students needing personal face-to-face interactions, physical play time, group work and silent working time. Relationships with their peers, teachers and others are what make the difference to their success in school — and life. They need to build social skills and emotional competencies. And, yes, these are usually best met without the aid of technology.

The focus of this particular blog post is on whether technology actually distracts from learning — a claim that I’ve heard a few times. Specifically, whether its presence in the classroom actually limits student engagement with each other and the curriculum as well as interrupting the construction of a positive tone in the classroom.

One of the educational organizations I follow is Learning and the Brain. It’s a wonderful organization and website that share the progress of our ever-expanding knowledge of neuroscience and how it impacts the learning process. A blog post by Andrew Watson (Does Banning Classroom Technology Improve Engagement? Learning?, July 2019) explores the idea of a technology ban and its effect on classroom engagement — the general idea that if students were not distracted by their cellphones, tablets or laptops they would form stronger relationships with their teacher and peers, as well as a deeper understanding of the content being taught.

What a great topic to explore.

I’ve heard the concerns expressed about the necessity to limit screen-time as well as concerns over internet security — both of which are sincere and legitimate. Who doesn’t support a learning environment that is balanced in its teaching and safe for everyone? However, exploring the idea that the mere presence of technology in the hands of students may diminish their relationships with others and lower their acquisition of course content was fascinating to me.

So, what did the researchers find?

It’s important to qualify that it was a post-secondary study that measured student engagement in their classes. Even so, the results are really interesting:

  1. Banning technology from the classroom did not improve the tone in the classroom. In fact, students in classes without their devices had no more rapport with their professor than those that used devices in the classroom.
  2. The classes which banned devices actually noted a significant lowering of engagement with the curriculum — students who didn’t have access to their devices in class actually read less course material outside of class and put in less overall effort in their studies. It even held true for those students who typically didn’t even use technology — an interesting observation by the researchers.
  3. In the cumulative exam at the end of the course, those classes that were permitted to use technology in the classroom during the year showed a gain in their overall mark compared to those classes which banned technology in the classroom. It wasn’t a huge gain but it was statistically significant.
Technology Used Wisely Can Build Student Understanding

This is only one study and its focus is quite narrow so I don’t want to generalize too far away from its parameters. However, what it did reinforce for me are these things …

  • Technology can be a useful classroom tool if it is used correctly — if we recognize when it is helpful in accessing information or demonstrating mastery over course content.
  • The presence of technology is not, by itself, a detriment to building strong interpersonal classroom relationships.
  • It’s critical to understand the composition of our classrooms to determine how and when to use technology to our students’ advantage.

Technology is not the goal. Technology is a means to a better endpoint for many (and I would argue, most) of our students. We can continue to have strong relationships, learn important social skills and develop into productive citizens all while using technology to make learning meaningful, accessible and relevant.

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