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The Effects of Digital Technology on Learning

The presence of digital distractions interferes with classroom learning.

Over our first few blogs, let’s take a look at the effects of digital technology on learning. We’ll begin in the classroom.

Does technology interfere with classroom learning?


According to one teacher survey regarding the problem with technology in schools (Washington Post 2013):

  • Nearly 90% of teachers felt technology has created a distracted generation with short attention spans.
  • 60% felt it hindered writing and face-to-face communication; i.e., communication with full sentences and longer has lost out to short snippets in writing or media.
  • Almost 50% felt it hurt critical thinking and homework ability.
  • 76% felt students were conditioned to find quick answers.

In short, technology is changing the way our students learn, and not always for the better.

In another survey, university students were asked how often they use their cell phones while in class for non-class related uses (Baron 2015). The average college student reported such use 11 times daily. 15% of students used their cell more than thirty times during class. All of this activity comes at a price in learning. In one study, students who sent text messages while watching a lecture had exam scores 19% below those who did not text (Thompson 2014).

When students were asked themselves about texting during class time, the following percent of them agreed or strongly agreed:

  • 77% felt that receiving text messages hurts my ability to learn during lecture.
  • 72 % felt that sending text messages hurts my ability to learn during lecture.
  • 37% felt that they get distracted when someone else receives a text during class.
  • 31% felt that they get distracted when someone else sends a text during class.

Thus, students recognize that texting in school not only interferes with their own learning, but also interferes with other student’s attention—yet 49% of them still felt it was okay to text during class (Rosen, 2012).

Not surprisingly, allowing web access (i.e., not just texting access) to students during a lecture doesn’t fare well, either. One group of students was allowed to surf the web during class, and the other kept their laptop closed. Students did indeed look at lecture related sites, but also went shopping, watched videos and caught up on e-mail. Even those students who surfed only on topics related to the lecture showed significantly worse memory of the lecture’s content than those who kept their laptop closed (Carr 2011).

Yet, multiple studies reveal that the majority of students say that they use their electronic devices during class to text, browse, or consume media. The results of these studies agree with my own informal survey of my patients who, when asked, almost uniformly say that students are using the classroom laptops/iPads for non-educational activities. Even those who have monitored or limited Internet access still use their laptops for offline gaming. If an adult comes around, they simply hit a button which switches the screen to a legitimate activity. The CD (remember those?) version of MAD magazine even contains a “panic button” which, if pressed when an adult checks in, pulls up a Word document that reads something to the effect that, “I can’t believe my parents fell for this again.” School systems that are switching to all digital experiences for their students must ask themselves if the advantages are worth the distractions.

Modified from Kutscher, M. (2017) Digital Kids: How to Balance Screen Time and Why It Matters. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London.


Baron, N. (2015) Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carr, N. (2011) What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows. New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Rosen, L. (2012) iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming It’s Hold on Us. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Thompson, C. (2014) Smarter than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. New York: Penguin Books.

Washington Post, The (2013). ‘The problem with technology in schools - The Root DC Live.’ Jan. 28.

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