Books are better than screens, education conference told

Students who use pen and paper outperform those who use laptops and tablets

Students should not be using laptops and tablets in the classroom, a conference on education has been told.

Tom Butler, professor in business information systems at University College Cork, said the negative effects of information and communications technology use include sleep deprivation, distraction and multi-tasking, all of which directly impact on learning.

He told the Féilte conference at the RDS, Dublin on Saturday, he has banned students from using laptops and tablets at his lectures.

“Research indicates that traditional methods of learning through reading and writing on paper-based media provide superior learning outcomes for students at all levels,” he said.


His remarks come in the wake of the Government’s announcement of €210 million funding for technology in the classroom, and also after an OECD report found it was unclear whether students benefit from using technology to work through problems.

The Festival of Education in Learning and Teaching Excellence, organised by the Teaching Council, included keynote addresses from adventurer Mark Pollock and psychologist and author Maureen Gaffney, along with workshops, panel discussions and meetings.

Prof Butler took part in a panel exploring “Have we gone too far in our quest to make our children technically literate?”

He said students who read from a screen, read information in a different way than from paper, called shallow reading, and they don’t learn it in the same way. And students who touch-type notes during class do not perform as well as those who write up their notes with pen and paper. Devices also provide distractions when users try to multi-task, by looking at, for example, Twitter and Facebook while undertaking work.

“Only 2 per cent of people can really multi-task; most can’t and it’s detrimental to their performance,” he said.

Light-emitting diodes from screens also suppress the production of melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone, causing sleep disruption if used at night. This in turn effects memory and learning ability.

In a paper entitled ICT in Education: Fundamental problems and practical recommendations, Prof Butler said computer use in class disrupts the learning process and impairs learning out comes.

He said the introduction of ICT programmes at primary and secondary schools level needs to be considered carefully, with the strengths and limitations of the proposed technologies clearly in focus.

“All this should give educators, administrators and politicians pause for thought,” he said.

In an inspirational keynote address at the conference, paralysed adventurer Mark Pollock told more than 800 delegates, about being able to voluntarily move his legs, after using a combination of new technologies to “wake up” his nervous system.

The movement was achieved after he had used electrical therapy and anti-anxiety medication to stimulate his nervous system and put the spinal cord in a state of readiness to receive signals.

He has also been using robotics, attached to his legs, that allow him to walk and provide signals to his nervous system to get into a pattern of walking.

His charity, The Pollock Trust, is funding a scientist to lead research in Ireland as part of an international collaborative project to find a cure for paralysis.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Mr Pollock, who is also blind, said the research team now monitors his heart when he is moving and in recent tests, it has been going up to levels close to when he did 60-minute runs, 150 beats a minute.

“That is suggesting that as I’m doing more, then the muscles are contracting, the heart rate is going up and the robot is doing less,” he said.

“This combination of therapies, the drug, the stimulation and the robot is not being done anywhere else in the world, I’m very fortunate to do this.”

In his address, Mr Pollock told the story of his life, struggles and achievements, which included walking to the South Pole in 2008, before a fall resulted in his paralysis.

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist