Digital devices in the classroom: friend or foe?

As a new academic year begins, certain topics resurface once more on various blogs, websites and around the coffee machine. Digital devices in the classroom: friend or foe?


There have been many studies looking at this question from various standpoints; continued attention or concentration, distractions and multitasking, quality versus volume of note taking, impact on the learning environment for other students, impact on quality of learning, to name only a few.

There is an important distinction to be made between note-taking and transcription, as they do not represent the same cognitive activity, whether you are using a pen or a digital device. Note-taking requires that you listen, consider, decide what to write, decide how to organize that information, all requiring a more in depth processing of the information. In turn, these cognitive activities are likely to contribute to enhanced encoding of the information, and contribute to learning (Grahame, 2016). There are many techniques for structuring notes, annotating them for easy retrieval, but all of them require the learner to engage with the content and organize their thoughts, as opposed to copying what is being said verbatim (if you can write or type that fast). A more superficial processing, as is the case with somewhat verbatim transcription, is less conducive to useful learning (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).

It is often apparent to me from discussing with students that many of them don’t really know how to take good notes. This skill was never taught and so, they try their best. Arguably, the easiest thing to do seems to write down as much as possible of what is said in the lecture, and hope for the best. Some students go even further by listening to the lecture podcast and completing their transcription. But how much do they learn during all this time-consuming effort? I believe they can benefit from spending that time engaging with the material, rather than transcribing it.

In my teaching practice, I have decided to embrace and maximize the use of devices in the classroom. I use a cloud-based learning platform, so all my students must have a device in class. They use it to view my slides, but more importantly, they use it to actively engage in the learning activities that we conduct in the classroom. Our time together is not a lecture, rather, it’s a learning session. They must prepare for it as you would for any meeting. And they must participate and engage during the meeting. While they do use a device during this meeting, many also take handwritten notes alongside. In the past, I have only mentioned that they can come and ask for guidance on note-taking. Out of my approximately 1200 first year students in the winter semester, rarely more than 10 come by to specifically ask for help on taking notes. In an effort to help more of them with their note-taking efforts, this year I decided to introduce a brief ‘how-to’ guide in the course content available to them. I plan to revisit this once the year is over and see how it can be improved. But I digress from the topic…

There have been many studies on the impact of using devices in the classroom, and many educators would prefer to have a device-free teaching zone. Some of the arguments they present against having devices in the classroom include limitations to efficiently multitasking (Posner, 1982), and the added demand on students of constantly switching tasks and refocusing their attention, which may limit their academic performance (Bailey, 2006; Foerde, 2006).

On the other hand, there is also evidence that devices can positively contribute to the class dynamics, student engagement, even build a community of learners that discuss the material between lectures (Higgins, Xiao, & Katsipataki, 2012). Perception is important as well – most students believe the devices are useful (Sevillano-García & Vázquez-Cano, 2015). Why not embrace this enthusiasm and make the most of it?

One recurring complaint of device naysayers is the ease with which students can sway their attention to the web. What if they are on social media? If it’s contributing, if they remain engaged, what’s the issue? Twitter can be a great tool to reach out to experts, practice concise writing, share information. There are numerous apps available to help educators prepare engaging content or have collaborative exercises.  Even if they do go check out what’s happening on their Instagram, if we maintain an appropriate environment, they’ll return to what’s happening in the classroom. Let’s be honest, we’ve all slipped a little note down the row to a friend at least once… And there’s the rub really – the environment has to be engaging. The onus for that is mostly on the professor; however, when we are a facilitator rather than a lecturer in the traditional sense, the onus is also on the students. Now for them to be engaged, we must put the proper tools in place. So back to the devices; in such a scenario they are no longer threats, they are just one of the many tools available. I’m not saying they are the only tool. The device is not a requirement to the engaging lecture; I have seen groups of students working together solving a problem with flip charts, markers and post-it notes. But the same can be accomplished with devices; clicker questions, case studies, polling, brainstorming sessions, are only a few of the possibilities. But the key is that they remain engaged, which in turn promotes learning. Not because they sat still and quietly in a room, listening to someone tell them what they must learn (that’s if they truly are paying attention to what is being said). But better still, because they actively participated in their learning, and were able to use what they learned on that day, to solve a different problem at a later date.

Perhaps the device is not really the core of the issue; as educators, shouldn’t we be willing to adapt and make the most of the opportunities available? The devices are there to stay; whether we make the most of them and capture our students’ interest is up to us.


Caroline Petit-Turcotte


A few useful references on this topic:

Bailey BP, Konstan JA. On the need for attention-aware systems: measuring effects of interruption on task performance, error rate, and affective state. Comput. Human Behav. 2006;22(4):685-708.

Foerde K, Knowlton BJ, Poldrack RA. Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2006;103(31):11778-83.

Grahame, J. A. (2016). Digital Note-Taking. The Journal of Physician Assistant Education, 27(1), 47–50.

Higgins, S., Xiao, Z., & Katsipataki, M. (2012). The Impact of Digital Technology on Learning : A Summary for the Education Endowment Foundation Full Report. Education Endowment Foundation, November(November 2012), Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.

Mueller, P. a, & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168.

Posner M. Cumulative development of attentional theory. Am. Psychol. 1982;37(2):168-72

Sevillano-García, M. . L., & Vázquez-Cano, E. (2015). The Impact of Digital Mobile Devices in Higher Education. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 18(1), 106–118. Retrieved from