Do computers aid or distract from learning?

In the first column of this three-part series, Jared Cooney Horvath explores whether the technology is a useful classroom tool or does more harm than good
24th January 2020, 12:04am
Do Computers Aid Learning?
Jared Cooney Horvath


Do computers aid or distract from learning?

It may come as a surprise to you, but data has long demonstrated that computers aren't a great tool for the enhancement of learning.

For example, a 2015 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development review of the impact of computers in education (1) reported "no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in countries that had invested heavily in [computers] for education … Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes."

Similarly, after reviewing 126 research articles exploring technology-based education interventions, the global educational research centre at J-Pal (2) concluded: "Initiatives that expand access to computers and internet alone generally do not improve kindergarten to 12th grade grades and test scores … Online courses lower student academic achievement compared to in-person courses."

For those readers interested in digging deeper, I've provided a document outlining 50 "negative" studies demonstrating that computers significantly impair learning when compared with traditional teaching methods (see Lest you think I'm cherry picking, this document also includes 50 of the most-cited "positive" studies.

Identifying the problem

Importantly, if you look closely, you'll notice that 22 of these "positive" studies simply show computers do not harm learning, while 13 of the remainder do not compare computers with alternative methodologies. In other words, 70 per cent of the research that is most relied upon to argue for the use of computers in education doesn't demonstrate that computers enhance learning. So, why not?

The primary function of a tool is dictated by how people most often use that tool. For instance, if I hand you a hammer, you will almost certainly begin looking for a nail. This isn't because a hammer can't be used for other purposes, it's simply because the primary function of a hammer has long been established through previous utilisation, training and experience.

So, what is a computer's primary function? The answer was made clear in a recent survey of students across the US (3) asking how they used computers (values as per week):

  • 10 hours 44 minutes playing video games.
  • 10h 2m watching television or film clips (YouTube, Netflix and so on).
  • 8h 14m scrolling through social media.
  • 7h 32m listening to music.
  • 3h 25m doing homework (at home).
  • 2h 5m doing schoolwork (at school).
  • 1h 14m reading for pleasure (on a CPU or e-book).
  • 52.5m creating digital content (art, music, posts and so on).
  • 14m writing for pleasure.

And it's worth nothing that the tasks listed above are not always done in isolation. Nearly 30 per cent of computer time is spent multitasking (4).

Do you see the problem? For more than 32.5 hours per week, students use a computer to flit between various forms of entertainment: that's about 6 times more than the 5.5 hours they spend using it for learning purposes.

To make matters worse, in the US, school is only in session for 180 days. This means, of the approximately 2,224 hours (93 days) these students spend on computers each year, less than 9 per cent is used for academic learning.

This is why students who use a computer for homework typically take less than six minutes before accessing social media (5). This is why students who use a laptop during class are typically off-task for 38 minutes of every hour (6). This is why, among students paid to participate in a simple 20-minute computer-learning experiment, 40 per cent were unable to abstain from multitasking (7).

The issue isn't that students lack the ability to sustain attention. It's that, once in front of a computer, they revert to the primary function (passive consumption of rapidly shifting media content) they have spent years establishing.

Don't misunderstand me - nobody is saying computers can't be used for learning. But they are so frequently not used for learning that trying to repurpose the tool for this function places an incredibly large (and unnecessary) obstacle between the student and the desired outcome.

An extra hurdle to overcome

To effectively learn via computers, students must expend continual and deliberate cognitive effort battling temptation and quelling response patterns cultivated over thousands of hours.

Needless to say, energy spent inhibiting primary behaviours is energy not spent learning. This is like placing a jug of coffee in front of a group of exhausted, caffeine-addicted teachers and asking them to use it to learn about buoyancy. It's not that coffee can't be used for this purpose (and people without previous caffeine exposure would likely have no problem using it in this manner); it's that caffeine addicts have a long-established story concerning the primary function of coffee. In the end, they'll likely learn a lot about impulse control but little about buoyancy.

Unfortunately, there's no reason to believe that students will ever see "learning" as the primary function of a computer. For starters, far more students (96 per cent) use computers outside of school than do inside it (72 per cent). More damning still: even if the entirety of school time (say, six hours per day, five days per week, 36 weeks per year) was dedicated to exploring how to effectively use computers for learning purposes, this would still be about 1,000 hours (41 days) less than the time students spend on a computer at home.

In the end, computers are a tool of the world, not the classroom - this is why they have long demonstrated a negative (or at best neutral) impact on learning.

Don't get me wrong, students have always struggled with issues of sustained attention, overconfidence and shallow thinking. Due largely to the primary function of computers, their use in the classroom simply increases the opportunity for - and likelihood of - these inimical learning behaviours.

Jared Cooney Horvath is a neuroscientist, educator and author. To ask our resident learning scientist a question, please email:

Parts 2 and 3 of this series will appear in the 7 and 21 February editions of Tes

This article originally appeared in the 24 January 2020 issue under the headline "Do computers aid learning? I know a dead parrot when I see one"

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