Bouygues: Online Learning Is Here to Stay — but Don’t Abandon Pencil and Paper Just Yet

As schools around the world have transitioned to online education during the COVID-19 crisis, many are reporting frustration. One Israeli mother captured the anger of many in a video when she said, “If we don’t die of corona, we’ll die of distance learning.”

The drawbacks of learning through a screen are more than anecdotal, as a study released by the Reboot Foundation last month shows. It suggests that students perform better in math when they do their work using pencil and paper instead of a screen.

Now is not the time to throw away technology, to be sure. It’s become a pandemic necessity for many students. But educators — and families — should be careful about overly relying on screens for learning, and research shows that education delivered on tablets and laptops can lead to missed opportunities.

The Reboot study was conducted at a Maine high school by math teacher Bill Hinkley. Hinkley designed his experiment using ASSISTments, an online math homework platform that also facilitates education experiments on its back end. The paper was co-authored by Hinkley, ASSISTments founder Professor Neil Heffernan and me.

For the study, Hinkley divided students with an equal distribution of grades into two groups. Both were assigned an ASSISTments problem set to work on. The control group completed the problems as usual, while the test group was given additional instruction by means of an embedded video, reminding them to do their calculations using pencil and paper.

The results of the experiment were striking. The students who were prompted to use pencil and paper did an average of 13 points better than those who simply used the online tool as usual. What’s more, the intervention resulted in better end-of-course results.

While the study used a small sample size, the outcome has important implications in these days of COVID-19-forced distance learning. Devices can make it difficult to be a strategic thinker. People can get pulled into the screen and fail to see the big picture.

This observation about the potentially limiting nature of computer-based learning is what inspired the study. Hinkley noticed that when his students were trying to solve ASSISTments problems, they often resorted to using their laptop’s calculator. But, as Hinkley recognized, online calculators don’t give students enough of a strategic overview of a math problem.

In contrast, pencil and paper made it easier for students to see how they were solving a problem correctly or incorrectly. In other words, pencil and paper helped students correct issues in their mathematical thinking.

Computers can also disrupt focus, overloading attention with their fireworks of visuals. This also appeared to be a factor in the math study; students using pencil and paper seemed to concentrate more easily on the task at hand.

Other studies have shown similar results. A number of researchers have found that reading paper books instead of ebooks can improve comprehension. Again, it appears that the concrete qualities of paper reduced distractions and made it easier to engage with the material.

Practically speaking, parents who are essentially homeschooling should look for opportunities to reduce screen time and take advantage of older educational technologies. For younger children, that might be playing old-fashioned games like chess.

For middle school students, that might mean using pencil and paper for math or grammar lessons. High schoolers and college students should not be afraid to put away their computers and write essays by hand. This can make for a slower, and thus more careful, writing process.

At the same time, parents should not be too hard on themselves. These are extraordinary times. Screens are clearly necessary for any type of online learning, and there’s little evidence that too much device time has a long-lasting negative impact for older children.

In the end, innovative technologies should improve upon our world and expand our thinking, not limit it. To ensure that we make the most of technology, we must be able to recognize that just because we can do something on a screen doesn’t mean we should.

Helen Lee Bouygues is president of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation and the author of an upcoming book on critical thinking.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today