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Laela Zaidi Headshot

An A In Tetris

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Almost all students dread the everyday morning routine: Dragging ourselves out of bed and then suddenly sitting in a desk wondering how on Earth we had enough energy to make it from point A to point B. But my routine is different from many other students in the U.S. Instead of pulling out a notebook and pencils, my classmates and I pull out 13-inch MacBooks. With help from the generosity of the United Arab Emirates, our high school campuses have invested millions of dollars in laptops: We've gone "paperless." The decision was not based on an environmental cause, but rather was based on the fact that thousands of our textbooks were destroyed along with our high school in the Joplin tornado last spring. Now there's a rare use for pens and pencils, and hundreds of students are becoming absorbed in lit-up screens. This year, most teachers here at Joplin High are having a hard time motivating their students to complete and turn in assignments. Hour by hour, I sit down, open my computer, turn into a zombie, shut the lid, and head to the next class. Some periods there is hardly a need to even look at the teacher. To many students, beating a high score in Tetris sounds a lot more productive than wasting time doing an assignment that can easily be downloaded at home. If someone were to ask me a year ago if I would prefer a paperless campus, I would say that our current situation sounds like a dream come true. Who wouldn't want to ditch heavy textbooks for sleek laptops? In reality, I question the value of technology in the classroom on a daily basis.

Even before the tornado on May 22, technology was always a part of my learning environment, and it usually made education more fun. For years, Joplin's public school district has invested in "Smart Boards," an updated, touch-screen version of the traditional whiteboard. Smart Boards allow teachers to hook up a computer to a projector-screen in front of the classroom. In elementary school, we would play computer games or learn various concepts such as fractions, multiplying, and the rules of grammar. In middle and high school, the chance to use computers was considered a privilege. This year, Joplin schools have taken the idea of technology in the classroom further with the concept of "21st-Century Learning." This "one to one" (one laptop to every student) initiative is becoming more common in high schools, even elementary schools, across the country. It's hard to imagine justifying why technology doesn't have a place in the classroom. Organizing my homework, calendar, and assignments using a laptop is probably easier than ever before. However, this school year I've come to realize that the "one to one" initiative is not always synonymous with "a better education."

Using computers seven hours a day in class -- plus more time spent at home to study or do homework -- isn't exactly healthy. Most parents and educators wouldn't want to put their kids in front of a television screen for that amount of time, so why is it acceptable to do the same with a laptop? Don't we already spend too much time staring at screens instead of physically interacting with our families and friends? According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, it's estimated that, on average, young people spend up to 7.5 daily hours in front of a TV, computer, or video game. These hours are outside the school day. But the biggest drawback to the laptop learning platform is a decline in the quality of education.

Last year, University of California, San Francisco scientists discovered that when rats undergo new experiences, such as exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains showed never-before-seen patterns of activity. However, it isn't until they enter a state of relaxation that these patterns solidify into persistent memories. Loren Frank, a professor specializing in learning and memory, said, "Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it's had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories." He noted that constant stimulation to the brain "[prevents] this learning process." Another study at the University of Michigan showed that people learn better after a walk in nature rather than after a walk in a city, indicating that the abundance of information from the city walk overwhelmed most of the participants. These days many people try to fill their downtime by scrolling through their phones, reading news articles, or engaging in other activities such as checking their Facebooks, Twitters, YouTube, etc. This is especially true at my school, where most kids feel the need to continously surf the web instead of study, and rarely are they told by teachers to stop. By the same token, young children and teenagers are being raised in a culture where instant gratification is valued more than taking the time to focus and learn. For example, in my Communication Arts class, I regularly wonder why there is a need to open up the literature book when Sparknotes.com is just one click away. Or instead of figuring out a problem, I'll type the question into Google. So if laptops are indeed disturbing learning, what should be done about it?

Now that much time and money has been invested in equipping Joplin High School with technology, it would only be a step backwards to reintroduce hard textbooks. In the end, there are still benefits to 21st-century learning (I mean, who doesn't want free access to a MacBook?). Because of our split-campus situation (where underclassmen, upperclassmen, and teachers have been placed in separate buildings), it is a blessing to be able to connect with teachers and students using email and video chatting as well as through each teacher's personal website. Computer programming classes are now taught over Skype, and there are more opportunities to take online courses that were previously never offered to students. But when it comes to the quality of education, more is not always better. Simply dumping more information on students through technology by advising them to visit numerous websites and watch tutorial videos, as many of my teachers do now, will not make for a smarter, more creative student body. Most of that information won't be retained anyway.

Before school boards make the irreversible decision to go "one to one," they should also keep in mind the cons of technology overkill. Instead, our high school needs to consider purchasing textbooks. Assigning students to read online textbooks or classical literature on a computer or study history on the web is difficult when, at home, Facebook is a click away. There is nothing "outdated" in encouraging students to visit a library, use paper to brainstorm and write an essay, or learn a language by interacting and having discussions with other students, rather than resorting to a computer.

Being a teenager, I can assure you that we have enough time with digital devices after school. Technology will never replace the personal touch that teachers use to motivate and inspire students every day. Unlocking the ingenuity, drive, and enthusiasm within a student tends to become virtually impossible when they all become Internet-absorbed zombies. If this is what 21st-century learning looks like, then maybe there's no reason for students to attend school. After all, there's not much to learn from Tetris.