Editor’s Note:

The Goshen College administration has recently been considering an initiative to purchase an Apple iPad 3 for all incoming first-years. The decision, which  would go into effect next school year, is currently not final.

First, I have an important disclaimer to make: I am not a technophobe! Every day I rely on email to communicate with students close to home and with scholars around the world. I am glad (mostly) for access to Moodle and Google and Wikipedia. Goshen College students have helped me create the “Global Anabaptist Wiki” (www.anabaptistwiki.org) that I hope will foster a deeper sense of community among the 1.7 million Anabaptist-Mennonites around the world. Michael Sherer and the ITS staff have provided our campus with wonderful resources and first-rate technical support. For all this, I am grateful.

Still, I think there are good reasons to be skeptical about the educational advantages of equipping all first-year students with iPads. Given more space in this essay, I would raise concerns about the way new technologies encourage “disembodied” relationships, or point out new evidence on the neurological consequences of increased screen time. I would suggest that new technologies are encouraging us to become passive consumers of information and entertainment, and I would call attention to recent studies suggesting that Facebook and text messaging can be more addictive than nicotine and alcohol.

Instead, I will focus on a single concern: namely, that iPads in the classroom are more likely to inhibit than to promote learning.

Those touting the educational advantages of technology almost always focus on increased access to content—students with iPads will be able to read textbooks, access email, search the Internet, find assignments on Moodle, watch videos and post their homework more efficiently than ever before. If it’s faster, cheaper, more powerful, more portable and more accessible, then it must be better.

Yet rarely do we ask about the effects of technologies like the iPad on how we learn. One of the great ironies of the Internet (and, by extension, the iPad) is that it captures our attention so powerfully, and then, almost immediately, that same flickering screen fragments our attention into a dozen competing messages and impulses.

Our minds crave visual stimulation, yet the moment we find our attention wandering—or we encounter a question that requires the discipline of long, hard, careful thinking—we are tempted to seek a path of less resistance. So, we “mindlessly” check our email, scan Facebook, watch a YouTube clip or surf the web.

This is a natural human tendency. As T. S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” By putting iPads in the hands of every first year student—advertising it as our educational platform—we are only further encouraging a culture of distraction. If you doubt this, stand at the back of any classroom (or faculty meeting!) where laptops are in use and observe how few of those computers are being used for anything related to the topic at hand.

Students already have full access to high-speed computers with Wi-Fi connectivity in every dorm and classroom. Students already spend an enormous amount of time on cell phones, video games or the Internet. Students are already well habituated to a culture of distraction. Providing all first-year students with an iPad will not make them more disciplined thinkers, more thoughtful citizens, more creative writers … or even better students. The outcome, unfortunately, is likely to be just the opposite.

John D. Roth

Professor of History