Online vs. Traditional Education: What’s Really Working?

Taking notes

Tablets versus textbooks? The ubiquity of today’s technology is undeniably powerful. It’s not surprising that educators want to take full advantage of it. But a growing number of people in the education system are spotting the boundaries of a predominantly digitally based curriculum and are wondering who is benefiting from the online versus traditional education debate.

Branded as “personalized learning,” curriculums like the one from Summit Learning—a digital learning platform funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan—are introduced by teachers, but the bulk of the reading and writing is done on a laptop at the student’s pace. With Summit Learning, students meet with teachers for 10 minutes a week. Work is tracked and paced by a blue line on a screen.

Ultimately, Summit Learning’s approach isn’t for everyone. Parents like Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, Kansas, who told The New York Times about pulling his 10-year-old out of school after the school system shifted to the digital program. Research backs Koenig’s sentiment: 77 percent of parents in McPherson did not want to use “personalized learning.” This resistance is also backed by other parents and educators who see real, tangible value in simple, proven methods.

According to our 2018 “Paper and Productive Learning: The Fourth Annual Back-to-School Report,” 92 percent of educators and 90 percent of parents agree that reading 15 pages a day on paper can benefit any student. In our 2017 edition of the report, we found that 89 percent of parents think their children remember assignments better when they write them down on paper.

Similarly, 72 percent agree their children have trouble staying focused with their homework on a screen. Other research from the intergovernmental Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that countries investing heavily in school technology showed “no appreciable improvements” in reading, science or math.

Summit Learning has recently seen a spate of backlash. Several implementations have not gone over well in locations including Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania. Some students simply don’t like learning this way. So much screen time has caused headaches and hand cramps. Others say there is too little time being spent with teachers—and that it’s a lonely experience. Students’ feedback isn’t surprising, given that the pupils themselves express a preference for paper-based learning.

Looking closer, students and educators are clamoring for something different: a return to paper. It’s been a crucial educational tool for centuries. Computer literacy is similarly crucial, but for the actual act of learning, paper can’t be overlooked.