Sunday, March 24, 2013

7 researched ways 'tablets' can inhibit learning

I've already given a general critique of why tablets should not be used in schools in Too cool for secondary school: why tablets should NOT be used in educationbut there is one issue that gets to the heart of the matter. Typing, text and data manipulation is important in learning. Many learners will be expected to write, edit and input data, not only while they learn but also when using computers at work or at home for leisure. If tablets make you write sloer, edit slower, even alter the way you write down to shorter sentences, they may actually inhibit this important dimension in learning. As you progress through the education system you are expected to write more, in more styles and to a higher standard. Given the increased use of tablets in secondary schools and universities, we must also ask whether typing is better on touchscreens or keyboards. Are we missing the fact that touchscreens may inhibit or even damage this dimension in learning?
Research comparing touchscreen with physical keyboards goes back over 20 years has consistently shown that touch screens produce slower and less accurate performance when compared with physical keyboards; Barrett & Krueger, 1994; Wilson, Inderrieden, & Liu, 1995; Schneiderman (1998); Ryall (2006); Hinrichs (2007). Benco (2009) at the University of Washington’s Information School, with Microsoft Research, showed accidental touches and a 31% lower typing speed (or 20 words per minute faster). But there’s even more bad news.
1. No feel for keys and boundaries
As there is no feel for key and keyboard boundaries, it is difficult to gauge when you have found the right key, especially at speed, so you can’t make small adjustments. This has been found to lead to slower typing speeds and higher error rates.  With no haptic or tactile feedback through a physical keyboard, you fail to feel key and keyboard boundaries.
2. Slow visual checks
You also require visual checking while you type, which slows down typing speed and increases error rates. Barrett (1994) claimed that touchscreens “pale in effectiveness” when compared to physical keyboards, largely because of the lack of feedback and need to visually check the touch keyboard. In learning, you want students to focus on the text and tasks not typing.
3. No home row anchor
‘Home row’ resting means that typists can rest their hands on a physical anchor, the lowest row of keys, to help them calibrate their finger movements when typing. They can then look at the screen without interruption to increase speed, reduce error rate and more importantly, focus on the writing task – meaning , expression and so on.
3. Text editing slow and difficult
A cursor, operated by a mouse or fingerpad is pixel accurate compared to a finger, which makes highlighting, cutting, copying and pasting more difficult and more prone to error. This causes real problems when doing pieces of even basic writing, where learners have to learn through failure and do lots of error correction, rewriting and reordering of words of prose. In more complex pieces of writing it becomes critical. The danger is that touchscreen keyboards, being more difficult to use, hamper progress and limit skills progression in writing.
4. Inappropriate for high-level tasks
Some learning tasks, such as coding, require large amounts of character editing, and would be severely restricted on touchscreen. Mathematics quickly requires high-level symbol manipulation. Additionally, when it comes to creative tools such as graphic, audio and video media creation and manipulation, progress is quite literally impossible with touchscreen. Fingers may also obstruct text that is being manipulated.
5. Tilt matters
Typing on a surface that is flat also brings problems. A notebook or laptop screen sits up at an angle from the keyboard. This angle is typically between 100 and 120 degrees. You may not have noticed but when you go into an Apple store every Macbook is at exactly the same angle. Employees use Simplify Angle, an iPhone app, to measure this angle of elevation when they open the store!
A device that has the keyboard at a 180 degree angle to the produced text is a problem as it leads to awkward lean forward positions or requires the addition of a special add-on, at extra cost, to tilt the tablet. Even then you have to hold your hands in the air and this leads to fatigue, which may result in less produced work and limit the amount of effort the learner will put into a piece of written or other work.
6. Detracts from sustained use
Morris (2010) claims that touchscreens, compared to physical keyboards, puts a brake on sustained use. For learning professionals this is a real worry as students may stop prematurely or reduce performance in a writing task, simply because of the limitations of the input device.
7. Alters linguistic style
Touchscreen may even alter style of expression, Wigdor (2007). It may limit experimentation, more complex sentences and playing around with vocabulary and style, all tasks which are important for skills development. This is even more worrying.  Of course, physical keyboards can be added to tablets but at extra cost and one could argue that this just reinforces the argument for buying a notebook or laptop in the first place.
We can use this evidence to identify the point in education where learning may become inhibited, if not damaged, by tablet use. Note that this is not a fatal objection to the use of tablets in education. It is, however, a severe warning about their appropriateness for deeper and mature learning that involves even modest amounts of writing, note taking, data input, use of mathematical notation, image, audio and video manipulation, coding and so on. The danger is that we are being lulled into believing that tablets are appropriate by qualitative reports from students (who let’s be honest don’t mind doing less!). What’s needed is more hard-headed research, not on attractiveness but on attainment.
Morris, M.R., Lombardo, J., Wigdor, D. 2010. Search:  Supporting Collaborative Search and Sensemaking on a  Tabletop Display. Proc. CSCW 2010, 401-410. 
Benko, H., Morris, M. R., Brush, A.J.B., Wilson, A.D.  2009. Insights on Interactive Tabletops: A Survey of  Researchers and Developers. Microsoft Research Technical  Report MSR-TR-2009-22.
Wigdor, D., Penn, G., Ryall, K., Esenther, A., Shen, C.  2007. Living with a Tabletop: Analysis and Observations  of Long Term Office Use of a Multi-Touch Table. Proc.  Tabletop 2007, 60-67. 
Hinrichs, U., Hancock, M., Collins, C., Carpendale, S.  2007. Examination of text-entry methods for tabletop  displays. Proc. Tabletop 2007, 105-112. “Text entry a major deficiency in multiple studies”
Ryall, K., Forlines, C., Shen, C., Ringel Morris, M.,  Everitt, K. 2006. Experiences with and Observations of  Direct-Touch Tabletops. Proc. Tabletop 2006, 89-96. 
Barrett, J., & Krueger, H. (1994). Performance effects of reduced proprioceptive feedback on touch typists and casual users in a typing task. Behavior & Information technology, 13, 373-381.
Wilson, K.S., Inderrieden, M., & Liu, S. (1995). A comparison of five user interface devices designed for point-of-sale in the retail industry. Proceedings of the Human Factors & Ergonomic Society 39th Annual Meeting, 39, 273-277.
Shneiderman, B. (1998). Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human Computer Interaction. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.


Paul Hollins said...

Donald I agree that we do need more research into the use of tablets in schools and Universities , I wasn't convinced by the argument against tablets in your previous post, nor am I convinced by this.

Most of the research you quote is over five years old, when touch screen interfaces were not as responsive or sophisticated as they are now and I am not surprised by the contextual findings you cite . Microsoft have themselves only recently embraced touch screen technology and this may explain the perspective of the research you quote.

I do agree that we have much to learn before tablet technology is "imposed" ,or for that matter any technology ,is imposed on the classroom and I share your concern that tablet use seems to be presented as the panacea to the ills of the classroom in great haste but agin "twas ever the case with new technology.

Please keep up the blog with your thought provoking comment though I really do enjoy the arguments you present.

Donald Clark said...

Paul - I deliberately took a range of research across time, rather than just latest studies. There's lots more - it all points in the same direction. Keyboards better than touch. I have both.

Anonymous said...

Actually mathematicians bemoan the limitations of keyboards, basically forcing them to enter LaTeX rather then to draw equations in the natural way.
Good tablets (the is one exception), now have Wacom style digitaliser pens which make maths, note taking, highlighting, and drawing far better then any keyboard and mouse.
I agree that typing on a touch screen is not yet solved. The Swype approach works best for me, but I expect the true answer lies in a cording keyboard (after all if WPM was king we would all use Stenotype anyway) and dictation is already filling in the gaps.

Neil said...

Donald, the research you cite seems to imply comparisons among professional typists - most (school) students I have seen do not type at anything like these speeds or for the durations you suggest.

Nevertheless, the comments on editing and non-text input sound more than valid to me.

@Paul Did you type your comment with a touchscreen device? If so, Donald QED!!

As for voice dictation (@anon), I'm not convinced it will ever match text input - the thought processes are very different. Thinking out loud tends to be unstructured, with the dictation device taking in far too much unintended or erroneous input, requiring cumbersome editing. Certainly, software I've used in the past was not within a country mile of being up to the task.

(Perhaps someone will invent a system that takes your thoughts and then smooths them out according to your own written style. But that may just be a secretary!)

Donald Clark said...

Hi Neil
My own experience with young people is that they type a lot, especially into Facebook. As you say, the speed and error problems still apply. My own view, not supported by evidence I should add, is that the prevalence of touchsreen has led to a different attitude towards writing that is against long-form writing, even blog length posts.

Neil said...


Donald Clark said...

Shortest comment ever on my blog - keep taking the tablets! (made me smile - not easy on a Monday!)

Benita Williams said...

We're testing tablets as a replacement for paper textbooks in schools. The models we roll out are typically android devices with a keyboard embedded inside the carry case. So touch screen typing isn't an issue, lock in isn't an issue, and consumption instead of production is also not an issue because kids still write in exercise books whilst replacing text on dead wood with text on screens.

Donald Clark said...

When you planned this what made you not do BYOD?

andrew dixon said...

firstly need to say thank you, as I am just tackling this subject for part of my degree at Brighton. Secondly, I am not sure we will know the effects until this next generation come of age or more cognitive studies are done.

Anyway really starting to enjoy your blog, thanks

Paul said...

Whilst I agree research into tablet impact and best use is vital this posting idea ignores the facts that:

1) Plug in/ blue tooth physical keyboards and stands to hold screen up exist for anyone needing to do extended typing with a tablet

2) Secondary age children have spent 10 years learning to use keyboards and perhaps 2 years on touch screens- not fair comparison

3) Touch screen technology is improving- android's method of swiping finger around the screen without losing contact works really well when you are doing it often

4) It also reads like all children are good a typing on traditional keyboards- they aren't

5) It also assumes typing is what they need to do to learn in most lessons- it isn't. No teacher planning a lesson would choose to use a touch screen for extended typing, we'd use them for other benefits e.g. video in PE and dare I say it writing might be done fastest with pen and paper

6) Assessment is still largely done with paper and pen so the debate is spurious as that drive so much of what is done in school, right or wrong.

Welsh Cloggy said...

Are you sure you draw the correct conclusions? The article is about typing on a tablet. You infer that slow typing means problems with learning. I don't see any causal connection in your article between the two.

Donald Clark said...

Does if you're writing anything of any length, coding or any other sustained analytic, creative task, including use of Photoshop and so on.