Friday, August 12, 2016

Put Away Your Laptops!

Folks skeptical of technology like to share articles (electronically, of course) proving the limits of ed-tech. The most common critiques are the related topics of cursive handwriting and note-taking.

There are hosts of studies and articles, such as this one from NPR and this one from West Point, suggesting that laptops inhibit effective note taking and thus detract from learning. 
"The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them." (Mueller)
I concede the point. I'll also concede that students are more likely to be distracted and off task. But, I do have  a few responses:

1) When we dig deeper into the study about West Point, we read, "Permitting laptops or computers appears to reduce multiple choice and short answer scores, but has no effect on essay scores." (emphasis mine)  Is learning about thinking or recall? Essays get to thinking, multiple choice questions get to recall. 

2) Do we teach students how to take notes digitally? The study shows that students with laptops type much of the lecture whereas traditional notetakers write only essential points because they cannot write as fast as they can type. However, there are tremendously powerful note-taking apps such as Evernote and Notability. Take a look at what Alice Keeler does with Google Keep. I suggest that the metacognition involved in the process she shares here is far different than transcribing the teacher's lecture. The video to the right is a fine tutorial on keep from the I Review Anything channel. Do we teach digital note-taking? 

3) Once notes are taken, technology can help a student organize them (via Evernote, Keep, Notability and countless other apps and extensions) and search within notes more efficiently. Suppose we taught students to only listen and type down main ideas instead of transcribing the lecture and then showed them how to search within their notes? I'd like to see a study commissioned about this. 

4) Studies show that students forget what they learn after a test. So, even if students do better in the short-term when taking notes by hand, does it matter at all that students do better on tests if they are going to forget it within weeks anyway? To say that students learn more in the medium or long term via handwritten notes is fundamentally untrue. 

5) I'll admit it, the lecture has its place. Sometimes it is the easiest and most efficient way to share knowledge.  Yet, studies such as these miss the point! As I've written recently, information is ubiquitous. It is accessible from anywhere. All of the world's knowledge is several clicks away. So, why don't classrooms reflect that? Why is lecture still the primary mode of instruction, especially in High School and College?

6) Information is ever-changing and ever-increasing. We simply can't know it all. In most professions, we should encourage people to look things up and not memorize. Harvard Medical School, hardly a wishy-washy progressive haven, recognizes this and has changed its program.

7) Technology allows us to significantly change the way we teach. These studies bemoaning tech use in the classroom are always in traditionally formatted classes. In some ways, these studies are all missing the point. 

There's a place for traditional note-taking. I concede that.
There's a place for lecturing and direct instruction. I concede that too.

For once, though, I'd like to see critics of ed-tech in school ask themselves some bigger questions about the point of schooling and learning and what we actually want students to be able to do. 

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