More on Computers in the Classroom

This has been a topic of discussion previously on the HB:

Part 1

Part 2

Thanks to the good offices of our Academic Dean, Dennis Johnson, I see that the latest news on this front is from The Chronicles of Higher Education 54.40 (June 13, 2008): A1, A18. The headline reads, “Law Professors Rule Laptops Out of Order in Class.” Reporter Andrea L. Foster quotes Don Herzog, professor in the University of Michigan Law School as saying, “Not only I was stunned by how much better the class was, the students volunteered that it was much better.”  

What began as began as an experiment for Prof. Herzog has become a policy. According to Foster other profs are also trying out the “no-laptops” approach to teaching at Georgetown Law, Harvard Law and the University of Wisconsin Law school. The profs who support the ban argue that students tapping out their notes (or worse, shopping, playing games, or emailing) are not able to participate in the Socratic dialogue necessary to law-school education. The profs who support the use of laptops in the classroom argue that banning them now is like trying to put the horse back in the barn and cutting students off from important learning opportunities.

The cynic in me wants to answer the latter by saying, “Yes, like who is dating whom or what the latest updates are on facebook?”

This year in Medieval-Reformation Church History (CH602) I guess about 50% of the students voluntarily gave up their laptops. I didn’t impose a ban but I did try to persuade them to take notes by hand. As I’ve argued before, my main interest is in getting students to pay attention. 

After grading the latest crop of bluebooks it’s clear to me that only about 10% of students pay close attention in class. About 10% of the class ignore me (so 10% nail it, 10% fail it and the rest are distributed across the middle) I suspect that a good number of them are distracted. I suspect that at least some of them are distracted by their computers. Others are still caught in the trap of trying to transcribe every word of the lecture/discussion. The anecdotal evidence from my experience thus far suggests that those students who’ve gone back (or begun) to taking notes by hand (preferably using a decent fountain pen from Steve Baugh our resident fountain pen guru—let the record show your honor that counsel brought back two fountain pens from the UK and tried to interest Dr Baugh in them many years ago at which time he was told, “Bah, humbug!”) testify that they now prefer to take notes by hand. 

I haven’t established a correlation and I don’t know that I ever will but I am more convinced than ever that students need to pay attention, take judicious notes that will remind them of what was said. This business of making a complete transcription to be reviewed de novo at the end of the semester doesn’t work. It’s too much information to process (and memorize) in too little time. Regular reviewing is more effective. 

Neither am I excited about study groups. Every year, despite my warnings, I get several answers that are virtually identical and often wrong. Why? I suspect that students succumb to the most confident and assured voice in the study group. Other students must defer to that voice, even if it’s wrong. What some students don’t seem to understand is that there are a variety of ways to answer the questions correctly and there are a variety of ways to answer the questions incorrectly but what is essential is to learn to listen, to learn to pay attention, and to learn to discern what is important.

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  1. I am one of the last holdouts in my classes at PTS to not use a computer. Not only does it distract the person on the computer but it distracts those of us trying to take notes by hand. This may be anecdotal but the people who sit closest to me in class rarely if ever are paying attention to the lecture but are surfing the ‘net and updating Facebook or other time wasting efforts.

  2. As a “second career” student I’d like to add some of my observations from the business world regarding laptop usage.

    The same phenomenon occurs in business meetings where laptops have become a consistent source of inattentiveness. Instead of paying attention to the topic at hand, the most common offense for laptop usage is the reading/writing/replying to email.

    Some managers have enforced “no laptop” meetings to keep attendees focused with the intent to have more productive meetings — there is usually a note taker (the administrative assistant) instead of each individual taking notes. The meetings in which this is effective are usually staff meetings where the manager is broadcasting information to the team as well as requesting feedback or status updates.

    On the other hand, laptops in other meetings are actually useful to capture *appropriate* notes and action items. The keyword is appropriate. A transcript of the meeting is not an appropriate level of note taking and indicates that you are only a listener and not a participant. This can add efficiency and eliminate transferring handwritten notes into email, documents, and so forth.

    I am not quite sure how I am going to address note taking for lectures at WSC (if/when our house finally sells and I can finally register/enroll!). I plan to maintain electronic notebooks for my coursework. Most likely, I will start with handwritten notes, but will type them up into a study format within a few hours of class while the notes are still fresh. I can definitely see a positive side to keeping the laptop closed during lecture time.

    BTW, Professor David Cole @ Georgetown University has also banned laptops from his classroom:

  3. You don’t need a computer to transcribe lectures. People can use short-hand, abbreviation, etc. to write down a lot of information in a short time. If you write down what you hear without thinking, it is as bad as using the computer to type down what you hear without thinking. The problem is not in methods – computer or pen. The problem is in not digesting your notes after the class. The best time to do so is immediately after the class while your memory is still fresh – don’t wait until the night before the exam. Based on my own experience and others, those who clean-up their notes after the class, with critical thinking and integrating reading materials, learn the most and proportionally perform better on the exam.

    Therefore, let us not impose a single method (i.e., hand-written) to everyone. Some prefer hand-writing their lecture notes; some prefer typing their lecture notes. Moreover, Prof. Estelle mentioned that a student didn’t take any notes in his class and still ace it, because that student has photographic memory (or audio-equivalent). We are diversified yet unified in Christ. Let us not dictate others on how one should take lecture notes in class. Thank you.

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