Computers in the Classroom (Part 4)

This is been a thread on the HB since 2007. Since that time enthusiasm for technology in classroom (“teach-nology”?) seems only to have grown. I have had opportunity re-consider my concerns but those concerns haven’t dissipated. Since I began encouraging students to put away their laptops in favor of pen and paper most have responded well. In some cases students have special needs that require the use of computers but most students do better to listen to the prof, make a decision about what is being said, what is most significant, what needs to be remembered, and to take notes to help stimulate the memory.

I’m encouraged by this report (HT: William Jacobsen’s College Insurrection) about NYU Prof. Vincent Renzi’s decision to ban laptops from his classroom. He does so for three reasons:

  • Laptops create a physical barrier between the instructor and the student
  • It encourages students to think that the point of note-taking is to take transcription rather than taking notes
  • It tempts students to aimlessly browse the internet instead of paying attention

These are the very reasons why I’ve discouraged students from bringing laptops to class. I’ve sometimes used a laptop to teach—my notes wouldn’t print or I was away from a printer before class but I usually teach from notes.

The second is the greatest problem. I first noticed it about 6-7 years ago. Students were transcribing everything I said in class, even the dumb jokes but they weren’t listening as carefully and critically as needed. Then, when time came to study for exams, they were overwhelmed with material they had not analyzed before. Those who’ve chosen to take notes by hand report that they’re getting more out of class.

In this connection I’ve also observed a clear correlation between the medium in which a text as read and the ability of students to be able to discuss it well in exams. Students used to answer an exam question based on a printed article and did very well. When that same material went online scores on the same question dropped significantly. The rest of the readings did not change. The exam question did not change. Only the medium changed (onscreen vs. paper).

It’s true that students have always daydreamed and doodled during class but there is a qualitative difference between doodling and shopping, texting, tweeting, or updating a Facebook status. The distractions available via a laptop are far more enticing and varied than those presented by pen and paper.

At first students were anxious about closing their laptops. Some students insist (see the comments) that it’s more efficient to take notes by computer. Perhaps, if the goal is a transcript but that’s not what a good teacher wants. What we want is for students to pay attention. We understand that this is increasingly difficult. We also understand that teachers and students probably work with different definitions of “pay attention.” Students are tempted to think, “I’ll pay attention when he’s saying something that interests me.” Working through this challenge wants another post but suffice it to say for now that the premise behind the complaint needs to be challenged. Learning is often interesting but it isn’t always entertaining and if we don’t learn the difference we shall lose the art of learning altogether as it is swallowed up by the entertainment monster.


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  1. A related post could be developed on why you shouldn’t take your Ipad to church. Closely similar reasons, plus others.

    • Interesting. I’ve wrestled with that. I’m guilty but I use it as a reader. It allows me to read various translations of Scripture without carrying a huge, multi-lingual Bible but I get the point. Mine only accesses the web via wireless so that’s not a problem at church.

  2. With the seeming ubiquitousness of computers I keep expecting the inevitable backlash. A ‘butlerian jihad’, to borrow a term from Frank Herbert, where in people rebel against these thinking machines.

    I am amazed the number of people who read a wikipedia, or better: theopedia, article and assume they are now experts on the subject they read.

  3. Laptops were coming of age in the classroom when I was in college circa 2000. They were billed as a must have for the classroom, but I found them to be a huge distraction for the reasons mentioned above. I have always learned best by sitting, listening, and thinking. Sometimes note taking helps, but that depends on the class.

  4. Point taken, Dr. Clark. I know from my own personal experience that using a laptop was good for me, because of my ADD. At times, I can struggle to immediately process what is being said in a conversation or lecture. The laptop allowed me to write detailed notes while not having to immediately decide what was worth writing down and what was not. If writing my hand, I would have to decide at a fast pace what I had to write and how to word it. I can type faster and clearer than I can write my hand. So it allowed me to keep up with the prof and process at my own speed. I wonder if DVD’s lecture format would be easier for me to do by hand, because of his outlines.

  5. In the long run, of course, I think you’re on the losing side of this battle. As computers continue to get smaller, faster, and less expensive, I think we’ll see more of them in classrooms, not fewer. Personally, I’d take better notes on a computer because (1) I can’t read my own handwriting anymore and (2) I can type faster than I can write, so I’d take better and more complete notes (and not transcripts, as you say).

    • I hope not. So far students have been receptive. They want to learn. I haven’t made it a rule but I try to persuade them of the benefits of listening well and taking notes judiciously. A couple of students have taken one of my courses without taking any notes at all. It was a little disconcerting at first but it taught me that listening well is of the essence.

  6. Hi Dr. Clark,

    My ideal practice, which worked well in Ancient Church and other courses, is to take notes by hand during class and then, later, to type a more complete copy from my handwritten notes. This is an ideal that is difficult to sustain, but it helps me to review material and to make connections.

    When I use a laptop as my in-class note-taking device, I notice that I am constantly worrying about formatting an outline and needlessly frustrated about tangents that should be delightful. Charts and diagrams, especially those of a Klinean persuasion, are difficult to recreate in a Word document.

    Needless to say, thank you for your encouragement to listen with good, old-fashioned pen and paper.

  7. I am thankful that I completed all my “formal” education before the era of laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices. My skills at note-taking – but more important, intensive listening – were developed to a very high level. To this day, I am still able to get through 15-20 hours per week of sermons, lectures, and recorded books, much of it while multi-tasking at work. (Not during meetings with others of course, but at my desk dealing with financial information and reports.) I cannot imagine being shackled to a keyboard while listening to someone else speak. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I suppose that others see the keyboard as an extension of themselves, just as I feel about the pen in my hand. What happens, though, when you’re without the electronic crutch – in the pew during the sermon, for example? I love my PC and my iPad, but the practice of transcribing notes or recording my thoughts “on the fly” is utterly foreign to me.

    Nothing that I’ve said above indicates superior intelligence on my part. It’s just a matter of training over many years, keeping the “mental musles” in top shape and using the skills every day.

    I wonder if there’s a qualitative difference in comprehension between laptop in hand vs. “bare” listening by the same hearer. Sounds like an interesting topic for study.

  8. Hello Dr. Clark.

    When it comes to physics, chemistry, and math, a laptop seems more like an impediment. At times you have to draw what is going on and write comments with those pictures, not to mention the equations and derivations which are just too difficult to enter. Handwritten notes with an audio recording is the ideal for me.

    There is one electronic item that may provide the best option, it’s called Livescribe. You take notes on special paper to be used with a pen that records the audio; later when you want to review it will play the audio that was being recorded wherever you were writing the associated notes. It has more features, but I saw a friend using it once and I thought it was pretty good. That beats a laptop hands down. Also, one of the Livescribe products allows you to review your notes by actually taking you through your own notes; it rewrites and draws what you you did on a computer.

    If someone wants to transcribe what is said in class, they could also get a good audio recorder and use it with some software like Dragon if they don’t want to write it on their own.

  9. Another advantage of pen and paper is reduction of notes to summary form. My process was like this: I would take extensive notes during class, not verbatim but through the filer of critical listening. Each week, I prepared summaries in a different notebook. Before a test, I compared the original with the summaries and condensed further to a list of key concepts and terms, again in a different notebook. At the end of the semester or quarter, I would review in reverse order, from the concept and term sheets back to the original notes. At each stage, I was absorbing and reflecting upon the significance of the material. In other words, I was forced to THINK. And finally, immediately before a comprehensive test (I mean minutes before) I could use the “super summary” of two or three pages to review an entire course. Thus, a quick scan of the final notes – somewhat like a Table of Contents by that point – would bring the entire course content to mind.

    I wouldn’t know how to do this electronically. What software would facilitate the process of expansion and “drilling down” to the point where it becomes effortless? There’s nothing quite like the tactile experience of seeing and handling different versions of your notes in front of you, from left to right. It’s physical, it’s “real,” and it’s yours.

  10. I quite agree, computers seem pointless for note taking. On top of that if you’re studying at night, you won’t get to sleep because of the blue light.
    My dad who retired from a fairly wealthy school district in suburban Denver saw the waste going to technology to make learning better or more fun. One of those was having an iPad for every student including kindergarteners. The district thought they were so far behind in technology, and it wasn’t the case at all. I am unsure how new technology helps a person learn anyway….a book for every student would do the job wouldn’t it, along with a good teacher.

  11. Hi all,

    I would agree that if your are in class, that a laptop can be helpful. However, I personally found that I would get distracted while using my laptop. So I stopped taking it to class and started using the old pen and paper which I love and it also meant that if I really wanted the info on my computer I would have to transfer it from paper to screen, thus refreshing my mind on what I had learnt. Though now things have changed as I’m no longer studying in a class I’m studying via the web so now everything is on either a laptop or my iPad. Personally I prefer the iPad to my laptop, as it feels more like pen and paper. Plus my listening includes being connected to my iPad. So I think there is merit in using technology as long as we have self control, yes it is a spirtual exercise, maybe an element missing that we should remember in the discussion.

  12. I think Scott is correct in his summation. There is nothing wrong with a keyboard per se, but the attached internet to it can allow the student at any moment to leave the local, limited and focused classroom space for the world wide web, a space where neither the instructor or the material are being presented.

  13. I’m on the fence about this. On the one hand I much prefer to take notes with pen and paper, because I’m old fashioned. On the other hand there are highly structured professors that move so quickly through the material that there is no way I could write fast enough to capture what is being said. There is no time to think, there is only time for transcribing and digesting it later. Other professors have such a vague outline that being able to edit and move things around on the laptop is essential. The other reason is that I’m not just taking notes so I can pass a test, but I would like to be able to access my notes and search them in the future which would be near impossible with handwritten notes.

  14. I remember recently hearing Dr. T. David Gordon stating he banned laptops from his class for these very reasons, only to be over-ruled by college administrators. Yikes!

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