Your Nostalgia Isn’t Helping Me Learn

Rethinking recent “common sense” claims about technology as distraction in the classroom.

Chalkboards, maps, globes, and other technology in the classroom of Miss Kate Hobart at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. (1892, City of Boston Archives)

By Michael Oman-Reagan

(Note: An edited version of this essay is also published in Bright.)

It’s become popular to claim that writing notes on paper and reading from paper books are superior ways to learn, and that laptops and other technology are a distraction for students in the classroom. But is this true?

Everywhere I turn these days I’m being told I shouldn’t use my laptop, tablet, or other technology to take notes. Apparently it’s getting in the way of learning. Instead, I should be reading old-fashioned paper books and writing in a notebook with a pen. This is the classic way of learning, I’m told. This is how you are meant to learn, I hear. You will remember and retain more if you do it on paper. Studies show!

The argument against technology in the classroom has shown up recently in articles with titles like, “Why you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop” (Vox), “To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand” (The Atlantic), and “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop” (Scientific American).

Vox in 2015 and The Atlantic in 2014

These stories keep popping up, recycling the same studies and confirming someone’s intuition that the good old-fashioned way is better.

But contrary to these claims, I would not have made it through my years of university courses without the technology I use every day.

And I don’t mean so-called assistive technology designed with “disabilities” in mind. I’m talking about the notes I take on my phone when I’m chatting with someone, which serve as an extension of my brain. I’m talking about the course project documents, folders of articles, collected syllabi, images, screenshots, and more that are always available on my laptop or anywhere through my synchronized folders.

I rely on the 170+ notebooks in Evernote where I practically wrote my entire MA thesis and where I track all current projects, personal and academic. I worked a full-time job for much of my undergraduate education and part of my MA — and was only able to do this because of the ability to search through 70,000+ email messages from the last 15 years, search inside a journal article, search a PDF of a book and copy/paste the text.

This technology is assistive for me as a student very simply because all technology is assistive technology. As Sara Hendren points out:

“Well — it’s worth saying again: All technology is assistive technology. Honestly — what technology are you using that’s not assistive? Your smartphone? Your eyeglasses? Headphones? And those three examples alone are assisting you in multiple registers: They’re enabling or augmenting a sensory experience, say, or providing navigational information. But they’re also allowing you to decide whether to be available for approach in public, or not; to check out or in on a conversation or meeting in a bunch of subtle ways; to identify, by your choice of brand or look, with one culture group and not another.
Making a persistent, overt distinction about “assistive tech” embodies the second-tier do-gooderism and banality that still dominate design work targeted toward “special needs.” “Assistive technology” implies a separate species of tools designed exclusively for those people with a rather narrow set of diagnostic “impairments” — impairments, in other words, that have been culturally designated as needing special attention, as being particularly, grossly abnormal. But are you sure your phone isn’t a crutch, as it were, for a whole lot of unexamined needs?”

Surely we can agree then that all technology is assistive. But what about in the classroom? What’s missing from these popular articles when they claim technology is a distraction in the classroom? How do they conclude assistive technology is getting in the way of learning, when so many students like myself rely on it? And what are the consequences of banning technology in the classroom?

“Research Shows”

I’ll start by taking that article from Vox and looking at some of the claims. After that, I’ll look at what’s happening in classrooms where technology is banned.

1. Learning is not the same as the “ability to remember information”

The Vox article defines learning as remembering information. That’s funny, because learning is not memorizing, and I think all educators would agree on that.

While educators tell us that testing misses the mark in evaluating students and that learning isn’t about facts and figures but about critical thinking skills, articles like this contain the opposite message: learning is your ability to remember information. But it isn’t. Learning is your ability to synthesize information, think critically, and evaluate claims.

2. Note taking skills can be taught — laptops don’t force students to “mindlessly type everything a professor says.”

The article claims the problem with taking notes on laptops is that students “usually just mindlessly type everything a professor says.” But this isn’t actually a claim about taking notes on laptops vs. paper notebooks; this is an issue of note-taking skills more generally.

I’d suggest that if you have good note taking skills, you can take good notes in any format. If you are taught to discern what matters in a lecture or article, you can learn to take useful notes about anything in any format. This problem the article mentions — i.e., students acting as stenographers — is an issue of learning to learn and think critically. Yes, these are skills that students need. That they don’t have them certainly isn’t the fault of laptops. In fact, we should be grateful that we can see they don’t have these skills by seeing how they are (mis)using the laptops.

In any case: do educators really like the idea that students can only decide what matters because “they can’t write fast enough to get everything down?”

3. It’s possible to “not pay attention” with or without a laptop.

The article says students who use laptops “have something unrelated to class” on the screen about 40% of the time. I have trouble with this. They’re actually talking about a failure to “learn” among students who aren’t using the technology to engage in the class at all? These students are chatting with friends, shopping, doing whatever. What does this have to do with taking notes on a laptop? What does this have to do with using a laptop to learn? Nothing. But still, we get this summary: “Research shows students who use laptops perform more poorly in classes.”

4. Science + Common Sense — what could go wrong?

Of course, the whole argument is all summed up as common sense, validated by science! What could go wrong with that and with popular reporting about it? If science AND common sense are clear on this — well, it must be true for all students, or maybe not? It certainly isn’t true for me or for other students I’ve seen and spoken with.

I’m picking on this Vox article because it is precisely this kind of article that is shared on Facebook and Twitter, without being carefully read or critically analyzed. And it winds up standing in for thoughtful technology policy and pedagogy in classrooms. I think it’s pretty ironic that the same people who get so excited about the article’s title (“Why you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop”) because it validates their pre-existing distrust of “technology” (i.e. everything invented after they were born), fail to think critically about the argument in the article.

Hmm. Maybe they’re actually the ones who have trouble thinking critically when using a laptop?

Classrooms on the Anti-Tech Bandwagon

I’m now seeing professors proudly banning technology in the classroom. And even those who don’t are giving students lectures in class about how we should ban e-books at the university library. They’re telling students who use laptops in class they should really be writing in a notebook, that is, if they really want to learn. Some even go so far as to add notes to their syllabi, such as this recent example:

Policy on Electronic Devices:
In order to ensure attentive participation in lecture, use of electronic devices, laptops, and e- readers is not allowed during course time.

Why would a professor treat tech-savvy students like deviants rejecting an established practice? Do these professors really believe that learning styles are one-size-fits-all or that how they learned is the only way to learn? Or are they, perhaps, simply annoyed that students are more interested in what’s going on online than in the classroom? But instead of leveraging that student interest and passion for an engaging online social space and for using technology, they ban it. The result? I’ve watched students leave the classroom to check their phone. Not the outcome the professor was hoping for, I suspect.

Of all people, I would hope academics would be wise enough to see the echoes of history here, when teachers would tie the hands of left-handed students behind their backs to force them to use their right one. Banning technology in the classroom says to students who use technology to learn, who need technology to learn, “I don’t care how you learn, you will work my way using only the approved tools — or you will struggle and fail.”

Would these same faculty ban students from wearing glasses? Of course not, because glasses are accepted as pervasive, standard, assistive technology.

Banning other technology in classrooms is just as wrong as banning glasses would be. It only ends up hurting the best students — and it certainly doesn’t help those with the biggest difficulties. Everyone loses. Here’s why:

Most young people today grow up learning to write on a computer (or tablet, or phone). Taking away the tools they use in all other contexts in life doesn’t help them in the classroom. Students who have grown up typing now think and compose in terms of copying and pasting. They move text around in ways that you cannot on paper.

After learning to write with the assistive technology of a computer, professors give them exams without those tools. Really? Is this a test of their ability to write, synthesize information, and think critically — or a test of their ability to survive without the tools they normally use? If professors require students to hand in papers typed on a computer, double spaced, why do punish them by making them write in exam books?

Would you force the class to use quill and parchment to write the exam? Then don’t make them use pen and paper.

`In-class exam with computers at NYU. (Photo: Robin Nagle, @rznagle on Twitter)

The skills students need are not about retaining information, but organizing it. The study noted in the Vox article shows that students who take notes on paper about a lecture do better when tested on material in that lecture. Is this really what we aim to do in the classroom? How many students remember just enough to take a mid-term and forget it all after?

The study cited in the Vox article said that laptop use “results in shallower processing.” This might be true for some students in the short term, but what about those students who use the technology as part of a deeper process of learning over the course of a class, or a college career, or a lifetime? What about students who refer back to these notes again and again — who draw from them years later because it only takes a few clicks or keystrokes or a keyword search to pull them up? To me, deep learning is integrating the record of your thinking and education into your life for the long term.

The skills we should be prioritizing in the classroom are not retaining facts for an exam — but rather synthesizing information and organizing thoughts. Whether students end up working in a corporate office or going on to graduate school, they need to know how to record, archive, organize, and search through information, not just memorize a name or date for an exam.

Does it really prevent learning if students are engaged with social media in class? Graduate students and faculty go to conferences and engage with social media, participating in multiple levels of interaction while listening to papers and debates. Live tweeting discussions has become a vital part of the academic conversation. Students can do the same — and classrooms can engage academically and socially as communities, both online and off.

The key to making this work is to understand how students use the technology, and then use your role to shape it, encourage it to be productive use during class time. Don’t ban Twitter in the classroom; set a hashtag for the class! (More resources on Twitter in the classroom.) Draw your students into the academic conversation through social media. Let them teach you the interesting ways they use technology and then let them help you integrate it into the classroom.

Twitter discussion from Chris Bronke’s high school English class.

University professors everywhere are about to encounter a generation of students who have not only grown up using laptops, tablets, and smartphones, but have gone through primary and secondary school using them in the classroom. How will they react to a learning environment where those tools are suddenly prohibited and stigmatized? Just as workplaces have recognized this fact about the next generation of workers, university classrooms can do the same while simultaneously including critical analysis of issues around privacy, securitization, and data mining.

Students who have adapted to and now rely on using technology shouldn’t be cut off from this resource in the classroom. Many students use technological tools to overcome learning differences, to organize information, to engage in discussions that help them think through material. And they are more successful because of it. Some students with learning challenges have adapted to using technology without having to report a disability and announce that disability to their classmates or professors. Professors might not know that students in their classrooms are dealing with learning disabilities and are succeeding because of assistive technology. These students may not be registered with the “Office of Disability Services,” they might not be “diagnosed,” and have their learning differences medicalized — but then again, why should they have to in order to use the tools that help them?

When professors who ban technology allow its use for students who register as having a disability, we need to ask what kind of learning environment that creates. Isn’t this a form of ableism? By banning technology for so-called “normal” students, doesn’t this mark students who learn differently or need particular kinds of assistive technology as abnormal? If everyone knows the only students in the room allowed to use it are those whose differences have been medicalized, how do students using technology experience the classroom?

Yes, this is personal for me. I use a combination of software to take all of my notes — on readings, in class, at home. Everything is on my laptop. I can search these notes, copy and paste as needed, aggregate information. I am no longer lost flipping through pages of a notebook searching for the place I wrote down an author’s name. This system works perfectly for me. It might not be great for other students, but they aren’t forced to use any technology beyond pen and paper if they don’t want to. But for those who do use it, for those like myself who have only been able to get through university courses because of it — why would a professor want to take that tool away?

I’ve completed a triple undergraduate major, an MA program, and am now in a PhD program. All of my note-taking has been digital. I do this because of the way that I learn and think, because of the way I compose, draft, revise, and finish writing projects. I also do it because it means I always have access to the sum total of my entire education wherever I am. I can pull up notes from a lecture I attended five years ago in the middle of a PhD seminar today.

And let’s be honest about this idea that we retain better if we hand-write our notes. How many of us hand wrote our notes all through high school? What do you remember from those notes? And how do most of us correspond these days? Email, Facebook, SMS messages — all typed on our devices. Are we failing to learn and remember in those formats? Do we forget our intimate conversations through email or social media?

The pressure to use “real books” and write in a notebook (preferably a moleskine, right?) has emerged as part of a growing anti-technology fetish among academics, and popular culture broadly. I get the appeal and I love books! I would love to sit in a room full of paper books, with ferns and armchairs and whisky — but it just isn’t how I learn. And it’s expensive, and books are heavy. And you can’t search them in the same way.

The fashion of the paper book. (Images: result of Google image search: hipster+books)

For students like me, technology use in the classroom comes down to a question of how we learn.

I need to be able to search a book, copy and paste passages. I’m a scholar because I have technology that allows me to organize, sort, and synthesize information that would otherwise be unwieldy. I didn’t learn to be a scholar with paper and pen, or with a typewriter. And I wouldn’t have been able to make it through my degree programs, and excel at my studies, write a thesis, or publish papers without being able to use this technology.

I, and many students out there like me, rely on laptops, tablets, phones, and online software in the classroom because it is all assistive technology.

Thanks to Amy Dentata, Robin Nagle, and Gary Catano for helping me think through some of these issues.

Please Cite as: Oman-Reagan, Michael P. 2015. “Your Nostalgia Isn’t Helping Me Learn.” Bright: Innovation in Education. September 21.

Michael Oman-Reagan is an anthropologist and PhD candidate. His doctoral research looks at exploration beyond our solar system, science, interstellar space, SETI, imagination, futures, and science fiction.

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