Environmentalists have long had an ambivalent relationship with technology: solar panels are pretty cool, but cob is really cool (at least among the natural building community around Portland; see e.g. here or here), and the latter provides the added benefit that you can take off your shoes when you make it—come to think of it, I don’t recall seeing too many solar panels on cob structures. The ambivalence seems less about technology per se. than about technological change and the future. New technologies tend to be scary to many environmentalists, whose sense of the future is not altogether rosy to begin with.
This ambivalence regarding newer technologies stretches beyond the green community. I’ve certainly seen it in higher education, where my colleagues routinely use Moodle as a course management system, and precious few if any queue up slide carousels for their lectures. But I wouldn’t call it a wholehearted embrace: there is, understandably and perhaps justifiably, a feeling among academics that good scholarship involves a way of plodding through ideas that has gone on successfully for a long time, and thus shouldn’t be too beholden to the shifting winds of technological change.
Yet I was reminded of this ambivalence when I read my colleagues’ course syllabi, in preparation for visiting classes starting next week related to our Environmental Studies Program. (I’m on sabbatical just now, a rare moment to do the stuff I’ve always wanted to do, like sit at the feet of my fellow professors and learn something.) Among many of their syllabi was some variation of the following:
It has been proven that taking notes by hand helps you learn better than when using a laptop or device. Laptops and devices are thus not permitted during class.*
As the prime mover behind Lewis & Clark’s Digital Scholarship multisite and related efforts, I was surprised at how often I bumped into a classroom technology ban like this. And it led me to search for resources that explore the justifiable concerns that led to these bans—principally, devices as distractions and digital notetaking as inferior—in greater depth, so as to come up with a more flexible solution.
Below are seven resources I found, with a few snippets from each. I hope they advance our conversation about technology in the classroom, and perhaps help us laugh a bit at the consequences of our widespread ambivalence.
- No, Banning Laptops is Not the Answer (James Lang, Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/11/16). The most recent of these resources, citing/weaving together much of the below, and recommending a plural/flexible solution. “The classroom should serve as an active laboratory of learning, a place where students engage with the course material through multiple cognitive streams.…let’s hear no more talk of laptop bans or blanket condemnations of laptop bans. Let’s talk about laptop policies instead, and may those policies lead us to more strategic thinking and transparency about what we do in the classroom.”
- Let’s Ban the Classroom Technology Ban (The Tattooed Professor [Kevin Gannon], 5/15/16). Definitely a strong but thoughtful reaction to the ban bandwagon. Here’s how it starts: “THIS JUST IN: Distracted students are distracted! Also: sometimes there are things that distract students! And we all know what to do with things that might potentially distract students: BAN THEM! At least that’s what we’re told by the avatars of pedagogical wisdom populating the comment threads below any article talking about students’ use of technology in the classroom.”
- On Not Banning Laptops in the Classroom (Technist: Teaching, Technology, History, and Innovation [Jeffrey McClurken], 8/6/16). A series of ten propositions re-thinking the classroom technology ban. One good early point the author makes: “Those studies about the wonders of handwriting all suffer from the same set of flaws, namely,…that they don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes. That is, they all hand students devices and tell them to take notes in the same way they would in written form. In some cases those devices don’t have keyboards; in some cases they don’t provide software tools to use (there are some great ones, but doing it in say, Word, isn’t going to maximize the options digital spaces allow).”
- Laptops in the Classroom: What Would Socrates Do? (Precarious Physicist [Andrew Robinson], 9/7/15). Under the heading “Treat the students as responsible adults,” the author writes: “You are not doing this by taking their ‘toys’ away from them. You are trying to superimpose your view on what constitutes ‘proper’ teaching on them. You need to let them have the devices, with the risks of distraction. It is their responsibility to learn not to be distracted. This is a skill they must have if they want to be useful in the workplace. Where are they going to learn it? Higher education, of course.”
- Making Disability Part of the Conversation (Rick Godden and Anne-Marie Womack, Hybrid Pedagogy, 5/12/16). An important dimension that’s often missing in the conversation: “This debate is about more than the best way to take notes. It is about the assumptions instructors make about students. It is about the narratives educators construct about learning. All too often, underlying discussions of appropriate student behavior and traditional best practices are narrow visions of students’ abilities and classroom praxis. Seeing a student body as an undifferentiated group leads to strict rules and single solutions.…Are people with disabilities, then, doomed to substandard learning? Can any pedagogy be sound if it doesn’t fully incorporate people with disabilities?”
- Do Your Students Take Good Notes? (George Williams, Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/23/16). Getting back to the important issue of student notetaking: whether via digital or analog means, this is a learned skill and well worth our attention. “I often find myself frustrated and annoyed when I’m explaining something in class and look out at a room full of students who are, admittedly, paying attention to what I’m saying but writing down not a single thing in their notes.…It’s clearly not enough just to harangue students about their inadequate classroom behavior; instructors should think carefully about what and why they want students to engage in certain practices and make clear to students what the reasons are.”
- Tips for Developing Students’ Note-taking Skills (Maryellen Weimer, Faculty Focus, 11/20/13). Our final resource, this post was referred to as exemplary in the Chronicle article above. The first three recommendations: “Identify key concepts in the day’s lesson: ‘Now here’s something you need to have in your notes. Listen carefully.’; Challenge students to retrieve things from their notes: ‘Look at your notes from November 5. What have you got about X? Nothing? That’s not good.’; Provide a definition, pause, and give students one minute to rewrite it in their own words. Ask students why it might be important to do so.”
*1/12/17 update: After publishing this post I visited a number of courses on campus, including some that explicitly banned devices. In one such course, where the ban was prominent in the syllabus, I observed roughly one in eight students using a device!: some simply got out their laptops to take notes (do people actually do that?), while most others did the usual cell-phone-hidden-in-the-lap thing, which the professor could not see but I (seated amongst the students) readily could. So, if device bans actually don’t even work, what does this mean for the above?