This post is in response to Susan Dynarski’s article in the New York Times from November 22nd, 2017, “Latops are Great. But Not During a Lecture or Meeting.” After writing an unnecessarily lengthy email to my siblings, I figured I’d turn it into a blog. Let me know where I’m wrong in the comments. 

Photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov on Unsplash.

I agree. Technology is super distracting. The author lays out a valid argument, and the research clearly demonstrates the impact of laptops on lectures. Laptops are undoubtedly more distracting than pencil and paper. To assume that technology always adds positively to a learning environment is naive at best. We all know from personal experience in our academic, social and professional lives just how distracting our devices can be. The article’s title, unfortunately, misrepresents the article; laptops are decidedly not great for learning at all, according to the author.

The underlying assumptions of the piece give me pause. “But a growing body of evidence shows that overall, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures.” I don’t doubt this claim, and the author’s explanation supports it. But what exactly are the researchers concerned with, student learning or student learning from lectures? Research clearly tells us that students learn less from lectures. Thus, if the goal is student learning, why focus on the technology and not the pedagogy? Furthermore, the study used a standardized test about the lecture to make its claims. Not only is this problematic for the inherent biases and incomplete understanding of student learning from standardized tests, but it also assumes that learning is limited to what is delivered during the lecture, not the content being studied.

“Notetaking” is assumed to be a simplistic recording of the lecture, as well. Did the chosen notetaking strategy impact students’ learning? Did all students with laptops simply record every word verbatim, or did they employ a variety of strategies that may have impacted their understanding of the lesson, as well? Further research on the impact of other modes of notetaking would be important for completing the picture. Sketchnoting – both on paper as well as on a tablet – forces students to process and analyze information to a greater degree than the notetaking described; flipped video lectures allow students to pause and rewind; collaborative notetaking allows students to build off of and learn from others. Ideally, students will identify the best notetaking system for themselves through exposure and guidance.

I’m also troubled by the assumption that students attending the lecture have an equal playing field of background knowledge. Are students empowered to fill their gaps in their understanding during a lecture, or should they remain quiet and act the part? Sure, we have mechanisms for filtering out students who are not ‘academically prepared’ for college, but until the system operates in a competency-based manner, there is no way to guarantee that all students are entering with the same knowledge and depth of understanding. What would an equitable education look like for college students? How are lectures complicit in higher education’s system of oppression? To single-out students with professionally-validated learning disabilities creates an obvious problem socially, but it also assumes that all other learners are equally favored to succeed in learning from a lecture.

Another assumption is that students use laptops for, “not just note-taking but Facebook, Twitter, email and news.” I interpret this to mean that there are two uses of technology: word processing and social media. One supports learning while the other distracts from it. Skilled educators, however, recognize the power of technology for learning that goes far beyond simple notetaking. The all-too-familiar, though flawed, SAMR model points to the transformational possibilities that technology enables. In the model, word processing falls under “substitution,” using technology to simply replicate a task without any added functionality. In the author’s perspective, the use of technology is even worse as it impedes learning. This ironically points to the SAMR model’s failure to recognize the negative impacts of technology on learning; when used ineffectively, technology can take away from learning. No technology is neutral. When we look at the laptop as purely a word processor for notetaking, however, we are ignoring (refusing to see?) the possibility for transformational learning. I first used a word processor in school in 1997 – clearly, education technology has advanced since then, including the use of social media.

The author wants students to be engaged in her lectures, and understandably so. Assuming the best of her intentions, I believe she wants more than this – she wants her students to learn and to be curious. So instead of focusing on the confined pedagogy of the lecture, I would encourage a more nuanced look at the benefits and drawbacks of technology as tools for learning. The author’s ban reveals a dichotomous view of technology; it either has a positive or negative impact on learning. Her contention is that it is negative, therefore it must be eradicated. Banning technology sends a message. What does it say to students about curiosity? Does it encourage students to explore concepts at a greater depth or to make connections to content? What does it say about power dynamics of a classroom and trust? Do students feel that their thoughts, their voices are respected? Banning technology is not neutral – it, too, impacts the learning negatively.

As with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle – technology can be positive and negative. Technology can act as an important tool in learning, while it can also distract from it. To ban technology is easy, but it avoids an opportunity to teach. Rather than trying to limit students’ access, why don’t we help them to manage their devices and distractions better? Why don’t we teach them how to take notes effectively?

As a friend and former colleague often reminds me, balance is everything. Overuse of technology can distract from learning, just as banning it entirely can limit access to learning. Students learn best when technology is integrated purposefully, and students are empowered to use it.

Then again, maybe I’m missing the point.

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