The case for *not* banning laptops in the classroom

This article in the New Yorker by computer science professor Dan Rockmore calls for professors to ban laptops—or as he refers to them, “classroom intruders”—from the lecture hall. He refers to the incorporation of personal devices in the classroom as an “ill-conceived union” and dismisses laptops, smartphones, and tablets as “platforms for play and socializing.” 

On one hand, Rockmore sees some students going on Facebook or playing games rather than paying attention in class; on the other, he sees most students unable to use a laptop effectively in the classroom even if they are on task. On the first count, though it’s important to provide your students with the tools necessary to succeed, I don’t believe it’s the job of a university-level instructor to “save” adult students from their own vices, so I won’t address that issue further. On the second count, most professors are just as clueless as most students are about how to use a laptop in the classroom, Rockmore included. The solution isn’t to ban the technology. The solution is to learn how to use it.

Like most tools, laptops are incredibly powerful if you know how to make them help you, but useless if you don’t. The only difference between a toy see-saw and a force-multiplying lever is the location of the fulcrum, after all. If you help students put the laptop’s “fulcrum” in the right place, you empower them to take better control of their education and improve learning outcomes.

Putting the fulcrum in the correct position lets you lift heavy objects with just a little bit of force. Image: Silver Spoon, CC0 1.0
Putting the fulcrum in the correct position enables you to lift heavy objects with just a little bit of force. Image: Silver Spoon, CC0 1.0

Rockmore is unequivocal about the laptop’s utility as a note-taking device. He says that the potential benefits of digital note-taking are “low” and caricatures diligent note-takers as “transcription zombie[s]” who have the material enter their ears and pass straight out through their fingertips, evidently without having stopped by the brain on the way. If you know how to use a laptop to take notes properly, however, the consolidation and memorization of information takes care of itself.

Day to day, I have a terrible memory. I forget names and faces. Most of the time, I can’t even remember to shut the kitchen cabinets. But by using a laptop properly in the classroom, I helped myself to robustly encode knowledge and to remember a lot more material than most students do come exam time—not just the broad strokes and “conceptual” knowledge, but the granular facts like names, dates, specific quotations, equations, and so on. What’s better, there was no cramming required; and rather than forgetting all the material after the exam, I’ve kept the bulk of it fresh in my mind for years.

My secret was to use spaced repetition rehearsal software. (I used Mnemosyne, but Anki is perhaps more popular today.) I primarily took notes in the form of question-and-answer flashcards, then reviewed my flashcards daily. Whenever I added a new card, the program would quickly re-test me on the material—usually two or three times in the first week. As I answered questions, the software used my performance to figure out which items were easier to remember and which items were harder to remember.

Based on each item’s unique level of difficulty, the software would schedule every individual item for the optimal review time: just long enough that you have to struggle to remember the answer, but not so long that you forget the answer entirely. Due to the way human memory works, every time you successfully recall a piece of information, it becomes easier to remember it again in the future. New information is quizzed a few times in the first week to solidify it in memory, but after a few successful tests, the rehearsal interval quickly expands to weeks long, then months long, and finally years long on an exponential scale. This expanding interval phenomenon enables you to build a deck of thousands of flashcards over time while only needing to review perhaps twenty to thirty of them per day to retain full mastery.

Gary Wolf’s 2008 article in Wired explains the paradigm in much greater detail. The following chart from the article illustrates how just a few self-tests can dramatically improve later recall. Following the chart, if an item is simply learned once and then never tested, the chances of successfully remembering it plunges to near zero after a month or two. But if you test yourself just two or three times over the course of the following days and weeks, the storage strength of the item increases dramatically, enabling you to reliably remember it months or years into the future.

Source: Wired
Source: Wired

Thanks to spaced repetition rehearsal, my digital college notes are so well consolidated in my mind that I can still tell you off the top of my head that Haugen (1950) defined borrowing as “the attempted reproduction in one language of patterns previously found in another.” I can tell you about the “press club speech” given by Dean Acheson in 1950 which implicitly placed Korea outside of the American sphere of influence and helped precipitate the Korean War. I can tell you that the anatomical structure linking Broca’s area of the left frontal lobe to Wernicke’s area of the left temporal lobe is the arcuate fasciculus, and that damage to this structure may result in conduction aphasia. I can tell you that the speed of sound may be reasonably approximated as 345 m/s, but that this varies considerably depending on physical conditions. I can tell you that stromatolites are microbial mats, the fossils of which constitute the earliest evidence of macroscopic life on Earth, and that William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476, about twenty years after Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453.

Would I remember all this information if I’d scrawled it onto a piece of notebook paper? I doubt it. Through the use of spaced-repetition rehearsal software, my laptop acted like a cybernetic appendage which enhanced my ability to encode and retrieve information. Using the right software made it so easy to sop up enormous quantities of information that I began memorizing trivial things—morse code, braille, the locations of every country in the world, the symbols of the periodic table of the elements, and so on—simply for the fun of it. Studying brutally difficult languages like Chinese and Korean was made much more manageable because I leveraged the power of my laptop to keep track of exactly what I knew, exactly what I didn’t know, exactly what I had forgotten, and exactly what I was likely to forget in the near future. The human brain cannot track this sort of mnemonic metadata by itself. Nor can pencils and notebooks.

Is spaced repetition rehearsal software the best tool for taking notes on a laptop? I don’t know, but it worked very well for me. Is it the only good tool for taking notes on a laptop? Definitely not! Students may choose to use Evernote, for example, as a multimedia scrapbook to collect notes from class, whether they be handwritten, typed, photographed, video recorded, or all of the above. My point is that good options exist, and it is both stodgy and mulish to throw up your hands and say that students’ naive and ineffective ways of using laptops in the classroom are the only methods available to them.

To be fair, although Rockmore paints personal devices in a dismissive light, he admits that he is not “surveying the wide range of software and apps that are available” and allows for the possibility that the right software in the right hands may help students to cultivate “new and creative habits of mind.” By implication, Rockmore concedes that successful digital learners like me may exist—though why he doesn’t try to seek them out to find out what resources his students could be using in the classroom is a mystery.

Rockmore also states that one of his goals in banning laptops is to help his students “think critically about the use of technology in their lives and their education.” This is a laudable goal, but an across-the-board ban robs students of autonomy and of the opportunity to employ that critical thinking in real life. Why not open the semester with a fact-based critical thinking activity about classroom technology and establish mutually agreed upon classroom rules for the proper use of technology? Those who abuse the policy can face whatever consequences the class believes to be appropriate.

Perhaps Rockwell simply does not trust his students to be able to make sensible, informed choices about technology in the classroom—and perhaps he is correct that he can’t trust them. But he won’t know unless he is willing to try. I’m willing to make that effort to help my students make positive choices about enhancing their learning through technology—and if you’re an educator, I hope you’re willing to make that effort, too, rather than pulling the plug for good.

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