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.

What will future archaeologists say when they uncover your students’ digital writing and artwork?

Andy Warhol, Andy2, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum
Andy Warhol, Andy2, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum

This is a very cool story, and I think that there is a connection to be made with edtech.

To be clear, here is the original article:

First, the tl;dr: a team of cybersleuths put a great deal of time and effort into recovering some early digital art from Andy Warhol’s old computer equipment.

The narrative of the disk processing and data analysis is worth reading. There was definitely some wild-west stuff going on there. Warhol was using prototype hardware with experimental software which wrote nonstandard file formats, and just the right combination of boot disks, executable programs, and files needed to be fed into an emulator to actually view anything. Even then, until the file format was decoded and analyzed sufficiently well to make a converter, the only way to “save” the art was to take screenshots– hence the “GraphiCraft” header they didn’t bother to crop out.

The article describes these works as “experiments,” and that feels like the right word to use. I picked the most complex work to display with this blog post, but the other ones that have been released are much more crude– things that could be thrown together in five minutes, really.

Still, this feels like a watershed moment to me. Sure, movements have long existed which seek to preserve early software and so on, but this is a case of unknown cultural works being discovered on digital storage media which had sat untouched for about thirty years– cultural works created by someone who died decades ago. We’ve truly entered the era of digital archaeology.

So what does this have to do with edtech?

Thinking back to my own primary and secondary education, digital creations were notoriously ephemeral. I recall being issued a floppy disk in the fifth grade to store all of my work on, but I had to delete old files as the disk hit its capacity limit. Worse than that, everything was lost when some anonymous malefactor stole my disk, opened the shutter, and riddled the magnetic disk with dents and holes using a pencil.

At the time, I had recently written a short story. It was a few pages long, contained loads of word-play, and even included a hint of the sort of bizarre typographical visual play that I would encounter a few years later reading Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

You know what the assignment was? I was supposed to write vocabulary sentences. I appreciate how much leeway my teachers gave me in letting me bake up and pursue my own bizarre projects… Heck, without that sort of early encouragement, maybe I wouldn’t have had the quixotic delusion necessary to begin a blog. 🙂

Anyway– I had turned in a hard copy of the story, but the digital version was destroyed along with the disk. And given my utter lack of organizational skills as a child, the hard copy vanished into the space-time continuum soon afterward.

Maybe the story wasn’t as good as I remember it being. I don’t know. And I can never know.

Fast forward to high school, and I recall using my Geocities account as a proto-Dropbox. I occasionally uploaded my work to that online storage space with an eye toward archiving it for the future.

We all know what happened to Geocities, though, right?

Now that so many schools use Google Apps for Education, though, perhaps the digital dark ages are coming to an end. Perhaps students’ early writing and digital art will be preserved by default instead of melting away as disks get lost, computers crash, and obscure folders squirreled away on hard drives get forgotten in the transfer to a new machine. Of course, GApps could go the way of Geocities– but with cloud computing services, there is at least the potential for truly effortless archival-by-default. After all, I may have lost the majority of my high school schoolwork, but I still have all of my email dating back at least as far as my 2001 Hotmail account. That’s a promising data point for the longevity of data in the cloud.

When the great artists and writers of the next generation come of age, will they be able to look back on an unbroken record of their experiments and achievements? Will historians of the future be able to get an incredibly deep and comprehensive look at the early thoughts and works of their ancestors?


Opening the Access to Scholarly Research

This guest post by Ken Ronkowitz was previously published in his blog, Serendipity35.

Photo: Kevin Eng, CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo: Kevin Eng, CC BY-SA 2.0

I was listening recently to an episode of The Chronicle‘s Tech Therapy podcast on the “Moral Imperative” for Open Access to scholarly research featuring David Parry. He is an Assistant Professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas and his main point was that scholars have an obligation to publish their research in journals that make free copies available online.

This is a topic that I am interested in and I agree with Parry. This is also a hot and debatable topic tight now. Unfortunately, it was the suicide of Aaron Swartz after he was being prosecuted for trying to free such research that brought it to many mainstream news outlets.

“Information is power,” Swartz wrote. “But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”  He had made unauthorized downloads of more than four million articles from JSTOR and the federal indictment against him said that he did it in order to then upload them to the Internet and make them available for free.

His approach was radical and was compared on news outlets to Wikleaks. The tragedy in his case was that even though the civil complaints against him were dropped and he had returned all the downloaded data, the case was still being pursued.

David Parry calls sites like JSTOR “knowledge cartels.”

The term “open” and open access (OA) has a number of meanings. According to Wikipedia (itself an open site), open access can be defined as “the practice of providing unrestricted access via the Internet to peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles.” There are a growing number of theses, scholarly monographs, articles and book chapters that are provided with open access to all.

There are two degrees of open access: gratis OA meaning no-cost online access, and libre OA which is like gratis but with some additional usage rights.

Similarly, we use the term “open content” with materials available online where the author(s) gives the right to modify the work and reuse it.  Most of us went through school learning to use content intact and to associate it with an author(s).

You might be familiar with Creative Commons licenses that can be used to make content accessible and yet to specify usage rights (such as attribution or non-commercial usage). My blog uses a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative Commons license for the content.

The open access concept was pushed forward at a rapid pace by the Internet, and in education it was pushed by its extension into learning objects and other resources used in online learning.

Scholarly publishing, much like the music and film industry and traditional publishing, has resisted open access, and may very well find that resistance to be why it will disappear.

Creative Commons License
Opening the Access to Scholarly Research by Ken Ronkowitz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.