Against Banning Laptops: Take good notes, trust students

Ruth Colker in the Cardozo Law Review argues that evidence for banning laptops, at most, suggests limited internet access during classroom times requiring content acquisition. Colker writes:

Those studies [promoting bans] represent a careful presentation of three artificial experiments where students are assigned their note-taking style— longhand or computer—and in which students have little incentive to learn the material from the lecture. They are paid to participate irrespective of how well they do on the exercise. The material is not assigned in any course at a university. And the material is conveyed entirely through a brief TED Talk or lecture.

And then Colker talks about her law school students in which laptops were a choice:

My students were not listening to a thirty-minute TED Talk and then being asked to apply limited, discrete information. My students were trying to absorb information over a fourteen-week period for a final, summative, twenty-eight hour take-home examination. For the purpose of taking the final examination, some of my students wanted to have typed notes that they could cut and paste to create an outline. Some students told me that there was inefficiency to handwriting notes because they then needed to type them into an outline. The kinds of benefits that may transpire from taking handwritten notes on short lectures may not correspond to note-taking in a class that consists of considerable discussion and dialogue in preparation for a twenty-eight hour take-home exam. On the other hand, other students told me that they found it beneficial to transfer the handwritten notes to typed notes. The additional step of typing notes was a learning experience for them. They therefore made an informed decision not to bring a computer into the classroom because they preferred to handwrite notes. But, interestingly, all students reported to me that they eventually created typed notes—unlike the students in the experiments.

One conclusion – Trust students:

I have been especially interested in comments from students who have self-identified to me that they have a disability. When laptops are allowed without restriction, these students report that students often do surf the Internet during class in a way that is very distracting to those sitting around them. But these students also report that the Internet surfing ends when the professor has a clear policy banning such conduct in the classroom. For example, during the year of this study, my first-year students had the same classmates during the fall and spring semesters. I taught them in the spring. They reported to me that their classmates who surfed the Internet during the fall were not Internet surfing in the spring in my class because of my clear Internet policy.

In the end, it’s about note-taking:

The research for both typical students and students with disabilities strongly suggests that students do not necessarily take effective notes, irrespective of whether they use a laptop. A simplistic statement that laptop users should not take verbatim notes appears to be an insufficient way to help students take more effective notes. Some students may take effective notes using handwriting. Other students may take effective notes with computers. The technology itself does not dictate the outcome. The student’s note-taking effectiveness affects the outcome.


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