Education Opinion

Paper Versus Laptop: The Best of Both Worlds

By Justin Reich — October 02, 2014 8 min read
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I’m grateful for this guest post from Sabba Quidwai, who currently serves as the Director of Innovative Learning for the University of Southern California - Keck School of Medicine where she works with faculty to create innovative learning experiences for students. Sabba will be a featured presenter at the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit in Boston in November. Sabba offers her response to a recent research paper examining student note-taking with pens and laptops.

Paper vs. Laptop: The Best of Both Worlds

The past few weeks have witnessed a circulation of a research paper presented by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer titled, “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard,” which makes a bold statement:

“Laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

We’ve Always Done It This Way...So Should You!

The article promotes a way of thinking that is detrimental to the future of our society. It locks people into their routines and habits, it locks people into believing our learning system should never evolve and it most certainly locks people into believing we’ve always done it this way so this must be the right way.

As leaders of today, when new technologies appear we have to model unparalleled practices for our students. It is our job and our responsibility to prepare students for the future, not the past; a task which requires us to be open minded in our approach. We have a choice to make when confronted with new tools and changing times: Do we use innovations to redefine our world or do we try to use them as replacement tools to take the place of what we have always done.

Mueller and Oppenheimer made a choice. They chose to take an innovation - the laptop - and use it as a replacement tool. They do not ask what the role of note taking should be in today’s world. They do not ask what new learning opportunities can arise in the classroom when you have students who have access to devices. Above all, they do not ask how can we embrace these new tools to redefine note taking. Not asking these questions is detrimental not only to the future of learning, but to the future of our society. Without asking these questions many will continue to do things the way they have always been done, and will deprive their students of opportunities to engage in a more inquiry based learning experience.

Learn. Unlearn. Relearn. The Device is Not to Blame

I don’t doubt for a moment that students in the study, or students sitting in classrooms across the globe are transcribing the lectures they are sitting in on and racing to write down as much as they can, as fast as they can on their laptops. I don’t doubt that students who were taking notes by hand were more efficient. What I do doubt is the idea that the laptop is to blame for this. In this particular study Mueller and Oppenheimer are working with students who have come to see the teacher as a sage of knowledge, as many of us have. They have been trained to transcribe - memorize - regurgitate - forget. This method of learning places a tremendous amount of stress on students to be able to get every word of crucial information down as fast as they can. As a result, some students have probably come to view the laptop as a solution to this tedious and stressful process.

After reading the article you can infer that the students who are taking notes by hand are not transcribing the lecture because they have learned over the years how to effectively use their pen. It is quite likely these students have been taught note taking strategies, an acquired skill based on trial and error. It then prompts the reader to wonder what the real detriment to learning is in the process cited in Mueller and Oppenheimers research? One possible explanation could be that students are not given an opportunity with appropriate guidance on using new devices to redefine their learning experiences. There is an incorrect assumption often made that just because an individual (especially a young person) owns a device they are “tech savvy.”

Having had experience in working with teachers and students, I find this assumption to be incorrect. Many know how to use devices in a personal environment such as watching movies, checking emails and/or surfing the web. However, when asked to use devices in an educational or professional environment, many immediately try to use them as substitution devices and when this strategy fails, frustrations rise and they revert back to the way they have always done things.

Another concerning statement from Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research was found during a case where they told students simply not to transcribe information because it’s what people tend to do on laptops to see if it would make them change their ways:

“We’d like you to take notes on a lecture, just like you would in class. People who take class notes on laptops when they expect to be tested on the material later tend to transcribe what they’re hearing without thinking about it much. Please try not to do this as you take notes today. Take notes in your own words and don’t just write down word-for-word what the speaker is saying.”

If you don’t want students to write down information word for word, do you not owe it to them to at least spend some time discussing alternatives? Should we not be working together with them to redefine learning experiences using new technologies instead of trying to fit 21st century innovations into 20th century teaching methods. The question must then be asked, “How can we support students and teachers in moving beyond viewing devices as substitution tools?”

Digital Literacy 101

The authors correctly point out that the more deeply information is processed, the greater the encoding benefits. In today’s world where we are making a commitment to prepare students for the future where they will have to act as problem solvers, collaborators, critical thinkers, communicators and innovators, it becomes even more essential for them to be competent enough to process and encode information so that they can not only store it in their short term memory also be able to utilize strategies to create connections in their brain that advance information to their long term memory.

With a laptop or mobile device, processing of information can look different for each student and allow them to process and work with information in a way that suits their learning style. Instead of every student having to conform to a single method, note taking now consists of students having a choice between using pen and paper: Evernote, iAnnotate, Explain Everything and many even using a combination of all! We even have some students who are taking notes by hand that are being scanned into Evernote and iAnnotate so that they can take advantage of having their notes to study from on any device and tagging them using keywords which allow them to make connections between materials. The icing on the cake is having professors and the director of the program modeling learning hand in hand with students as we fulfill our mission to discover, innovate and share together. In a time where we are fortunate enough to have choices, why are we limiting students to a pen and paper? Why can they not use a combination of tools and strategies?

Here are few quotes from our students about their experience with digital note taking:

“As a student learning medicine, the change from writing notes with a pen and paper to using technology has changed my abilities to learn and connect information drastically. Learning the signs and symptoms of so many diseases in such little time was a challenge, especially since many disease processes have so many similarities. I remember when I used to see a specific symptom and think to myself “what other disease has that?” I would waste so much of my time rummaging through my paper notes seeing where I had scribbled it down. Now thanks to technology, within a few seconds I am able to look up keywords and terms within seconds, and focus my valuable time as a student on what really matters instead of wasting my time looking through my notes. It has also helped me to keep all my notes organized, and easy for my classmates and I to share information with each other within seconds...and we can actually read each others notes!”

“There are so many different resources to learn about different diseases. Having to lug around our encyclopedia looking medical textbooks may have been a work out for my biceps, but by the time I got to a desk I was drained from having carried them and the shoulder pain from my backpack didn’t help my focus. Now I have all the access to all the important textbooks I need, my notes, and great applications that make studying more interactive on my mini iPad that I can hold with one hand! It’s incredible how technology has literally taken the weight off my shoulders! While it may seem like a small issue, it is a nuisance any student will understand!”

Pen? Keyboard? Both? The Choice is Yours.

We have made a commitment to equip our professors and students with digital literacy skills to enhance teaching and learning. Creating a space for these conversations and allowing students time to practice integrating technology into their learning experiences will enable them to graduate with a toolbox filled with valuable skills. These are students who will enter the world prepared to embrace innovation in their field. These are students who will not be afraid to learn, unlearn and relearn.

The original research article by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard,” can be found here.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.