Sunday, November 4, 2018

Laptops in the Classroom

Content outline:

  1. What do teachers have against laptops in the classroom?
  2. What have been the usual responses to these points?
  3. ”How having the right hardware and software combined with evidence from research may strengthen the case for allowing "laptops" in the classroom?

What do teachers have against laptops in the classroom?

There is evidence that learners are less engaged and more easily distracted when they have laptops in the classroom.  They surf the web, visit social networking sites, get notifications and alerts and tend not to focus on the teacher in the front of the class (Ravizza et al).  In addition, their screens can distract other students sitting around them (Sana et al).  The teachers who cannot see what is on their screens wonder if the student is looking up information related to the class or engaged in irrelevant activities.   To some, the vertical screens may appear to act as barriers in small learning groups.  There is also the debate about typing vs. handwriting, with a recent study showing that taking handwritten notes leads to better recall compared to typing (Mueller and Oppenheimer).

What have been the usual responses to counter these points?

Educators who encourage students to bring their laptops and mobile devices to class suggest that if they (the educators) prepare for this and design their lessons appropriately, the students would be engaged in the learning process and not go off surfing the web.  They recommend creating exercises or using specific tools that require the students to use their devices in a meaningful manner that would enhance their learning (Erping et al). If in spite of this, the students do misuse their devices, the problem is the learners', and they would probably not learn even if they did not have laptops and smartphones in the classroom.

But how does one counter the arguments against the vertical screen causing a distraction and being a barrier and that typing leads to poor recall?  This is where the appropriate hardware and software can solve the problem.

A number of devices like the Surface Pro, iPad Pro, HP Spectre etc allow the screen to be pushed flat and to take handwritten notes with digital ink using a stylus. Software like OneNote allows collation and organization of all kinds of files (Word processing, PDFs, videos, slide decks etc) in a digital system that resembles the 3 ring binders from high school.  These files can be annotated using a stylus, searched (including the handwritten portions), automatically saved and updated, stored online and accessed on multiple devices including smartphones.  Combine this with apps like PomoDone which allow blocking of specific sites like Facebook or Twitter or Gmail during class and I believe we have a very convincing case for allowing these devices in the classroom.

So how can a teacher leverage the presence of such convertible 2-in-1 laptops and OneNote in the classroom?  What can they try with their lectures and slides to convince them allowing and even encouraging the use of these tools in the classroom can actually help their learners?

There are a whole host of tools to help teach and learn in the classroom like audience response systems, gamification software etc. In addition, you can employ techniques like think-pair-share and flipped classrooms to enhance the learning process and engagement without introducing laptops in the classroom. But what if you want to just take some baby steps, pilot something quickly and easily before redesigning your lesson plans?

If the teacher already has a slide deck then they can provide the slides ahead of time to the students so they can download and "print" them to OneNote.

Skeletal (Partial) vs. full handouts

So how do handouts work?  Won't having the handout ahead of class reduce motivation to attend class?  Will they be even more inattentive since they have all the information already?
The answer to these questions lies in the study that showed that when learners are provided handouts with only skeletal notes instead of fully detailed notes, they have a better recall (Prabhu et al; and Russell et al).  The students fill in the gaps in the skeletal notes as they listen to the "lecture" (Yes, yes, ideally the good teacher should not be lecturing).  The students given skeletal notes have better recall of the information learned in class than those given full detailed notes. This option will require the teacher to create 2 versions of their slide deck - one with just the skeletal format for handouts ahead of class and one for presentation during class.

Active note-taking

If the teacher does not want to make the effort to create these 2 versions, they can still use their full handouts but then they need to encourage their students to take active notes in class.  It has been shown that when students create their own questions about the content, write self-explanations to answer those questions and summarize what they learned, they retain information better than when they just highlight and underline (Dunlosky et al).  One well-known format of active note-taking is Cornell notes, and there is mixed evidence of its ability to enhance test performance.


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