Is There a Laptop Learning Conundrum? Take Notes

One recent trend in the world of academia has been banning laptops from the classroom for note-taking purposes, citing research that handwritten notes are more effective. Educators at association conferences may not have that option. So what’s plan B?

Laptops are a fact of life in the conference setting. People have been mixing it up with education, note-taking, live-tweeting, and perhaps a little stare or two at the inbox for years.

But what effect do they have on the actual learning part of the equation?

A recent New York Times column by University of Michigan Professor Susan Dynarski definitely helped stoke a fresh conversation about this well-worn issue, which has just as much impact on the world of associations as it does on academia.

Dynarski, who is not a fan of laptops in the classroom, cites an array of research papers on the issue, many of which used random sampling to figure out the impact of laptop use on students. One 2014 study [PDF] done by researchers at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, gave random students a laptop and analyzed the effect. The students who used the laptop took better notes but apparently had lower levels of understanding of the material—in other words, they’re transcribing what’s written rather than comprehending, the argument goes.

“The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective—because you can’t write as fast as you can type,” one of the study’s coauthors, Princeton’s Pam A. Mueller, told NPR last year. “And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”

Other research Dynarski cited found that laptops helped to decrease the comprehension even of those around them, and other research still found that the results held up even after a full semester. As a result, she personally bans electronic devices from her classroom.

“Students may object that a laptop ban prevents them from storing notes on their computers,” Dynarski says. “But smartphones can snap pictures of handwritten pages and convert them to an electronic format. Even better, outside class, students can read their own handwritten notes and type them, if they like, a process that enhances learning.”

In Defense of Laptops

Not everyone is a fan of that line of thinking, of course—and understandably, the biggest critics are the ones having to write the notes. Lexi Lieberman, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote a post for the student-written online magazine Study Breaks in which she argued that writing by hand created legibility problems, as well as gaps in her notes.

“I know that personally, my handwriting isn’t very good,” Lieberman writes. “This often discourages me from looking back over my handwritten notes, especially because sometimes I can’t even read what I’ve written.”

(My handwriting is likewise no good, so I’m in her court on that specific count.)

Alas, Lieberman notes, four of her five current classes have bans similar to Dynarski’s. And even in classes where laptops were allowed, she’s seen heavy-handed policies, such as teaching assistants looking over students’ shoulders to make sure they weren’t goofing off, which angered students, rather than helping them.

Educators in the association space are likely to face an uphill battle in getting people to put away their laptops in the middle of a three-day conference.

Can Association Educators Just Say No?

Clearly, the world of association learning is a bit different from a college course, even if the similarities from a learning standpoint are clear. Based on your association’s meeting format, an average presenter may run into his or her “student” only a handful of times over a number of years—making a rapport difficult.

And considering how much we’ve pressed on technology at our conferences, the fact of the matter is, educators in the association space are likely to face an uphill battle in getting people to put away their laptops in the middle of a three-day conference. (Additionally, you may have writers or journalists like me in your session, trying to actually turn your ideas into a story.)

As a result, I think it’s probably worth discussing whether the problem isn’t about pushing attendees to take notes with paper and pen, but whether we might be able to encourage better note-taking capabilities using technology.

The cat’s out of the bag at this point—we should focus on improving how people use laptops for taking notes, rather than throwing them out of the equation entirely. If people are clearly taking notes the wrong way, why aren’t we teaching them the right way?

Not as many people seem to be pondering that topic, despite the proliferation of tools like Evernote and OneNote. (Dynarski, to be fair, suggests that there’s still plenty of room for deeper digging on the impact of laptops in the classroom.)

A 2015 post on The Conversation from Claire Brown of Australia’s Victoria University offers a step forward on this front, highlighting research that shows differences in how learners manipulate information, suggesting more collaborative teaching approaches that integrate laptops into the process, and highlighting how learners can use note-taking tools in ways that encourage comprehension—say, by quizzing yourself by using a text editor’s notes or annotations feature.

She also suggests combining handwritten and digital notes—as well as having an open dialogue with students on the right balance. (For associations, maybe having a conference session on good note-taking might be in order.)

“Teachers have to develop new skills to use technology purposefully,” Brown writes. “Whether handwritten or electronic, it is best for teachers and students to choose the most appropriate form of note-taking for each task.”

Portable digital technology is a significant dynamic change, and we’re still trying to understand how it affects things large and small. It creates challenges for educators, in social situations, and even in the workplace. We’re still trying to figure out the best ways to integrate it.

Associations are going to be on the front line of this issue for a good long while. Now might be the time to invest in some solutions.

(monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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