Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Classroom Technology

Despite evidence that having computers in class is not good for students, Slate's Rebecca Schumann argues that professors should permit them anyway:
[P]olicing the (otherwise nondisruptive) behavior of students further infantilizes these 18-to-22-year-olds. Already these students are hand-held through so many steps in the academic process: I check homework; I give quizzes about the syllabus to make sure they’ve actually read it; I walk them, baby-steps style, through every miniscule stage of their essays. Some of these practices do indeed improve what contemporary pedagogy parlance calls “learning outcomes” (barf) because they show students how invested I am in their progress. But these practices also serve as giant, scholastic water wings for people who should really be swimming by now.

My colleagues and I joke sometimes that we teach “13th-graders,” but really, if I confiscate laptops at the door, am I not creating a 13th-grade classroom? Despite their bottle-rocket butt pranks and their 10-foot beer bongs, college students are old enough to vote and go to war. They should be old enough to decide for themselves whether they want to pay attention in class—and to face the consequences if they do not.
I'm sympathetic to the argument - I've never had an "attendance policy" for essentially the same reason - but what Schumann misses is that the use of laptops have a negative spillover effect (what economists call an "externality").  A student who is using a computer will not only distract herself but also the students around her - it is the harm to others, and the classroom environment more generally, that justifies prohibiting computers in class.

Schumann goes on to argue the real problem is lecture format classes.  I don't think its appropriate to generalize - the optimal format probably varies across subjects (and across students, too, which may be a more difficult problem).  I'm planning some pretty big changes to the way I teach my classes for the coming year that will significantly reduce the amount of lecturing I do.  I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't expect the benefits to outweigh the costs, but I suspect the virtues of the traditional lecture style may be under-appreciated these days.  In particular, the act of note-taking by hand is a valuable part of the learning process.  A recent NY Times story about the decline of handwriting instruction in schools discussed some evidence on that point:
Two psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.
Although we should always be looking for ways to improve, and to take advantage of new technology where it can be helpful, sometimes "innovation" carries hidden costs, and we will make better choices if we try to understand what those might be and take them into account.

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