In the epic movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character wakes up over and over and over again on the exact same day. When the New York Times published Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting. last week, I knew that I was about to live through the same set of conversations all over again. With her editorial, Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, joined the ranks of previous academics to ban devices and extol the virtues of pen and paper. I have been carefully following these editorials, as well as the underlying empirical studies fueling their publication, for several years. As I wrote previously, note taking has become my most “innovative” blog topic.
Because several colleagues and friends have reached out to get my opinion on this latest editorial, I decided to take a deep breath and craft a response. However, before you read this article, please take a moment and review what Josh Eyler and I wrote back in October. We argue that the writers of these ban the technology editorials assume a traditional model of education without questioning what could be possible given advances in technology. Further, these editorials equate learning with memorization, consider learning to be an individual rather than a social endeavor, and fail to consider that individuals learn in different ways.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take this from the top…
In her introductory paragraphs, Professor Dynarski states that she predominately lectures in class and therefore bans laptops. Though she asserts that devices may be useful for accessing supplemental materials, she still prefers that they remain shut down during class. In this introduction, she assumes that the purpose of notetaking is to capture as much content as possible. She also seems to be working on a transmission based model of education where she assumes that a teacher speaking equates to a student learning.
Though lecture can be an effective means to convey large amounts of information within a short period of time, she seems to consider analog and digital note taking strategies to be comparable. As I wrote in a previous article, when a student employs successful note taking strategies and harnesses the capacity of digital technologies, then that student can engage in deeper inquiry and focus on analysis and synthesis rather than just capturing content.
The “Unequivocal” Evidence
Like other authors, Professor Dynarski cites the works of Mueller and Oppenheimer  as well as Carter, Greenberg, and Walker . With the first study, Mueller and Oppenheimer argue that while note taking can be beneficial to learning when it is generative – meaning that people use it to summarize, synthesize, or draw conclusions, it is not helpful when used as a tool for capturing content verbatim. When the students in their experiment used their laptops while watching TED talks, they essentially used their devices to transcribe the content rather than attempt to process the information in their own words. During a repeat of the experiment, the researchers told the students to NOT transcribe the lectures, though they did not provide any other concrete strategies to support their note taking.
While this study certainly presents empirical evidence that transcribing lectures verbatim does not support student learning, I do not believe that it presents the “unequivocal evidence” that Professor Dynarski cites. First, the researchers do not pre-test the students to see if they have digital note taking skills, typing skills, or an inherent interest in the TED talks. Next, the researchers do not offer any concrete strategies to help students develop digital note taking skills. Finally, as critical readers of this research, we need to ask whether our own students and our own schools closely resemble the individuals and conditions from this study before we can generalize these findings to our own contexts.
To counter some of these questions, Carter, Greenberg, and Walker conducted a randomized control trial with students from West Point. Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) are considered the “gold standard” of research because they mitigate sampling and selection bias; however, given their small sample size, their findings are typically not generalizable to a larger audience. In this particular study, the researchers conducted an experiment using three separate groups in the required Introduction to Economics course: one had unrestricted use of technology, one had tablets that remained flat on the desk during class, and one had no technology. All of the students participated in the same lecture-based courses with the same multiple choice exam. The authors found that “Using a computer device in the classroom over the course of an entire semester reduced student performance on final exam scores by approximately one-fourth of a standard deviation.”
Before running off to ban devices in light of these findings, know that the authors state that their results only relate to lecture-based classes where students use devices for note taking. Further, they do not make any inferences regarding the effectiveness of technology to support learning in classes where the teachers deliberately use devices to support instruction. Finally, they do not make any claims that using devices decreases a student’s ability to take notes.
Both of these studies present data that should inform future conversations and encourage teachers and professors to consider their practice as well as their students’ use of technology. They also serve as evidence of the need to support students with strategies instead of just assuming that students know how to take advantage of their devices within a classroom setting.
The Distraction Effect
Because the editorial did not provide direct links to studies, and I need to get back to my own homework, I cannot attest to the arguments about the distraction-factor and multitasking. Anecdotally, I can tell you that as a doctoral student in a lecture-based course, I had to prevent myself from sitting where I could see the laptop screen of a classmate. While I struggled to pay attention and take notes on my iPad, I kept getting pulled off task by his constant swiping between dozens of tabs during the lecture: email, Twitter, research, a paper he was editing, his notes, etc.
Wait! Let’s think about this again. As a student armed with self-awareness and an understanding of my own needs as a learner, I recognized the problem associated with sitting in a particular location and removed myself. While I recognize that this strategy may not always be possible, what if we help students to engage in metacognition and reflect on their needs as learners so that they can take ownership of their own learning process instead of issuing edicts that do not actually help students to build these life skills.
As for the multitasking, plenty of neuroscience research attests to the fact that multitasking (vs. parallel processing) does detract from learning. Neuroscientist Donald Hebb once said, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, if you do not pay attention and “attend” to the task at hand, then you cannot learn. Again, instead of banning devices, what if we help students to develop the skills to take control of their technology and create conditions that support them as learners.
Laptops and Meetings
If you are still reading, I appreciate your bearing with me. Admittedly, I am skipping over a few of the paragraphs regarding students with learning disabilities as quite the debate is raging on social media if you care to take part.
However, in the final statement of the editorial, Professor Dynarski generalizes the findings of these studies as well as her personal experience to K-12 classrooms as well as meetings. Having taught in K-12 classrooms, and worked with K-12 teachers, and studied K-12 learning, I would strongly disagree. In these environments, teachers have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to help students develop the skills that they need for success.
As for meetings, we have all sat through those that range from boring to inane. Everyone reading this has probably checked email, engaged in a G-Chat, skimmed Twitter, or texted someone while attempting to look engaged. You might even be reading this post in a meeting! And yet, this behavior has nothing to do with the devices at our disposal. It has to do with how we manage our own behavior. If we want our students to understand social cues, to be able to look someone in the eye and actually listen, to recognize when to take notes and when to just pay attention, then we need to help them develop those skills and we also need to model them.
Phew! So I would like to wake up tomorrow and have it not be today (go watch the last scene of Groundhog Day if you don’t get the reference). Technology is only going to become more ubiquitous, and digital skills will continue to be valued in the workplace. Instead of banning devices in classrooms, we need to harness their potential to help students develop the skills that they need to be successful learners.
 Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168. http://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581
 Carter, S. P., Greenberg, K., & Walker, M. S. (2017). The impact of computer usage on academic performance: Evidence from a randomized trial at the United States Military Academy. Economics of Education Review, 56, 118-132. Retrieved from https://seii.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/SEII-Discussion-Paper-2016.02-Payne-Carter-Greenberg-and-Walker-2.pdf