Friday, September 07, 2007

I Like Laptops for Learning

And not just becuase of my fondness for Belle The Dell, who is running Vista Basic (ugh!) and MS Word 2007 (nice!).

It came from the comments:

Mi Guida asks:

I'm hailing from studying law in the UK - so, first degree, not grad school, but some things may have points of comparison.On the front of non-law students writing on paper, as opposed to laptops: in my lectures, the majority (although a shrinking majority, to be fair) write in ink on paper (though generally loose leaf, not bound pads) - in my case, this then gets integrated into other notes. Some do use laptops, and probably a higher percentage than for other subjects, but not everyone.I think it's mostly a personal preference thing (ignoring the issue of not everyone being able to touch type, or type fast enough) - if you don't mind me asking, why do you find it easier/more efficient to use a laptop?

I prefer laptops. I just think it's so much better for my hyper-organized, OCD self. But that's just me, and to each his or her own. All law students are Type A, and I'm no different.

There was a post on Prawfsblawg about professors banning laptops. I replied here. I'll repost a good chunk of my own defense of laptops:

"Law students are mature enough to know that whatever form the lecture/discussion takes (Powerpoint, classic lecture, or heavily Socratic/dialogic) there are also many ways to process the material (taking notes by hand, by laptop, or by making their own case briefs, or just listening) and that just as the professor has discretion in how s/he conveys the material, the student should have discretion in how s/he processes it. It’s a “whatever works for you” operating model. Personally, I’m in favor of an inclusive pedagogy that acknowledges that people learn in different ways–some are visual, some are verbal, and many, like me, take notes obsessively by laptop because I can no longer write by hand very efficiently or read my own handwriting.

I take very good notes, and my outlines were legendary at law school (I donated one to an outline bank at law school and it got circulated throughout the school via other orgs). That's not to say I had the best grades when it came to performing on the one-shot test, but I can say with some confidence that I really learned the material. I spent a lot of time with the material, and a lot of time in office hours. Usually, unless it's a class for which I found the lectures to be useless, I am a professor's dream. I come prepared, rarely miss class, take great notes, do great outlines, and visit office hours. And yes, I do participate. I sit in the front row. I raise my hand a lot. I make eye contact. But is what I do the best way to learn? I don't necessarily think so, it's just the way I learn. Some of my classmates did much better than I did with much less engagement. All I can say is that if I enjoyed the subjesct, I learned it well, and got whatever grade I did or didn't deserve on the final. But it's all about the test.

Professors (and I am not yet one, so this is not hypocritical to say) tend to forget that for all their lecture prep, it is entirely up to the student in how s/he processes the material. Professors invest so much time in crafting their syllabi, lecture notes, or Powerpoint presentation (this too, I am familiar with) that they forget students don't share that same level of investment with the material. Most students merely want to know enough to do well on the exam and later, pass the bar. I am not advocating a student-as-consumer model of education--the professor should teach what s/he believes to be useful and interesting. But I am asking for a little reality here. Students aren't empty vessels for knowledge, torch-bearers, intellectual progeny, or guinea pigs for pedagogical experiments.

I really, really hate the idea that there are teachers who think their way is the best. It just doesn't acknowledge the intellectual diversity of a law school classroom, where for every dozen former political science majors, there are handfuls of English literature majors, math majors, science majors, or former grad students who sometimes have more pedagogical experience than their professors. And such my-way-or-the-highwayness is really limiting, refusing to acknowledge diversity in viewpoint or the potential shyness or reticent speaking style of certain members of the class (male and female, white and non-white), rewarding instead those with excellent short term memories and short turnaround time between ingestion of material and commentary (which isn't always good by the way).

When I teach, I try to recognize that all my students may be different. They may be like me, shy to participate during the first two weeks (when I'm getting acclimated to the material and used to the professor's style) but a major participant in for the rest of the sixteen weeks. They may be bold, but often incorrect or uncritical in their responses. They may never want to talk. Some are note takers. Some are listeners. I want to include all of my students in the discussion rather than alienate those who need the most engagement.

I like being able to take copious notes, which is not to say they are not selective and appropriate distillations of the material. I also like taking a break from my note-taking to make comments or listen to a fellow student. But I don't want to be told that my way of ingesting and digesting the material is inferior. It works for me. I feel like I've learned a lot and have been a very engaged, "ideal" student. So what's wrong with that?"

I hope that answers the question. For more on the paternalism of law school, see Dave Hoffman's post on Concurring Opinions about compulsory attendance, which has an excellent comment thread.

I will add now this now, after all of this extra school and graduate teaching:

It is (usually, but perhaps less in law, although that may be changing with the increase in J.D./Ph.Ds, VAPs) true that professors, due to their pedagogical training, know better than their students how best to learn the material. Professors do have a right to make demands of their students towards pedagogical or professionalization goals that students may not always like. This is why we have due dates and assignments and grades. This is true even in the student-as-consumer model of education. But that said, while this may justify compulsory attendance (to me, iffy for the reason that Dave gives) or making attendance and participation a part of the grade (more defensible and sound pedagogy), this does not justify banning laptops. This goes back to my defense of laptops--I learn best this way, and let me learn. Suggest that I experiment with other methods, and perhaps I will, but as an adult student I will make my own choices.

I have become more aware of how much I like my laptop now that I'm taking courses in other graduate departments. Hardly anyone uses laptops in graduate seminars--only the professional student interlopers. I started leaving the laptop behind, because I hardly take notes in seminars and didn't want to carry the heavy machine for nothing (and no, I don't surf or email or blog during class). But the times I did want to take notes, I was struck by how much I hate handwriting notes. I can type much faster. I focus much more on what is being said and trying to distill it quickly when I can "write" with both hands. I used to take notes by hand in college, and I hated it even then--I've kept all of my notes from "Critical Theory 100A" and "U.S. Foreign Policy," and the are incomprehensible. Poorly organized, and in atrocious handwriting. I definitely drifted off in concentration, witness my doodles and margin notes to my neighbor. If anything, I take better notes now on my laptop, and can rearrange and fill in gaps on my own. I expertly use keyboard commands and create tables in 2 seconds. Flowcharts even.

But it's entirely up to you. If you like handwriting, stick with it. I prefer writing quickly, getting the stuff down, and with all my extra time, really processing the material in the moment. And that's when I raise my hand and comment. When I'm writing by hand, I'm so frustrated at my inability to take down the material and organize it comprehensibly that I forget to comment. And then my notes are so bad, I have nothing to review after the class that's useful. And when it comes to finals time, yeah I wish I had those kick ass, almost verbatim but full of insight notes instead of "sitting back and absorbing" the material aurally. I'm not an aural learner. I don't process until after I have it down and before me.

This is not a student-as-consumer complaint, but a plea for accommodation. If I couldn't write or type, would you let me tape record the lectures? Of course you would. You can't force me to retrain myself after 26 years of being a visual learner, just beacuse you think that it's best. Professors should allow for my method of learning, just as I have to make concesssions to their individual pedagogical style. They might complain about me hiding behind a laptop, but I've encountered plenty of professors whose teaching styles I have much to complain about in return. Don't add paternalism to my list of complaints.


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