A technophile lawyer rediscovers the joys of pen and paper

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Notetaking is notetaking — don't let the laptop lead you astray

Laptop computers have lost some of their classroom lustre. In "Wide Web of diversions gets laptops evicted from lecture halls" at The Washington Post, the writer notes that web-surfing and other distractions have led some professors to ban laptops from their classrooms. Such distractions are not the only problem, however. The other is one of the reasons I started this blog (emphasis mine):
Cole has banned laptops from his classes, compelling students to take notes the way their parents did: on paper.


Cole surveyed one of his Georgetown classes anonymously after six weeks of laptop-free lectures. Four-fifths said they were more engaged in class discussion. Ninety-five percent admitted that they had used their laptops for "purposes other than taking notes."

Even when used as glorified typewriters, laptops can turn students into witless stenographers, typing a lecture verbatim without listening or understanding.
The point about laptops removing students (at least partially) from classroom discussion and turning students into "witless stenographers" is a perfect illustration of how I think the speed of our communication technology can encourage people to stop thinking. In nearly all of my law school classes — and I know this might not be true for other academic disciplines — you could go for minutes at a time without writing anythng down, and still take great notes.

The learning came in the give-and-take between professors and students, and the time to write something  down was at the "ah-ha moment" — the point where that give-and-take caused the light bulb to light up over your head, and you got the point. You're likely to miss that if you're trying to capture every word along the way. That's true whether you're taking notes with a Macintosh or a Montblanc.

But because it's easier for many students to capture every word with a computer than with a pen, the mere fact that they have a computer in front of them tempts them to do it.  A student with pen knows he's not going to get every word (unless he knows shorthand), so I believe he has a greater tendency to listen and think, writing down only those things that will help him remember the key points.

This general problem — substituting speed for thought — extends far beyond the classroom, though, and I'll be writing more about it in the future.
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