Come the revolution, cursive the cursor

The next fad to come to a school near you may well be the “laptop” class. These are classes in which selected or all students spend some or all of the school day on laptops. It’s something schools show off in their prospectuses. But if your child is selected, you might like to find out what it actually means. I tried. I found a plethora of rules about what students can and can’t do on their school laptops, rules that are even more draconian than at our house, but nothing much about how students learn more effectively save a few references to “reading eggs” and “mathletics” programs.

In the US, many states are experimenting with one-to-one laptops in middle and high schools. In Australia, adoption of laptops for high schools had a big boost when the Federal Government began the rollout of what the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called “digital education revolution” that saw nearly a million laptops distributed between 2009 and 2013 when the revolution ended. It’s now been replaced by BYOD, bring-your-own-device, which is probably even better because YOD has so many more GAMES to PLAY than the school laptops did.

One rationale for laptop classes is that they allow better notetaking and communication, especially for older students. The research doesn’t support this when it comes to notetaking at least as far as older students are concerned. Straight after class and a week later, retention was worse if students typed their notes rather than handwrote them, probably because handwriting requires a bit of synthesising. Other research is finding that handwriting itself, which we’re dropping from curricula in favour of typing, does something to our brains – it teaches us to think better, with some cognitive skills developing only as we do those marvellous loops and curls of cursive with its unique combination of language, fine motor and creating skills.

At university level, students with laptops open on a desk remembered less of a lecture than students with laptops closed. And it’s not that they’re checking Facebook. Those students who were doing course-related things on their laptops recalled less than those doing non-course-related things. And the more students used laptops, the less clear they found the course material, the lower their performance and the less attention they paid.

A key rationale for laptops, especially in lower grades, is that they improve student motivation. I don’t know of any research on this but feel sure it would be true. If you added skateboards and Nerf guns, you might see an even better improvement in motivation, and if you took all those lame maths programs that pretend they’re games off the laptops, there would be more room for a new Minecraft world. 

I’m being a luddite here, I know, but bear with me. I sometimes wonder whether digital technology is the next stage of evolution or the next generation’s version of the precious from Lord of the Rings, powerful but with the capacity to eat a person up from the inside. And perhaps it’s both. Of course technology can improve the learning experience. Already some schools in Australia are seeing the value of the flipped classroom. Instead of coming to school for class, students watch the prerecorded class at home, do a quick test to check they understand the concepts and then, if they do, spend their class time working on more difficult concepts while those who don’t get the concepts spend time with the teacher expert to remediate. This is a way to adapt technology in the service of learning but it requires thinking not about laptops but about learning. And that’s a lot harder than buying a million machines or remembering to pack YOD along with YOR (your own runners).

I read the other day that nearly a third of Australians are digital omnivores, which doesn’t mean we eat mouses. It means we have phones, tablets and computers and use them all the time. We use them for information gathering, shopping, entertainment and filling in the hours. What we don’t use them for much is learning.

 When thinking about laptops and learning, we should be skeptical about any approach that focuses on the means rather than the end. A digital education future may well be the shiniest yet, but it may also be a pathetic little creature with big pale eyes. What has it got in its pocketses? That's what we wants now, yes; we  wants it! Gollum gollum.