Thursday, March 23, 2006

Is the Note-Taking Medium the Message?

Gentle and faithful reader Tim asks SWNID to take up the educational question raised by a University of Memphis Law School professor who has banned laptops from her classroom. Per USA Today, Professor June Entman forbade laptops in her academic domain on March 6 with the following rationale:
My main concern was they were focusing on trying to transcribe every word that was I saying, rather than thinking and analyzing. The computers interfere with making eye contact. You've got this picket fence between you and the students.

We actually find ourselves surprised, first of all, that this was the reason for the ban. Most profs who ban the laptop do it because students "multitask" in class: playing games, answering email, instant messaging, writing papers for other classes, etc. Serving a life sentence of lecturing in higher education, we believe that professors who have students who multitask on their classroom laptops will have students doodling, writing notes, reading books, talking or staring out the window if they ban them.

But what Prof. Entman notes is about notes, and we admit to a great deal of sympathy for her point of view. Copious notes are viewed by many students as a sign of good scholarship, on the part of both the student and the professor. The student with lots of notes is to be commended for meticulous attention to detail; the professor, for delivering meticulous detail.

We, however, believe that there is something else that delivers the detail. It is called a textbook, or in law school, a case book. Classroom lectures and discussions, by contrast, are mostly about analysis, the building of generalizations, the testing of hypotheses, the formation of arguments, and the like. Such activities require more engagement than what a student can deliver who is preoccupied with transcribing as much of the lecture as possible.

We do not believe we have succeeded as a lecturer when students write down sentence after sentence of our inspired discourse. Rather, we believe we have succeeded when students stare intently at the front of the room, then turn to a student who raises a question or objection, then formulate a question or objection of their own, then sit back, stroke their chins, and write in their notes a few key words that summarize the insight they've gained through five minutes or so of classroom dialectic. It's a rare event, but most valuable events are.

So, Prof. Entman, you go, girl!


Anonymous said...

Through having engaged in both manual and computerized versions of note taking, I have found that typing notes delivers a far inferior classroom experience (this is of course assuming that the class at hand is actually capable delivering a remotely educational experience for even the engaged student, when this is not the case I personally resort to "multi-tasking"). The actual mechanics of writing with pen or pencil I find to provide greater flexibility for the note taking. That is, it is rather to copy charts, pictures, arrows and such on a word processor. Furthermore, the act of the subconcious or semiconscious doodle actually allows me to better recall the notes which the doodle surrounds when occasion demands their memory. However, as SWNID probably recognises, there are certain classroom situations that are best endured by plugging away at work or reading that is perhaps not directly related to the course material. For this reason I appreciate professors who allow laptops not as a concession to students who generally refuse to apply themselves to lectures, but in good faith that their pupils will make in some way a good use of those tools. However, I appreciate even more those professor swho take care to deliver relevant and stimulating infromation to their pupils.

Anonymous said...

And if the information is neither "relevant" nor "stimulating" but nonetheless important?

Rustypants said...

am i allowed to agree with all points made in the anti-laptop discussion while at the same time hug my laptop and snarl at anyone who even comes close to trying to take it away from me in the classroom?

i was originally going to post a self-righteous comment on the fact that i had never ever played games on my laptop during a class - i resisted because i then remembered a certain leadership class i took...

i will say that the copious taking of notes via laptop or PPC has allowed me, years later, to revisit class notes and use them effectively. looking back over handwritten notes... i'm lost.

Anonymous said...

jb in ca,
a very insightful comment! Of course if I think information is "important" I always find it stimulating. The true question lies in information found to be neither important or stimulating but indeed necessary for graduation!

Anonymous said...

i remember a situation in grad. school where, in the midst of a lecture, an extremely loud video game sound rumbled out of someone's laptop. the entire class stopped, waiting for our distinguished professor, who is well, well past the age of video games, to toss the guy out of class or worse. interestingly, though, the professor paused, and then delivered a classic line--"if i'm not mistaken, that's 'pinball'."

laptops do, on occasion, then, produce moments of comedy in the classroom. but, for classrooms like that of the man behind the "swnid" machine, i know there's no need for a computer to provide comedic relief!