Keep laptops out of lecture halls, professor says

Another in a long line of ‘keep digital technologies out of the classroom’ nonsense. Sometimes I despair.

Lecture with skeletonThe sad thing is that this idea (banning the taking of notes in lectures using keyboards) is actually quite valid, in the context of an oppressive, coercive and ineffective pedagogy, given the very limited goals of this kind of transmissive model of learning. If you want your passive students to be able to parrot your wise thoughts back at you, and this is what you value in the assessment, and if you have so little imagination that you can’t figure out a better way to deliver that information than through a lecture, then this is roughly what it takes to make a lecture at least partially work in the manner intended.

To use lectures this way is unbelievably wasteful and stupid. Students will get much more of what you want them to get from just reading a book, or maybe reviewing your own lecture notes or, if you must, watching a recording of your last lecture. Of course, there are normally far better ways to learn than reading or watching, but there is usually a need for simply passing on information in a digestible manner in even the most active approaches to learning.

And yet…

It took me a few years of railing against lectures to realize that lectures are not the problem. I actually don’t mind even the most traditional stand-up-and-preach variety of lectures per se at all. As long as you are not labouring under the illusion that they are at all efficient as a means of helping people to fill their heads with information, and as long as you don’t force people to attend them (including by assessing them on the informational content afterwards), they can play a useful role as catalysts, way-points, and connectors. 

It’s no big deal to give up an hour or so of your time to attend a lecture. You will probably get some inspiration (even if not quite what the lecturer intends), the simple fact that you are devoting time exclusively to it will focus you on the topic of the lecture and give you uninterrupted time to reflect, and it’s a great way to meet people and talk about the topic with them afterwards. As long as you choose whether or not you attend, this can be very motivating. This is even true of rather dull lectures. As long as you don’t set out with the intent of retaining information from them (for which they are very ill suited) they are powerful tools in the pedagogical toolset. 

I do nearly always take notes, typically on a tablet or cellphone, when I attend lectures at conferences etc. A few of those notes may contain reminders about the content, links shared, references, etc: perhaps those might stick better if I made them as hand-written notes (and, sometimes, I’ll scribble them in the margins of the conference program for that reason). But, mostly, my notes contain my reflections and my responses, which are often quite tangential to the intent of the speaker or the content. I might be provoked by something mistaken or dumb, I might pick up a throwaway bit of wording that sparks a divergent train of thought, or I might see connections with something I have been doing, or maybe discover a different way of seeing the same thing or maybe, occasionally, discover something quite new. Handwritten notes are worse for that kind of thing. They’re much more likely to be lost, cannot so easily be re-used, cannot incorporate images of slides or other reminders, cannot contain active hyperlinks and are not so easily indexed.

If you are treating lectures as a source of information then hand-written notes, especially with pictures and visual models of connections, are a good way to make the best of a very bad job. If instead you see lectures as catalysts for thought and creativity, as sparks to light flames, as spaces to reflect, or as conversation starters, then handwritten notes really aren’t that great at all.


Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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