Technology for the sake of it

I’m going to have a little bitch here. Because today, in the middle of my class, when I was explaining some very interesting concepts, some students were very obviously looking at something amusing and not at all law related on their laptop screens. I thought about jumping up and down, screaming and throwing the laptops on the floor, and then stamping on them. I didn’t do it, but the fantasy was pleasing.

I put my anger down to sleep deprivation. The baby has a cold and she isn’t sleeping well. I also put my anger down to sadness that other people just don’t love trusts as much as I do. What am I to do about it? How can I convey to them what a beautiful thing the trust is? Perhaps I can create an Ode to the Resulting Trust (including my belief that it is peppermint flavoured).

Anyway, getting back to the topic, I was interested to read an article in The New York Times recently about the inefficacy of laptops in education. The article begins as follows:

The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.

So the Liverpool Central School District, just outside Syracuse, has decided to phase out laptops starting this fall, joining a handful of other schools around the country that adopted one-to-one computing programs and are now abandoning them as educationally empty — and worse.

Many of these districts had sought to prepare their students for a technology-driven world and close the so-called digital divide between students who had computers at home and those who did not.

“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.”

I think I’ve written before about my first day of teaching at university. I found a class full of laptops. I couldn’t see my students’ faces. All I could see was a sea of laptop screens, and the room was filled with the ticka ticka tap sound of keystrokes. It was a real culture shock. I like to look at peoples’ faces and to gauge whether they are understanding me. I also like to draw lots of diagrams on the board when I’m explaining complicated commercial law transactions (“X paid money to Y here, but then it went to Q over there and ultimately ended up with D here“) but it’s hard to draw a diagram on a laptop.

My experience has been that all too often, laptops hinder teaching in the classroom rather than help it. I crept up on some boys last year who were having inter-laptop warfare in the middle of class, “shooting” each other with arrows (virtually, not literally). I said loudly, “What’s this game, and how do you win?” They were so engrossed that they hadn’t seen my approach. They jumped about 10 feet in the air. I felt rather mean, but they were playing in my class.

Computers are great for research for essays in subjects like Law, History, English and other humanities. I don’t think I could do my PhD so easily if I had to keep going into university to photocopy articles. I can download at least half of them…but I always print them onto paper. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t read things so well off a screen. I can’t see how laptops would add much in subjects such as Chemistry and Biology, where there is a large practical component, or Maths, when you can’t easily type equations. I did use computers when I studied Japanese, but I had to have a fair degree of fluency before I could do that.

But the recent trend in Australia is to say that laptops need to be taken into every class. Teachers are told to make up programs which involve laptops if they don’t already have a use for them. A friend of mine who teaches 5 and 6 year olds tells me that her class has been decked out with computers for the use of the students. Many students at the school have literacy problems. “It’s a total waste of money,” she sighed. “At the moment, many of them have difficulties with reading and writing, and some don’t know their alphabet at all, so what are they going to do with a computer? The best thing for them is one-on-one personal contact.” Still, she tries to include some computer activities, just so that if the Powers that Be ask her, she can say that she’s exposed her students to the computer.

I’m going to be controversial here and say that a laptop in the classroom equals an expensive and glorified pen. Typed notes are always legible and neat, and spelling mistakes are picked up. But to really understand a subject, I find that the best way to do that is to (a) write handwritten summaries to make sure I really know my notes and articles I’ve read and (b) try to do old exam papers. You don’t need a laptop for that.

Ah, bitch over. I feel better now.



Filed under academia, education, laptops, legal education, techonology, universities

14 responses to “Technology for the sake of it

  1. While I was studying my LLB, I conducted a semester long experiment that involved taking notes on my laptop (rather than by hand and transferring them to the computer later).

    The only reason it didn’t completely bugger my end-of-semester results was my decision to study like a madwoman during SWOT-VAC. I learned my lesson and never did it again. I handwrite all lecture/seminar/tutorial notes, and will continue to do so at Oxford.

    When lecturing, I do not use powerpoints or visual aides apart from diagrams I draw myself (plenty of those). Too often technology gets in the way of learning, instead of facilitating it.

    And I taught Property Law, an area that I find rawther fascinating…

  2. One of my students said, “Wouldn’t it be awful if you had to retype all of your notes?” and I said, “Not so much awful as educational.”

    I presently summarise all the articles I read for my PhD in handwritten notes. Probably no one can understand them but me, but who cares, as long as I can still read them? It’s a great way of remembering what an article is about at a glance.

    For me, Property Law, Restitution and Equity are my beloved Trinity of subjects. Ah, sigh! My students think I’m very strange, but as one said comfortingly to me yesterday, “I do find your enthusiasm for these topics odd, but it makes the subject so much more interesting.”

    Are you perchance a fan of Eloise, who is rawther fabulous!

  3. Anthony_

    I cant function without a keyboard anymore. My handwriting skills are atrocious. In fact I cant keep a diary either, I need outlook synced to my phone to remind me of meetings and deadlines at work. lol

    I love powerpoint slides for learning, type my notes in the notes section of each slide.

    I guess thats what you get for being near on 30 and working in the IT industry for the past 10 years.

  4. Well, if you’re in IT, of course laptops are useful! It comes with the job, so to speak.

    I can’t remember deadlines whether I have my phone and Outlook synced or not. You’ve got to remember to point the appointment in the phone or Outlook first – that’s the key which I keep on forgetting.

    I’m not as bad as I used to be – once I quadruple-booked myself.

  5. It depends what software is being used as to if it has any sound androgogy or pedagogy behind it.

    As for critical thinking; word processing, notetaking and presentation software (such as power point) typically don’t do much (or indeed anything).

    Simulation and data modelling software in the sciences though is a different topic, and I think you would be setting yourself a hard task in calling these a glorified pen. Get a class to perform an environmental monitoring (ecology) project in Biology over a term, and you are going to want them to data-cruch and present these results.

    As for mathematics, I wouldn’t teach it without a computer. How easy it is to do maths on a computer depnds on what kind of maths, and again what software you are using. Spreadsheets are good for business maths (especially for calculating loan repayments) and I’d have Maths I&II coding in JAVA or PHP for some of their work.

    Digital divide is more of a serious issue though, as is teacher training in the use of these softwares and available tech support. I’ve pretty much got these covered myself though; ITShare (has limitations though), trainings not an issue and I don’t really need support.

    I’m abnormal though. I’ve seen a large portion of IT teaching as tokenistic use of IT, and school networks being set up inadequately. New York Times example being a good example.

    ~ Bruce

  6. Hey Bruce,

    I suppose I was thinking more of early high school level science than university level science. My husband is a scientist and used some great stats packages and graphing packages for his PhD thesis. Can’t remember what they were called, but they produced some mighty funky graphs. Certainly, for simulations, a computer would be invaluable.

    Thinking about it, when we did ecological field studies in A-Level Biology, it would have been much easier to crunch our data had we used computers. As it was, it was pretty painstaking work.

    I will also concede that spreadsheets are great for calculating loan repayments and the like. When I was a litigator, I made a terrible addition error with a settlement payout figure (out by $1000 because I forget to carry the 1). After that awful incident, I set up a “payout figure” spreadsheet which worked a charm. I’m a terrible accountant on paper, but I can manage nicely with spreadsheets.

    The glorified pen comment mostly applies where students are using laptops simply as glorified pens…like in law classes.

  7. Anthony_

    Difference is I don’t have to key my meetings into Outlook, that’s what an Exchange server is for. So and so manager will call a meeting I will accept/reject that request in outlook. It will then be synced to my phone. 😉

    Spreadsheets are ok, as long you know that 90% (or thereabouts) of them have errors in a calculation. I have seen some pretty complicated spreadsheets with Vlookups all over the place for a businesses P&L be way out due to logical error in the formula.

  8. Anthony_

    Argh so many typos in that previous post

  9. Don’t worry about typos – I just noticed that one of the labels for this post is “technonology” What an interesting word that is.

  10. Yeah, I can appreciate the “glorified pen” argument, because that is how they are used so often.

    As for maths and science uses, I was actually thinking about years 6-12 (although I’ll likely be teaching 8-12.)

    Primary kids to the field trips as well 😉

  11. Good on you! Sounds a lot more interesting than my early high school science classes.

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  13. There are some arguments that teaching reading is easier with computers because kids don’t have to deal with their own co-ordination issues. But that doesn’t stop the need for one-to-one communication. Would you stop talking to a kid trying to learn because she has a pencil?

  14. The problem is that computers can’t really interact in the way a human being does – they only have programmed responses…

    Your point is a good one, David – a child still needs face to face interaction to learn, no matter what medium she uses to write with.

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