Blessed Be The Laptop Makers

For many of us, the primary impact of COVID-19 has been to move our place of work from an office building to home territory.  The coronavirus has really driven home the message that modern technology allows white collar workers to enjoy a flexibility that prior generations just didn’t have.

Think, for a minute, about the impact of the kind of closure measures that were imposed during the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu” pandemic, or what the effect of workplace closures being imposed now would have had even 30 years ago when computer networks were in their infancy.  The vast majority of people in those eras would have been thrown out of work because there was no option to work remotely.  But now, thanks to the invention and proliferation of laptops, wireless technology, cellphones, and the internet, a considerable chunk of the American work force can turn off the lights in their offices, remove their laptops from their docking stations, go home, turn on the lights in their kitchens, studies, or dining rooms, log in, enter a password or two, and get right back to work.  We’ve come to take this technology for granted, but it’s really pretty amazing when you stop and think about it.

When something as disruptive as the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 hits, you wonder whether it will have long-term impacts on work habits, social interaction, and other aspects of American culture.  Did the 1918-1919 flu — which was far more pervasive and impactful than the coronavirus, and which led to many closings in an effort to stop the spread of the infection — have such an effect?  I’m not aware of any fundamental social changes that occurred.  But I suspect that what we are doing now will simply spur a trend that was well underway before anyone heard of coronavirus:  working remotely, without being tied to an office building.

Of course, not everyone has the ability to work remotely, and we should all be thinking about what we can do to help those businesses and workers who have been most affected by the closures imposed by authorities.  Kish and I are going to be sure to get carry-out over the next few days, for example, to help support the restaurants and bars that have been shuttered and allow them to maintain some cash flow until things reopen down the road.   

But now, it’s back to work.

Do Laptops Help Students — Or Hurt?

An economics professor at the Ohio State University named Trevon Logan decided to ban laptops from his class.  The results surprised him: student grades improved significantly.  What’s more, the professor reported that student reaction to the laptop ban was very positive, with students stating that the policy “(1) encouraged them to focus, (2) helped them take better notes, (3) kept them engaged, and (4) increased their enjoyment of the course.”

laptops-lectureProfessor Logan’s experiment is part of a budding movement against student laptop use in favor of old-fashioned pen and paper note-taking.  He was motivated to adopt his ban after reading a New York Times article from a University of Michigan professor, Susan Dynarski, who concluded that “a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.”

Professor Dynarski thinks there is a cognitive reason for the apparent negative effect of laptops on academic performance.  She has written:  “Learning researchers hypothesize that, because students can type faster than they can write, a lecturer’s words flow straight from the students’ ears through their typing fingers, without stopping in the brain for substantive processing. Students writing by hand, by contrast, have to process and condense the material if their pens are to keep up with the lecture.”  (And these comments do not even mention the other issue with laptops — with the internet a few keystrokes away, how many students are tempted to check on their email and their favorite social media websites during lulls in the lecture?)

I think these Ohio State and Michigan professors are on to something.  Trying to take verbatim notes of a lecture on a laptop, which is apparently what many students do, is more of a typing exercise than a learning exercise.  Handwritten notes, in contrast, require the student to make judgments about what is really important, which in turn requires the student to listen more carefully and assimilate the material.  The combination of active listening and the use of hand and eye to create notes on a piece of paper all facilitate retention — and therefore better grades.

This doesn’t mean laptops are bad, it just means that they aren’t especially well-suited to the unique process of learning.  We should keep that in mind the next time an educational initiative announces, with great fanfare, that every targeted student will be receiving a laptop.  It might be better to hand them notebook paper and a pen instead.

Out With The Old

I think we need to start thinking about buying a new home computer.  I’m kind of dreading the process and trying to forestall it for as long as possible.

IMG_1232Our current computer has served us long and loyally.  It’s stored countless to-do lists, been a repository for family photos, served as a mailbox and news ticker, and been a blogging platform.  It’s moved around with us to the point that we don’t really think our household has been established until the computer is hooked up and functional.  I’ve watched and rewatched YouTube videos of the Ohio State Buckeyes’ run to the National Championship on it countless times.  The keyboard characters have been tapped so often and the mouse clicked so frequently that they’ve acquired a worn, comfortable feel to the fingertips.

We’ve totally lost track of how long we’ve had the computer. Has it been six years?  Nine?  Longer?  We’re really not sure.  All we know is that the computer has been a staple of the desktop for as long as we can remember.

But lately we’ve started to have some performance problems with Old Faithful.  It’s sputtering and slowing down.  That annoying spinning circle, shown as the computer processes commands, seems to spin ever longer and longer.  “Force quit” has become a more frequent solution to apparently intractable problems that even the spinning circle can’t resolve.  We get more messages about certain programs “not responding.”  It’s as if they’re mad at us and have simply decided to give us the silent treatment — even though, so far as we know, we’ve done nothing to provoke such disrespectful treatment.

There’s a certain out-of-touch embarrassment factor to our computer set-up, too.  Our techno-nerdy friends who have those razor-blade-thin and ultra-light laptops and tablets, the kind that make even techno-nerds look a little bit cool, laugh at our clunky desktop unit.  Once it was cool and cutting edge, now it’s more like relying on an “adding machine.”  The ongoing technology revolution waits for no man, and no computer, no matter how faithfully it has performed over years of service.

So we’ll work a new computer into the home budget, and once we’ve saved up we’ll head to the Apple store, look with a lost and vacant expression at the lines of gleaming laptops and desktops and tablets, and hope that one of those bright instruments of the modern era speaks to us.  Hey, which of you wants to come home with us and become an important part of the daily pattern of our lives?


Learning, And Remembering

What is a better way to learn from a presentation, and remember its contents:  writing notes by hand on a piece of paper, or taking notes on a laptop?  Taking notes by hand is more cumbersome, whereas adept typists can use laptops to take notes at close to a word-for-word transcription level — but does that make laptops better for comprehension and retention?

Recent research concludes that taking notes by hand enhances learning.  Why?  Researchers think that because writing is much slower than typing, students hoping to capture content must filter, summarize, and focus on the key points as they take notes, and those additional mental steps in the process have the effect of better engraving the content into their memories.  Students taking notes on a laptop, in contrast, try to take down everything the speaker says, as if they are just another cog in a recording device, and therefore the words don’t have as much impact. 

IMG_2446Interestingly, the study showed that the comprehension advantage is reflected not only on tests given immediately after the learning experience, but also on tests taken weeks later.  The theory is that students who review their own handwritten notes are given more effective memory cues than students who simply review the verbatim transcription.

These results don’t surprise me.  Handwritten notetakers must be active listeners who are engaged in the presentation, and active listeners always capture more content.  But there is more to the notetaking advantage than that.  I think the physical act of writing enhances comprehension and recollection because your brain has to be reading and thinking about meaning as it controls the hand that is writing the note.  Multiple senses are involved:  you hear the words being spoken, you move your hand to write them, you see your writing on the page, and you speak the words in your inner voice.  If you take additional steps — like adding stars or underlines to highlight key points — the cognitive impact of the process is that much greater.   

I’ve always been a notetaker; even now, I like to write myself notes to remind myself of tasks rather than typing them into a notes application on my computer.  For me, at least, the physical actions tie directly into the mental process and help me remember.  Plus, I like the tactile sensation of crumpling up notes after I’ve completed a task and throwing them away.

The World’s Oldest Laptop

When I travel, I take along the world’s oldest laptop.  It’s an ancient MacBook, chipped and cracked and scarred.

The laptop lacks any and all modern features or recent technological developments.  The battery is totally shot; it works only if plugged into an electrical source that is directly linked to the power grid at the Hoover Dam.   I’m not sure exactly how old it is, but I’m confident it dates from the pre-Twitter era, when email was a novel item and cell phones had antennae.  It’s unfashionably thick and heavy.  I think some of its components might be made of stone.

It was Richard’s laptop, three or four laptops ago.  (He’s the one who put Alfred E. Newman on the screen.)  He abandoned it when he got a new one and I exercised the time-honored parental right of adverse possession of discarded kid items.  I take it with me on the road precisely because it’s older than Methuselah.  I don’t care if it gets jostled or dropped or treated roughly.  But it does what I need it to do, and I have deep respect for its durability and reliability.  I’ve used it for years now, and it’s never failed me yet.

As I say to my kids and my younger colleagues, newer isn’t necessarily better.

Laptops As Educational Tools

The BBC published a weird story yesterday about a lawsuit by Pennsylvania parents against a school district.  It seems the Lower Merion School District gave all 1800 high school students in the district laptops that included a security feature that allowed the school district to take photos of whomever was using the laptop.  The feature was only supposed to be used in the event a laptop was reported lost, missing, or stolen.  The article is unclear on whether the feature actually was used for other reasons, but in any case the parents have sued, claiming an invasion of privacy.  Their Complaint alleges that the feature may have been used to take intrusive photos.

I’m not quite sure how taking a photo of whomever is using a laptop is really going to help find lost or stolen laptops.  What really seems weird to me, however, is that the Lower Merion School District thought it was a great use of school funds — probably more than $1 million in school funds, at that — to give every high school student a laptop.  Maybe the Lower Merion School District is just flush with cash, but since when does owning a laptop mean that the recipient is sure to become educated?  Apparently the concept was that the laptops could be used to give students access to “school resources” on a 24/7 basis.  Do the people running the Lower Merion School District really think that is happening?

American public schools have lots of problems, but they mostly are not problems that can be solved by more technology.  The biggest problems with public schools include problems with lack of security, lack of involved parents, too many burnt-out teachers, and lame curricula that fail to motivate and challenge students.  The students who are already engaged with school don’t need free laptops to keep up with their homework, and the students who aren’t trying probably aren’t going to use the laptops to turn their educational careers around.  Giving laptops to high school students seems like more of a talking point to tout during the next school levy campaign than an effective educational tool.