The pen is mightier than the keyboard, and why choosing the right device matters

In 2014, researchers by the name of Mueller and Oppenheimer released a paper in the journal of Psychological Science title ‘The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking’. In this paper, the authors suggest that extended research into memory and cognitive learning processes of students strongly indicated that the pervasive use of technology, and particularly the use of notebook computers and the act of typing, negatively impacts the memorisation of factual and conceptual information. A similar study performed by Princeton University found that the use of laptops created a situation where students would take a lot of notes, almost verbatim, but would struggle to memorise the content when comparted to test groups that used handwritten notes. The problem with these studies, and others like them, is that they always overlook the fact that a keyboard is not the only way of interacting with modern devices.

My essay entitled ‘Technology in the classroom beyond the Digital Education Revolution (DER)’ and transformed to blog form and linked here covered my thoughts on device selection more thoroughly, but some of the argument is definitely worth repeating here. Two of the main reasons why schools tend to push back on classroom technology, are that: The use of technology could create a distraction and harm the learning environment; And, secondly, that the use of a device creates a situation where handwriting will suffer and create issues during examination periods where handwriting is key. These are both valid arguments, however I would suggest they can both be addressed by how the technology is integrated into the curriculum, and what device was selected by the school to be part of that learning experience. I think this quote sums it up best:

Teachers need to integrate technology seamlessly into the curriculum instead of viewing it as an add-on, an afterthought, or an event.

Heidi Hayes Jacobs

So, let’s tackle this in two parts, with one focusing on how a device should be used in the classroom, and then on what makes a good device for the classroom:

How a device should be used in the classroom

True integration, of technology and curriculum, is only possible when versatile devices are put in the hands of capable faculty and students; where those staff are adequately supported and trained to use the technology; and where there is a top-down approach to ensuring that all staff and students are engaged with the technology. Technology is not here to replace teachers, and it’s certainly not intended to be a distraction or a nuisance that detracts from authentic learning. Selecting a classroom device is only one of the steps, and the more important step is for the school to understand that devices are tools that enable anywhere, anytime access to learning resources, promote much-needed communities and social engagements to assist in student development, and help promote the soft skills of communication and collaboration.

Put simply, students need to learn to use technology the right way, and they’ll learn by the example set in the classroom by staff. Technical hard and soft skills, such as being able to work collaboratively and remotely – as many have been required to do during the various COVID lockdowns around the world – is expected of students entering the workforce and higher education. The secondary school experience of having worksheets handed to them, being encouraged to work alone (or at least assessed as individuals), and being forced to hand-write their work… just doesn’t translate to the real world. The future is going to rely on students with strong skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM); Students need to be savvy, able to problem solve and find solutions themselves, and removing access to the technology they need in order to prioritise handwriting skills they need for a couple of examinations seems very counterproductive. Again, I’m reminded of another quote:

We need technology in every classroom and in every student and teacher’s hand, because it is the pen and paper of our time, and it is the lens through which we experience much of our world

David Warlick

Often when conversations start around classroom devices, the primary goal is to keep costs down, or find ways to restrict what the devices can do. This is completely the wrong approach, and selecting the wrong device can be more damaging than not selecting any device. Moreover, having the right device selection, but not integrating it into the classroom efficiently also reduces the potential of the technology and can result in worse academic performance. It really is a balancing act, and one that requires in-depth conversations with various stakeholders within the school to ensure that the right approach is adopted. As I discussed in my DER post, a lot of damage was done to the reputation of classroom technology because inappropriate devices were selected and rolled out to schools that were not adequately prepared, and had no plans on how to integrate the devices into the classroom experience.

What makes a good device for the classroom?

Every student learns differently, and every teacher teaches differently. With this in mind, devices that are multi-modal – allowing users to switch to an input that makes sense for what they are trying to achieve – is critical for success in the classroom. The point is to make the technology invisible, and to reduce friction. What do I mean? Ask yourself whether you’d feel comfortable writing an essay using the on-screen keyboard on a tablet like the iPad. Now ask yourself how comfortable and efficient you’d be writing mathematical or scientific formulas using only a keyboard. Neither of those experiences are ideal, and selecting a device that doesn’t allow it’s user to switch modes is doomed to fail. Tablet PCs, however, are paradigm-shifting educational tools that allow students to read and annotate naturally like they would a textbook or a piece of paper, while also allowing natural keyboard and mouse functionality for when large amounts of text input is required.

Classrooms where technology is effectively integrated are impressive to see: You see a different dynamic: The classroom more closely resembles a modern workplace; Students gathered around screens where everyone is interacting; Students freely sharing ideas, rapidly prototyping using annotation, sketching, and highlighting; And during all of this, their work is being saved in the background thanks to cloud-enabled solutions such as Microsoft Teams, OneNote, and OneDrive. While some of this is possible with a standard notebook computer, much of the experience isn’t possible, and this robs the students of authentic learning opportunities. Yossie Frankel stated it simply, “We cannot confuse digital literacy with 21st century competencies. If we do, we rob our students of what we really can offer them, which is the ability to communicate, think critically, collaborate, solve problems, and create dynamic ways of internalizing information and sharing it with others. This is what our place is in learning.”

You might often hear talk of the ‘post-PC era’, that all you need is a web browser, and that ultimately, the device doesn’t really matter… but I ask you to question why someone is making that claim: Do they really believe that the device doesn’t matter at all? Are they offering an answer to why their favourite device doesn’t have all the capabilities the competitors do? Because the device really does matter. As Rob Baker, Director of Technology at Cincinnati Country Day School put “Sure, the device doesn’t matter… until you have the wrong device and can’t do what you want with it. Then it really matters”. Selecting a device that supports multi-modal learning, multi-tasking, creativity, and keyboard-based productivity, while also allowing the users to mode-switch and leverage the proven benefits of pen-based note-taking and synthesis, is really key to a successful classroom device. In a case of TL/DR: If your device doesn’t have digital ink, it’s not a suitable device for the classroom; If your device doesn’t have a keyboard and mouse for when you need to write a lot of content, it’s not a suitable device for the classroom.

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