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This post has been percolating for a while as a series of op-ed pieces and studies announcing that handwriting is better for learning or that laptops or other devices are ineffective or that tech shouldn’t be used in the classroom continue to emerge. I know I’ll get push back about this response, but I’ve needed to sit down and write this for a while now (and it’s easier to have these responses collected together so I can point to them later when these studies and think-pieces continue to emerge). [Apologies for the listicle approach to this post.]
1) Those studies about the wonders of handwriting all suffer from the same set of flaws, namely, a) that they don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes. That is, they all hand students devices and tell them to take notes in the same way they would in written form. In some cases those devices don’t have keyboards; in some cases they don’t provide software tools to use (there are some great ones, but doing it in say, Word, isn’t going to maximize the options digital spaces allow), in some cases the devices are not ones the students use themselves and with which they are comfortable. And b) the studies are almost always focused on learning in large lecture classes or classes in which the assessment of success is performance on a standardized (typically multiple-choice) test, not in the ways that many, many classes operate, and not a measure that many of us use in our own classes. And c) they don’t actually attempt to integrate the devices into the classes in question, a point that Kevin Gannon makes in his excellent post on the subject. [It’s possible I have missed one of these studies that actually addresses all of these things and builds in training for students (and faculty) in integrating devices, or maybe works with a population of students that has had access to a robust, integrated (not nominal) 1:1 laptop program for an extended period of time before the study. If I have missed it, I’m sure someone will let me know.]
2) Banning laptops is going to be a big problem when increasingly you have students like those in my local middle school who are exclusively using laptops in all of their classes to great effect and success. More and more students in K-12 are going to be doing that and a ban will be telling at least some students who are used to taking notes that way (who are actually BETTER at taking notes that way), that they can’t use the tools for which they have developed a process.
3) Banning laptops is also going to be a problem because of the trend toward digitized sources: more and more campus bookstores are offering readings and interactive activities in digital form, sometimes because it’s cheaper, but often because it’s easier for them to manage, and because some students want them in that form. Some texts are ONLY being offered in digital form going forward, and many of the ancillary materials publishers are offering only work in digital form. Plus, increasingly faculty (like me, but many others) are assigning readings that are only online or in JSTOR or other online collections. That’s both because of access, but also because of economic fairness. And then, I want them to have copies of the readings with them and it’s not economically or ecologically fair to ask them to print those copies out and bring them with them to class. [In fact, having students collectively or individually annotate class readings with a tool such as Hypothes.is is a powerful way to improve classroom discussion that would be much more difficult without devices.]
4) Let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that banning technology from our classrooms does not help with the general perception in the public that universities, faculty, and the education we offer is not relevant or adaptable to the modern age. [There are obviously many other reasons we seem to be losing this argument about the value of traditional education that have nothing to do with the laptop ban discussion, but my point here is simply that blanket bans on technology do not help the larger perception of academics. I won’t use the L-word, but you know that others do when they see op-eds from teachers about banning tech from classrooms.]
5) I’ve seen faculty suggest that laptop bans just results in students using smart phones more, even when there is a ban on that as well. So then someone suggests (usually jokingly, sometimes not) jamming cell phones. Jamming cell phones violates federal law, so, um, good luck with that.
6) On the point of incorporating these devices into our pedagogy: I want students to be able to integrate the wide array of other sources available to them with what they are learning in my class, and I often ask them to go out and find good sources to answer questions that emerge during class lecture, discussion, and group work. In other words, I work to integrate those tools and their connections to that larger array of information into the class. [Admittedly, it also means that sometimes students will say, “but this other source says something different.” That’s a terrific learning opportunity for us to talk as a class about sources, interpretation, and authority.]
6a) We should be working with students to meaningfully incorporate these devices into their learning. I have no doubt that adding devices that students use in a wide variety of non-scholarly ways outside of class without attempts to integrate them into classes or to teach students to use those devices in academic ways risks ineffective uses of them. I have plenty of conversations with students about how to take notes already. Most of the time their problem isn’t which device (pencil, laptop, phone, quill) they use to take those notes, but how to take them and how to use them to learn based on their own experiences, learning styles, and discipline.
6b) Incorporating devices into teaching will require faculty training and support. I suspect that some (though certainly not all) of the support for these bans stems from the fact that many faculty don’t feel confident in using technology broadly and in particular for academic purposes (for note-taking, for social media, for research and analysis, for blogging, etc.) themselves and so don’t feel confident in having their students use those tools in and out of class. [One answer to that at UMW is our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, and our student-centered Digital Knowledge Center, as well as the week-long Digital Pedagogy Lab institute. But there are more and more options out there to get faculty members the development they need to become more comfortable with digitally enabled pedagogy.]
7) Other critiques of laptop/device bans include: accessibility issues for studies with accommodations, the argument that bans are more about professors’ egos, the notion that bans demonstrate an inflexibility of approach, and the point that other distractions exist too.
8) Caveat: It’s the blanket ban with which I have such issues. I don’t have a problem with faculty asking students at certain points to close their laptops or put away their devices because the type of engagement at that moment is changing.
9) Caveat #2: When there are devices in the classroom, especially larger ones, a few students will use them in ways that will be distracting. I’m not opposed to strategies or explicit conversations about reducing that problem. It’s the throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach of blanket bans that are the issue here.
10) Finally, having conversations with students about how they use devices more generally and laptops in particular for academic success is important, as well as how best to take notes. I do it with students in my First-Year Seminar in detail, and in other classes in general. My school is working to develop these practices more generally and to support faculty as they incorporate technology into their classes.
Encouraging good learning practices among students (and faculty) is a terrific thing to do. I’m just not convinced that entirely banning one set of those practices and the tools used to engage in them is the way to get either group to develop those practices more generally.
So, let me start by noting that this kind of post is not typical. People don’t generally write these kind of posts. And, frankly, there are good reasons for that. And yet, here I am writing it. I’ll explain why shortly.
But let’s start with the context. I’ve been working as the Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation at the University of Mary Washington since April of 2014. It’s a great job where I get to be a faculty member (a Professor of History and American Studies) half time and the rest of the time oversee our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our recently created (but thoroughly awesome) Digital Knowledge Center, and one of the coolest student-centered buildings in academia, the Information & Technology Convergence Center (now named after our current president, the Hurley Convergence Center). Although we’ve seen turnover this past year in DTLT (no year when you lose Tim Owens, Ryan Brazell, Andy Rush, Jim Groom, and Lisa Ames can be all good), we’ve also done some amazing hiring, bringing in Jess Reingold, Jesse Stommel, and Lee Skallerup Bessette, and soon Nigel Haarstad, with another superb new colleague soon to be announced. They are creative, terrific, brilliant people who have joined Martha Burtis, Mary Kayler, Leah Tams, Amanda Rutstein, Cartland Berge, Roberta Gentry, and Zach Whalen in the Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit.
So, despite these changes (in fact, partly because of them), I wasn’t looking for a new job. And yet, one came looking for me. A search firm contacted me late last fall about a new position at a Research 1 University at the Vice Provost level. I’m a big fan of this school, having worked for many years with great people there. The job is a new position that brings together a number of elements that exist at a university that is clearly on the move, clearly on its way upward, clearly at the forefront of the struggle over the soul of higher education. And after an application and an initial interview with the search committee, I was a finalist for the position with an on-campus interview. Now, I know that I’m operating from a place of remarkable privilege, a privilege that so many other academics have not and do not have. I have a full-time position and I love my job, one that has tenure and a good salary and terrific colleagues, and I’m fortunate enough to have developed a reputation within the discipline that has allowed me to travel around the country giving workshops on digital history, digital humanities, and digitally enabled pedagogy, as well as editing a section of a leading journal for one major organization on digital history projects, and leading a digital history working group for another major professional organization. Most importantly, I applied for this job knowing that I loved the position that I’m currently in with no risk of losing that position if it didn’t work out.
Yesterday, about a month after my on-campus interview, I found out that I am no longer being considered for the position, that they have offered the job to someone else.
Now we get to the point about why posts like this are unusual. Typically people don’t talk about these positions when they don’t get them, in part because they don’t want people at their current job to know that they were willing to consider leaving, in part because they are worried that they might be embarrassed by not getting the job, in part because they are worried about what the people at the job they applied for will think about them, and in part because they worry about how people at potential future jobs might view someone who talks about the often-closed search process. These are very good reasons not to talk about jobs for which you have applied but not been selected.
So, why am I doing so? I spend a great deal of time telling my students that they should create a digital identity that reveals who they are, that makes it clear what they want to do and be, that claims boldly what they believe in and what they want to do, and that acknowledges (even celebrates) failures or incomplete paths as part of the learning and development process. I was unsuccessful in applying for this job; now what have I learned from it?
You know what I’ve learned? That I’m glad. [Now, I know that it’ll be easy for people who don’t know me to dismiss this as simply me settling, or me rationalizing not getting a job. To them, I’ll just say, “That’s a reasonable point of view given the evidence you have, and you’re wrong.”] I’m really happy I didn’t get this job, and not because I have anything against the school to which I applied, but because I’m convinced that I already have an important contribution to make, that I have an amazing team to work with, that I have colleagues who value what matters in higher education right now where I am right now. [Let’s be clear: there was much to attract me to the school I applied to, and not just the increased money and significant promotion. It was a chance to work on a different stage, as part of a school that is often mentioned in conversations about higher education. And there were great, terrific colleagues there to work with as well.] But in the end, as I thought about the two positions in the weeks after the on-campus interview, I increasingly realized that UMW was the place where I wanted to be, a place where I was able to make a bigger difference, a place where my students continue to inspire me every day, a place where my team, my colleagues, and even my incoming president shared the values that I believe in, a place that keeps the focus on students, that believes that a liberal arts education is the best foundation for a changing world, that integrates digital tools into that liberal arts education better than almost any school in the nation (and has earned a national reputation and big grants for doing so), that balances teaching and learning and research and service and community in ways that represent one incredibly valuable path for higher education over the next few decades.
So, today, I’m incredibly glad to be at the University of Mary Washington with my colleagues and my friends and my students.
Personally I have had both good and not so good experiences with online anonymity. Good experiences include things like random “strangers” wishing me luck or giving me advice. Bad experiences include but are not limited to name calling, bullying, harassment, and even threats. everything always turned out fine in the end; however, when it comes to the use of online anonymity, I believe more filters need to be set in place to protect people from others blatantly out to hurt them. I myself have experienced the effects of online anonymity and as I always have been, believe that if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.