Saturday, April 07, 2007

Thinking About Laptops

Georgetown University law professor David Cole wrote an interesting op-ed piece in today's Washington Post titled "Laptops - vs - Learning" in which he discussed why he has banned the use of laptop computers in his classes. In essence, Professor Cole writes that the use of laptops for note-taking encourages verbatim transcription of notes while hindering interaction with the professor and the other students in class discussions...not to mention allowing students to shop, play games, check sports scores, and send & receive e-mails instead of concentrating on their lessons.

I think Professor Cole has a good point. When I was a student in college (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, according to my co-workers), we took notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. When you have to write everything down, it tends to make you selective about what you write, and forces you to concentrate on what's important. The ability to transcribe notes on a laptop (or record them on a cassette recorder, for that matter) relieves one of the need to think about what one is hearing and sift the incoming chaff of words for the wheat of important knowledge.

This made me think back to the year 1973, when I was a brand new second lieutenant attending the Air Force's Imagery Interpretation course, then at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado. We were each issued a "photo interpreter's slide rule" which enabled us to calculate all sorts of photometric and reconnaissance mission planning data quickly and easily. Early in the course, a salesman came to the base and offered us the latest in technology: a hand-held calculator that would do all that the PI slide rule would do. This technological marvel would add, subtract, multiply, divide, and calculate squares and square roots out to eight decimal places. It had no memory function. It cost $98 - a specially discounted price for we students. Wanting to be equipped with the latest hardware, we all bought the calculators...and soon found out that, compared to the old PI slide rule - the very stone-knives-and-bearskins level of technology - they were cumbersome, awkward to use, and provided a level of accuracy far in excess of what we really needed.

The lesson I learned was this: that new technology isn't always a panacea. Sometimes, older is better. The students in Professor Cole's law classes will, I believe, learn more and retain more of what they learn because they are forced to listen, debate, and distill what they hear into real knowledge. Their notes may occasionally be illegible, but they will represent the essence of what transpired in the class...the points that mean the most to them.

I have a laptop computer and I love it, but I wouldn't want to take it to class with me. I still have a love and respect for paper, pens, and the written word. New, fresh notebooks are probably the only things I buy more often than kitchen gadgets. I like to think of ideas germinating in my brain and flowing down through my arm and hand, out my pen, and into narrow blue lines on a blank white page. Advanced technology has its place, but that place is different for each person and situation.

Call me old fashioned, but for taking notes and collecting thoughts, paper and ink are where it's at. All things considered, I'd rather have my grandchildren on my lap than a laptop.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


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