Classroom Tech Bans Are Bullshit (or are they?): My next/current project

I was away from work stuff this past May– too busy with Will’s graduation from U of M followed quickly by China, plus I’m not teaching or involved in any quasi-administrative work this summer. As I have written about before,  I am no longer apologetic for taking the summer off, so mostly that’s what I’ve been doing. But now I need to get back to “the work–” at least a leisurely summer schedule of “the work.”

Along with waiting for the next step in the MOOC book (proofreading and indexing, for example), I’m also getting started on a new project. The proposal I submitted for funding (I have a “faculty research fellowship” for the fall term, which means I’m not teaching though I’m still supposed to do service and go to meetings and such) is officially called “Investigating Classroom Technology Bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies.” Unofficially, it’s called “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit.” 

To paraphrase: there have been a lot of studies (mostly in Education and/or Psychology) on the student use of mobile devices in learning settings (mostly lecture halls– more on that in a moment). Broadly speaking, most of these studies have concluded these technologies are bad because students take worse notes than they would with just paper and pen, and these tools make it difficult for students to pay attention.  Many of these studies have been picked up in mainstream media articles, and the conclusions of these studies are inevitably simplified with headlines like “Students are Better Off Without a Laptop In the Classroom.”

I think there are couple of different problems with this– beyond the fact that MSM misinterprets academic studies all the time. First, these simplifications trickle back into academia when those faculty who do not want these devices in their classrooms use these articles to support laptop/mobile device bans. Second, the methodologies and assumptions behind these studies are very different from the methodologies and assumptions in writing studies. We tend to study writing– particularly pedagogy– with observational, non-experimental, and mixed-method research designs, things like case studies, ethnographies, interviews, observations, etc., and also with text-based work that actually looks at what a writer did.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that those of us in Composition and Rhetoric generally and in the “subfield/specialization” of Computers and Writing (or Digital Humanities, or whatever we’re calling this nowadays) think tech bans are bad pedagogy. At the same time, I’m not aware of any scholarship that directly challenges the premise of the Education/Psychology scholarship calling for bans or restrictions on laptops and mobile devices in classrooms. There is scholarship that’s more descriptive about how students use technologies in their writing process, though not necessarily in classrooms– I’m thinking of the essay by Jessie Moore and a ton of other people called “Revisualizing Composition” and the chapter by Brian McNely and Christa Teston “Tactical and Strategic: Qualitative approaches to the digital humanities” (in Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo’s collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities.) But I’m not aware of any study that researches why it is better (or worse) for students to use things like laptops and cell phones while actually in the midst of a writing class.

So, my proposal is to spend this fall (or so) developing a study that would attempt to do this– not exactly a replication of one or more of the experimentally-driven studies done about devices and their impact on note taking, retention, and distraction, but a study that is designed to examine similar questions in writing courses using methodologies more appropriate for studying writing. For this summer and fall, my plan is to read up on the studies that have been done so far (particularly in Education and Psych), use those to design a study that’s more qualitative and observational, and recruit subjects and deal with the IRB paperwork. I’ll begin some version of a study in earnest beginning in the winter term, January 2020.

I have no idea how this is going to work out.

For one thing, I feel like I have a lot of reading to do. I think I’m right about the lack of good scholarship within the computers and writing world about this, but maybe not. As I typed that sentence in fact, I recalled a distant memory of a book Mike Palmquist, Kate Kiefer, Jake Hartvigsen, and Barbara Godlew wrote called Transitions: Teaching Writing in Computer-Supported and Traditional Classrooms. It’s been a long time since I read that (it was written in 1998), but I recall it as being a comparison between writing classes taught in a computer lab and not. Beyond reading in my own field of course, I am slowly making my way through these studies in Education and Psych, which present their own kinds of problems. For example, my math ignorance means I have to slip into  “I’m just going to have to trust you on that one” mode in the discussions about statistical significance.

One article I came across and read (thanks to this post from the Tattooed Prof, Kevin Gannon) was “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014).” As the title suggests, this study by Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson replicates a 2014 (which is kind of the “gold standard” in the ban laptops genre) study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” The gist of these two articles is all in the titles: Mueller and Oppenheimer’s conclusions were that it was much better to take notes by hand, while Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson’s conclusions were not so much. Interestingly enough, the more recent study also questioned the premise of the value of note taking generally since one of their control groups didn’t take notes and did about as well on the post-test of the study.

Reading these two studies has been a quite useful way for me to start this work. Maybe I should have already known this, but there are actually two fundamentally different issues at stake with these classroom tech bans (setting aside assumptions about the lecture hall format and the value of taking notes as a way of learning).  Mueller and Oppenheimer claimed with their study handwriting was simply “better.” That’s a claim that I have always thought was complete and utter bullshit, and it’s one that I think was debunked a long time ago. Way back in the 1990s when I first got into this work, there were serious people in English and in writing studies pondering what was “better,” a writing class equipped with computers or not, students writing by hand or on computers. We don’t ask that question anymore because it doesn’t really matter which is “better;” writers use computers to write and that’s that. Happily, I think Morehead, Dunlowsky, and Rawson counter Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study rather persuasively. It’s worth noting that so far, MSM hasn’t quite gotten the word out on this.

But the other major argument for classroom tech bans– which neither of these studies addresses– is about distraction, and that’s where the “or are they?” part of my post title comes from. I still have a lot more reading to do on this (see above!), but it’s clear to me that the distraction issue deserves more attention since social media applications are specifically designed to distract and demand attention from their users. They’re like slot machines, and it’s clear that “the kids today” are not the only ones easily taken in. When I sit in the back of the room during a faculty meeting and I glance at the screens of my colleagues’ laptops in front of me, it’s pretty typical to see Facebook or Twitter or Instagram open, along with a window for checking email, grading papers– or, on rare occasion, taking notes.

Anyway, it’s a start. And if you’ve read this far and you’ve got any ideas on more research/reading or how to design a study into this, feel free to comment or email or what-have-you.

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