More on the “Classroom Tech Bans Are Bullshit (or not)” Project Before Corridors

This post is both notes on my research so far (for myself and anyone else who cares), and also a “teaser” for Corridors: the 2019 Great Lakes Writing and Rhetoric Conference.  I’m looking forward to this year’s event for a couple of different reasons, including the fact that I’ve never been on campus at Oakland University.

Here’s a link to my slides— nothing fancy.

Anyway: as I wrote about back in June, I am on leave right now to get started on a brand-new research project officially called “Investigating Classroom Technology Bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” but which is more informally known as the “Classroom Tech Bans Are Bullshit” project. I give a little more detail in that June post, but basically, I have been reading a variety of studies about the impact of devices– mostly laptops, but also cellphones– in classrooms (mostly lecture halls) and how they negatively impact students (mostly on tests). I’ve always thought these studies seemed kind of bullshitty, but I don’t know a lot of research in composition and rhetoric that refutes these arguments. So I wanted to read that scholarship and then try to do something to apply and replicate that scholarship in writing classrooms.

So far, I’ve mostly just been reading academic articles in psychology and education journals. It’s always challenging to step just a little outside my comfort zone and do some reading in a field that is not my own. If nothing else, it reminds me why it’s important to be empathetic with undergraduates who complain about reading academic articles: it’s hard to try figure out what’s going on in that Burkean parlor when pretty much all you can do is look through the window instead of being in the room. For me, that’s most evident in the descriptions of the statistics. I look at the explanations and squiggly lines of various formulas and just mutter “I’m gonna have to trust you on that.” And as a slight but important tangent: one of the reasons why we don’t do this kind of research in writing studies is because most people in the field feel the same about math and stats.

The other thing that has been quite striking for me is the assumptions in these articles on how the whole enterprise of higher education works. Almost all of these studies take it as a completely unproblematic given that education means a lecture hall with a professor delivering knowledge to students who are expected to (and who know how to) pay attention and who also are expected to (and who know how to) take notes on the content delivered by the lecturer. Success is measured by an end of the course (or end of the experiment) test. That’s that. In other words, most of this research assumes an approach to education that is more or less the opposite of what we assume in writing studies.

I have also figured out there are some important and subtle differences to the arguments about why laptops and cell phones ought to be banned (or at least limited) in classrooms. As I wrote back in June, the thing that perhaps motivated me the most to do this research is the argument that laptops ought to be banned from lecture halls because handwritten notes are “better.” This is the argument in the frequently cited Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.”  I think this is complete bullshit. This is a version of the question that used to circulate in the computers and writing world, whether it was “better” for student to write by hand or to type, a question that’s been dismissed as irrelevant for a long time. But as someone who is so bad at writing things by hand, I personally resent the implication that people who have good handwriting are somehow “better.” Fortunately, I think Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson replication of that study, “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014),” does an excellent job refuting this “handwriting is better” bullshit.

Then there’s the issue of “distraction” that results when students trying to do things right are disturbed/put off by other students fiddling around with their laptops or cellphones. This is the argument in Faria Sana, Tina Weston, Nicholas J. Cepeda “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.” They outline a clever and complicated methodology that involved arranging students so a laptop was (or wasn’t) in their line of sight and also by having some of those students acting as “confederates” in the study by purposefully doing stuff that is distracting. One issue I have with this research is it is a little dated, having been published in 2013. Maybe it’s just me, but I think laptops in classes were a little more novel (and thus distracting) a few years ago than they are now. Regardless though, one of the concluding points these folks make is that laptops shouldn’t be banned because the benefits outweigh the problems.

There are a lot of studies focusing on the multitasking and divided attention issues: that is, devices and the things students look at on those devices distract them from the class, which again typically means paying attention to the lecture. I find the subtly different degrees of multitasking kind of interesting, and there is a long history in psychology of research about attention, distraction, and multitasking. For example, Arnold L. Glass and Mengxue Kang in “Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance” argue (among other things) that there’s a kind of delayed effect with students multitasking/dividing attention in a lecture hall setting. Students seem to be able to comprehend a lecture or whatever in the midst of their multitasking, but they don’t perform as well on tests at the end of the semester. 

Interestingly– and I have a feeling this is more because of what I haven’t read/studied yet– most of these studies I’ve seen on the multitasking/dividing attention angle don’t separate tasks like email or texting from social media apps. That’s something I want to read about/study more because it seems to me that there is a qualitative difference in how applications like Facebook and Twitter distract since these platforms are specifically designed to grab attention from other tasks.

And then there’s the category of research I wasn’t even aware was happening, and I guess I’d describe that as the different perceptions/attitudes about classroom technology. This is mostly based on surveys and interviews, and (maybe not surprising) students tend to believe the use of devices is no big deal and/or “a matter of personal autonomy,” while instructors have a more complex view. Interestingly, the recommendation a lot of these studies make is students and teachers ought to talk about this as a way of addressing the problem.

So, that’s what I “know” so far. Where I’m going next, I think:

  • I think the first tangible (not just reading) research part of this project is going to be to design a survey of both faculty and instructors– probably just for first year writing, but maybe beyond that– about their attitudes on using these devices. If I dig a bit, I might be able to use some of the same questions that come up in the research I’ve read.
  • We’ll see what kind of feedback/participation I get from those surveys, but my hope is also to use a survey as a way of recruiting some instructors to participate in something a little more case study/observational in the winter term, maybe even trying to replicate some of the “experimental” research on note taking in a small class setting. That would happen in Winter 2020.
  • I need to keep reading, especially about the ways in which social media specifically functions here. It’s one thing for a student (or really anyone) to be bored in a badly run lecture hall and thus allowing themselves to drift into checking their messages, email, working on homework for other classes, checking sports, etc. I think it’s a different thing for a student/any user to feel the need to check Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever.
  • I can see a need to dive more deeply into thinking/writing about the ways in which this research circulates in MSM and then back into the classroom. As I wrote in my proposal and back in June, I think there are a lot of studies– done with lecture hall students in very specific experimental settings– that get badly translated into MSM articles about why people should put their laptops and cell phones away in classrooms or meetings.  Those MSM articles get read by well-meaning faculty who then apply the MSM’s misunderstanding of the original study as a justification for banning devices even though the original research doesn’t support that. Oh, and perhaps not surprising, but the tendency of the vast majority of the MSM pieces I’ve seen on tech bans is basically reinforcing the very worn theme of “the problem with the kids today.”
  • I also wonder about this attitude difference and maybe students have a point: maybe these technologies are a matter of personal autonomy and personal choice. This was an idea put into my head while chatting about all this with Derek Mueller over not very good Chinese food this summer, and I still haven’t thought it through yet, but if students have a right to their own language use in writing classrooms, do they also have a right to their own technology use? When and when not?
  • And even though this is kind of where I began this project (so I guess I’m once again showing my bias here), a lot of the solution that motivates faculty to ban laptops and devices from their classrooms in the first place really comes back to better pedagogy. Teaching students how to take notes with a laptop immediately comes to mind. I’m also reading (slowly but surly) James M. Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Teaching right now, and there’s a clear connection to his advice and this project too. So much of the complaints about students being distracted by their devices really comes back to bad teaching.

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