Imagine a classroom in the not-too-distant future. Textbooks, slideshows, and notes all interface neatly with devices that once called “phones” and “laptops”—but now those learning materials proliferate through desks, walls, clothes, jewelry, glasses, and maybe even tattooes or contact lenses. The teacher, trained to teach in the 2010s, wants to say, “close your laptops and put away your phones.” But when the phone is embedded in a fingernail, what can a teacher do?
Roughly the same argument about laptops in the classroom has been circulating for at least the last five years. The argument against laptops in the classroom goes something like this: First, laptops distract people; second, and more critical, some studies in controlled, non-classroom environments reveal that typical students master content better when they handwrite notes compared to when they type.
The finding, as epitomized by this widely reported study, is that a typical student can type faster than she writes by hand, so she takes verbatim notes. But just typing down everything a speaker says, for the typical student, isn’t the best way to learn. It’s better, according to this study, to think about what one hears and to use notes to summarize. Because most people can’t handwrite everything they are hearing, using a pen or pencil forces summarization. Notice that this argument isn’t actually about laptops versus pens, but about styles of note-taking. Still, the result is academics taking to mass media to report that they are banning laptops in their classroom for the good of the students.