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The fallacy of the paperless classroom

I write to you today from a desk littered with notebooks and bits of paper — and I’m a tech blogger. The main reasons my desk is piled with paper:

  1. I’ve yet to process my receipts into the requisite shoebox
  2. I have been unable (despite many attempts) to use “productivity apps” as swiftly and effectively as paper — my current favourite format being the Bullet Journal.

From OneNote to Evernote to Todoist I have tried very many ways to get my priority and task lists online, yet when it comes to the crunch I find that a decent notebook filled with scrawled text somehow helps me best. There’s a scientific reason for this also: we retain more when we write than when we type. The act of writing on paper somehow yields better retention of information.

Read more: Handwriting vs typing in the learning environment

The fallacy of the paperless classroom

We’ve all mourned the death of the idea of a paperless work environment, and unfortunately the dream of a paperless classroom remains elusive — yet for different and better reasons.

A well-rounded article from The Guardian in 2014, is perhaps the best place to launch the discussion. One scientist interviewed Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva said,

“Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought… Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise: you need to hold the scripting tool firmly while moving it in such a way as to leave a different mark for each letter.”

A consequence of this complexity is that more of the brain is involved in the act of writing out a letter than selecting it on a keyboard. This was borne out by yet another study at Indiana University where researchers scanned the brains of five-year olds in the process of learning to read. They found that children who had been practicing printing out letters by hand had advanced neural activity to those who simply looked at the letters. Reading requires a wide circuit of the brain’s functions, turns out that writing out the letters activates the same circuits, making reading more successful in future.

Other researchers interviewed for the Guardian article point out that typing, and typed documents, are standardized and normative — meaning they are inflexible when it comes to additions such as mind maps, marginalia, a record of edits, and asides, rendering the final document less descriptive of a thought process than written notes.

It turns out that even just reading is better off of paper than the screen. A study by Anne Mangen, a researcher from Norway's Stavanger University, asked 50 readers to recall certain aspects of a 28-page short story. Half of the participants read the story on a Kindle and half read a “real” book. When asked to remember details about the characters and setting, the two groups performed more or less the same. However, when they were asked to retell the story, Kindle readers fared notably worse at placing the main events of the plot in the right order.

A literature review of the subject conducted by Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University concluded that we simply read differently on screen. Because of our online habits of browsing and scanning for information — we’re reading in a less linear, regimented way. We also know there is a volume of further information waiting on the next tab, so we tend to skim read. This habit of skim reading transfers to e-readers and screens-as-books more readily than it does on the page, which we tend to read with greater attention and in a more linear fashion.

So what does this all mean in a specifically educational context?

The bottom line is that typing notes into a laptop during a lecture is a less efficient form of note taking than writing. If you’d like to debate the value of note taking in general, start with S.S. Seward’s definitive study. Assuming you have accepted that note-taking during class is both a way to encode the information in a way that suits your brain, as well as a form of external storage for what occurred — let’s then go on to examine why paper trumps keyboard.

A recent study by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California set out to prove that not only is a laptop a temptation to multitask in class (read: check up on emails during a lecture) but even when used for note-taking exclusively the keyboard remains inferior to pen and paper.

The study found, for instance, that because we type faster than we write — students were able to write more, and therefore tended to write verbatim what they saw and heard in the lecture. Students using only pen and paper needed to make snap decisions on the fly about what was and wasn’t relevant if they had any hope of keeping up. This process of rapid information selection meant greater engagement in the content by “pen and paper” students, who by the end of the class had assimilated more of the principles and ideas at play, than their counterparts who wrote their notes verbatim.

Another interesting part of the study found that students who have a laptop in their eye-line during a lecture, even if they are taking pen-and-paper notes, score far less on a post-lecture comprehension test than their compatriots that had an uninterrupted view of the lecturer. So, not only is a laptop likely to distract its user, but the students around them as well.

Last but not least, for the concerned environmentalists among us and among our students, going paperless will not save our planet. Not only that, but compared to all the technology that is supposed to replace paper in all aspects of our lives, recycled paper is like a breath of fresh air. Digital media uses greater energy resources than the manufacturing of paper does, which directly impacts our environment. Add to this the volume of e-waste that is generated each year, and the bigger picture is not exactly a pretty one. On the other hand, over 60% of paper products are recycled in North America, thus lowering the pressure on the environment to a great extent. So if people care about our planet, choosing paper over electronic devices might just be a better option.

Just a storm in a teacup?

There is of course the dissenting voice in all of this. Many academics feel it may be all a bit of a storm in a teacup, and that typed note-taking is simply the same form of technological advancement one would have seen with the development of the Gutenberg press, Xerox copier or indeed the ballpoint pen — all of which it must be said were also met with a degree of vociferous resistance from educators. Lest we forget Socrates himself didn’t want his students to write anything down - a dialogue captured by his student Plato (presumably in secret).

For my part — as I confessed up front — I am a dyed-in-the-wool pen and paper lady illustrated by the ink stains inside my handbag and mild addiction to fancy notebooks (let’s not get started on the highlighter collection). Despite my absolute belief in the power of new communication technologies to advance education, ideas and the world at large I also believe — and have tried to show —- that there is a verifiably important place for the considered, and somewhat time-consuming, habits of a bygone age.

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