Doing things digitally: making the leap in class

A recent exchange on Twitter (pictured) prompted me to look again at the wisdom of having moved entirely digital with all my sixth form teaching this year. Since September 2013 I have been using RealtimeBoard(RTB) combined with Google Docs for all the aspects of my teaching that I would previously have delivered using a combination of paper and PowerPoint.

Posts like this oneand this one have added weight to the idea that using a laptop or tablet to make notes in class is inferior to making the notes by hand using pen and paper. Whilst I cannot claim to have conducted any research that refutes these claims, I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bath water just yet. Here's why:

  1. Going digital, and insisting that pupils do the same, enables far greater collaboration than the old way of doing things ever did. Pupils can collaborate with pupils and, better still, pupils can collaborate with the teacher. Applications like RTB make it relatively easy to set up exercises in which there are real demands for intellectual engagement with a topic that go far beyond the process of simply scribbling down notes.
  2. Going digital removes several of the scourges of the old paper-based way of doing things:
      • no more lost notes (it's all online, even forgetting to save is no longer an issue)
      • no more: "I forgot to bring my homework, Sir." Using Doctopus in conjunction with Google Docs completely removes this as excuse.
      • no more issues with missed lessons or queries about what has been covered - everything is recorded for posterity and can even be followed in absentia in real time online
      • far fewer issues with forgotten equipment - a laptop is all pupils need. Pens, pencils, protractors, rulers, glue are all rendered obsolete thus there are fewer low-level impediments to getting on with learning.

3. Going digital facilitates revision - notes can be viewed anywhere with a wireless connection.

4. Going digital makes for a far more seamless integration between images, videos, reading matter and the class notes themselves.

As I see it there are just two remaining disadvantages, neither of which is insuperable:
  1. Time is wasted logging on at the beginning of lessons - this was a bug-bear drawn out by one of my pupils on their course feedback form and is one that I can readily accept as a criticism. The issue can be partly addressed by teachers having a starter activity to hand which doesn't require mass online participation. The best solution, though, in my book is to encourage pupils to purchase Chrome Books which have a boot up time of seconds.
  2. Some studies have shown that cognitive engagement is better when pupils have taken hand written notes. These studies further suggest that typing up notes can lead to 'mindless transcription' of the sort that provides little or no long term benefit. I can quite see how this could be the case, but is my contention that the studies showing this have compared conventional note-taking with conventional typing. I would argue that producing notes using an application like RealtimeBoard is nothing like conventional typing. The platform allows for a much more visual experience - it positively encourages the use of diagrams, graphics, icons and mental maps - exactly the sort of devices that are supposed to set conventional note-taking apart, but with all the added advantages of being online.
So, I'm sticking with digital for the time-being confident in the belief that it's not as harmful as the naysayers suggest.

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