Hold on, laptops may NOT be bad for learning

Around a month ago, a corner of my Twitterverse erupted with a study that indicated that laptops in the classroom discourage learning. Titled “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard“, one could easily conclude it best to have students close their screens and pick up a pencil if you wanted more retention in your sit and get.

One key conclusion from the authors:

Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, ‘if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop’ than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears. Indeed, synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes (e.g., Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Richland, Bjork, Finley, & Linn, 2005). For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, ‘laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.’ (p. 1166)

Cue the fun debates and collective wig outs in social science magazines and education blogs!

Also cue existential crisis for technology directors (if there is no need for technology in education, do I really exist?).

Hold On a Second

Smarter minds than mine are finding solid flaws in the conclusion. One of the best takedowns comes from Darren Kuropatwa. He quite rightly points out:


In the same way learning to ride a bike and learning to drive a car require different learning experiences using different learning tools also requires different learning experiences. Students don’t automatically know how to take notes; it’s a learned skill, one we have to teach.

Not to mention the questions we should ask about how much of an impact does note taking (pen, keyboard, or otherwise) actually have on learning.

I think we too often forget that technology is a tool, not the actual learning. Tools help cognitive growth, but they are not the growth.



Teacher Feedback VS Machine Feedback

Do students prefer to learn from a machine?

A bit of a professional disclaimer to this week’s geek study. I do not believe that technology is ever an effective substitute for good teaching (and this is a belief rooted in quite a few empirical studies as well). Technology is a tool. My interest is how tools are leveraged by teachers to help and increase learning by students. I found the results of this study to be surprising. I’d also hesitate to draw huge conclusions from a study at a large education college and apply those results to K through 12 education.

That said, this is interesting.

Why Students Prefer to Learn from a Machine

While this article’s headline is hyperbolic, it does share a fascinating study from The International Journal of English Studies. Education students were placed in two groups. In one group, students received feedback on writing assignments from live instructors. A comparison group received feedback from a software program called Criterion. The study’s intent: to identify differences in how students responded to different forms of feedback. In short, Would students receive feedback better from one or the other and how would they act on that feedback?

The results?

The computer program appeared to transform the students’ approach to the process of receiving and acting on feedback.Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note. By contrast, interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior—from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent. As a result of engaging in this process, the students’ writing improved; they repeated words less often, used shorter, simpler sentences, and corrected their grammar and spelling. These changes weren’t simply mechanical. Follow-up interviews with the study’s participants suggested that the computer feedback actually stimulated reflectiveness in the students—which, notably, feedback from instructors had not done.

Why would this be? First, the feedback from a computer program like Criterion is immediate and highly individualized—something not usually possible in big classes like those at Alexandria University, the site of the study by El Ebyary and Windeatt. Second, the researchers observed that for many students in the study, the process of improving their writing appeared to take on a game like quality, boosting their motivation to get better. Third, and most interesting, the students’ reactions to feedback seemed to be influenced by the impersonal, automated nature of the software.”Annie Murphy Paul

There’s a lot to crunch through here. Part of me wonders if generational components affected the differences in responses? What social elements allow for students to respond better to a machine rather than an individual?

And does it really matter, as long as their writing improved?

First Thoughts on Google Classroom

Like receiving the golden ticket

Friday afternoon (timed for the most productive part of the day), Google turned on Classroom for me. My buddy and I got to exploring right away. For the most part, I’m very excited by what I see. I wanted to get a “at first glance” post up and running given the level of interest educators have towards classroom.

Up front nerdy confession: I love exploring Learning Management Systems. I fell in love with Moodle in the early aughts (and all its clicky / options glory). In addition to Moodle, I’ve taught with Blackboard, Schoology, and the WordPress flavored Learn Dash. Each have their strengths and weaknesses. Each their own cheerleaders.

Google Apps has always felt like an “almost there” LMS. You could cobble together a Google Site, play with some public folders, create some elaborate forms for hand-in processes. At first this was mildly annoying. Then it became extremely annoying as Google Apps pretty much took over all of my productivity and really started to take off in my school district.

With Classroom, Google takes the simplicity of their Apps and works them into an entry level / pseudo LMS. My guess is some folks might quibble over actually defining it as an LMS – but it’s evolving that way.

Opening "Stream" of the class (ie landing page)

Opening “Stream” of the class (ie landing page)

How does it work?

Basically, Google Classroom allows 2 functions:

  1. Discussions (via announcements or surrounding an assignment)
  2. Creating and grading of assignments

Given that Google Apps (Docs, Drive, YouTube) underpins those functions, you can actually get a lot mileage out discussions and assignments. As the teacher, you create the class (it comes with its own key code). A class can have multiple sections (think, 1st period). Students are added to the class either via your Google Contacts or by entering the key code.

Here’s the process flow for assignments:

  1. The teacher creates an assignment. The assignment can be spelled out in Google Classroom. You can also linked to uploaded files, Google Doc, URL, or YouTube Video.
  2. Students complete the assignment and turn them into the teacher. The assignment gets placed in a “classroom” folder in the teacher’s drive. The beauty of this is that all assignments are ordered and named clearly by Google. They can all be viewed in Google Drive.
  3. Teacher grades the assignment. Feedback can be provided in Google Classroom OR in the actual assignment if that assignment was created using Google Docs.
  4. Assignments are a “check in / check out” process. When a student turns in an assignment, they only have “view rights” to the assignment (they can no longer edit that assignment). Likewise, when a teacher passes the assignment back to the student, the teacher only has view rights. (This applies to Google Docs)

Classroom features a simple gradebook that can be downloaded as a CSV file.

Grade screen of an assignment

Grade screen of an assignment

It’s really about the flow.

Classroom really gets classroom work flow right. You finally can easily create a “paperless” classroom. Prior to classroom, organizing and tracking 150 history papers turned in by students was not a simple process to complete ONLY using Google Apps for Education (and we’d have to rely on traditional LMSs). Classroom makes it very simple to organize assignments without junking up your Google Drive or your Gmail.

Who is it for?

Honestly, Classroom is a great entry level LMS. It’s for teachers who are still dipping their toes in the tech, who are getting used to the collaborative nature of Google Apps, and who want something simple and easy to use. There are no bells and whistles. And I love that. You can connect the dots fast. Sometimes the best technology is the technology that takes a very little learning curve to climb.

And the downsides?

There are many, but at first glance two stood out. The first is that Google Classroom appears to very much run on a “real time” display (called the “Stream”). The landing page is like a Google Plus / Facebook page. This is great as many students will intuitively sense how classroom works. It’s a problem for structured / orderly teachers who want their class to have strong organization and instructor driven frameworks. In short, it’s harder to fashion a narrative.

As a quick example, there’s no area where you could place your syllabus where it wouldn’t get buried in the flow of announcements and assignments. This is an area that would be easy to fix and I wouldn’t be surprised if Google made a tweak to make this happen (fingers crossed).

Second, power LMS users will find Google Classroom lacking. There are many features I expect in an LMS (assessments – something Classroom does not directly have – immediately come to mind). The standard LMS tools of graded discussion boards, polls, content areas for creating lessons, etc. are not available (although you can argue that you can cobble together those functions using other Google Apps). Speaking personally, I’d hesitate using Classroom for a class taught purely online. But then, I like having strong control and options in developing my online content.

At the end of the day those limitations likely won’t matter to many teachers. Simple, functional, and reliable is key. If your district is a Google Apps for Education district and investing in Chromebooks, Classrooms will be an easy sell to your staff.