Reading Print Books Is Better than Reading E-Books

Yes, it’s true: the latest research indicates that reading material in print rather than in an electronic reader is better for you in the following ways:

  • Increased comprehension. The tactile experience of reading a printed book actually matters. Check out the research.
  • Related to the above, we’re more likely to read every line of printed material. When we read e-books, we tend to read the first line and then just the words near the beginning of the line after that.
  • We lose the ability to engage in linear reading if we don’t do it often.
  • Reading printed material for about an hour before bedtime helps us sleep. Reading ebooks keeps us awake.

I read both e-books and print books, and I’m grateful for my e-readers (really, the apps on my iPad) when I’m traveling. It’s easier to carry 1000 books on one iPad than it is to carry five in a backpack.

But I know what the researchers mean by the tactile elements of memory, the feeling of better control over your media with pages, etc. I do remember where to find things in books by their physical location in the book, which isn’t possible with an e-reader: you can only search terms and page numbers. I think the point here isn’t which search method is more efficient, but which reading style engages more of the brain by engaging more of our physical senses.

I’d like you to consider a few things about the way we developed our technologies:

  • The people who developed our technologies didn’t have our technologies. In other words, the people who built the first computer didn’t have computers.
  • The engineers who landed men on the moon did most of their work on slide rules.
  • The computers that they did use had less computing power than our telephones.

Why You Should Take Notes By Hand

Students From A Technical University Sitting In A Lecture Hall

UPDATES 9-7-2014: First, I’m proud to say that in just three days this post now has the top number of hits on my entire blog. It’s hardly viral, but it’s certainly been popular. My top four posts are all about higher ed followed by my post about Frozen. Next, I’m happy to say I’ve had some great and productive conversations about this topic on LinkedIn. I’ve added some insights from that conversation at the end of the post.


Why you should take notes by hand, or, how technology is working against your learning.

Here’s what happens according to a couple of well-designed studies:

1. Because of the way that human beings interact with laptops, studies indicated that students who take notes on laptops don’t learn nearly as much as those who write out their notes on notepads.

2. This learning differential doesn’t exist only because students are distracted on their laptops by other things. It’s actually the use of the laptop itself. What happens is that students taking notes on a laptop attempt to capture everything that’s being said, so that they’re acting more like passive recipients of information — like stenographers — than actually thinking about what’s being said.

On the other hand, students who take notes by hand have to think about what they’re writing down, because they can’t possibly capture everything. That means they’re more cognitively engaged with the lecture material than the laptop note taker. Even a week later, students who take notes by hand score higher on tests for both conceptual and factual content than laptop note takers.

3. But students ARE ALSO distracted by other things on their laptops: according to other studies, 40% of the time students are looking at non-course related material while in class if they’re using a laptop in class. Facebook, email, chats, etc.

The results:

1. Because students aren’t learning as much, they complain about the quality of their education (yes, a result noted in the study as well).

2. Administrators who have never taught a day in their lives or hardly at all listen to student complaints and pontificate about outmoded instructional methods (when they’ve never tried any of them and don’t know what it’s like to be a teacher in a classroom watching students as you teach).

3. To appear innovative, they then spend a lot of money on educational technology that puts learning onto a screen.

4. They have to spend millions of dollars on this stuff, and on their own bonuses, so they have to adjunctify the faculty pool. Adjuncts are not only cheaper, but they’re easier to control.

5. You have your current higher educational system that everyone says is “broken” because of “outmoded instructional methods” but that no one thought was “broken” until relatively recently (say the last ten to fifteen years).

The real fix: shut off the laptop and take notes on paper. Just read the reporting about the study linked above, and then read the study. Click the image above and see for yourself.

Some great points made during a LinkedIn discussion:

  • Handwriting on a tablet may well be a good middle way between typing on a computer and handwriting notes on a pad and paper, if you can get a good app for that. I haven’t had any luck. I get the impression others have. I use an iPad Air.
  • There is neuroscience supporting the idea that your brain processes things differently when handwriting rather than typing, so this may be a matter of how our brains and bodies work together as well. In fact, different areas of the brain are activated with printing out by hand compared to writing in cursive, so even different types of handwriting matter.
  • The study is just about one specific activity — note taking — so of course wouldn’t necessarily apply to group work and other tasks that require more engagement than passive recording of notes on a keyboard.

Technology and Higher Ed, Part 2

158399022Summing it up more simply:

When I was sixteen I took karate lessons with my friend Marty. Shōrin-ryū at the local Y. The first thing we asked our instructor was, When will we receive training with weapons? (Why did we ask this question? Because we were sixteen.) Our instructor told us that he didn’t train students to use weapons until they were at least a brown belt (one stage before black) because weapons are an extension of our bodies. We can’t learn to use weapons properly until we learn to use our bodies properly.

Similarly, technology is an extension of our minds. All the tech in the world won’t make us smarter if we haven’t developed our minds. Without that mental development, we’ll just be idiots with fancy toys, and God knows the world has enough of those already.

And considering the fact that “traditional education” using “outmoded methods” invented the computer, the cellphone, and put astronauts on the moon, I think it’s safe to say that educational tech is irrelevant to educational effectiveness. Yes, students need to learn how to use workplace tech. No, educational tech is not a magic bullet that will suddenly transform colleges into centers of effective learning (most of them actually are already).

I would like to encourage students getting ready to start a new school year to focus primarily on developing the most advanced technology that we all have: that highly complex processor wet-wired between your ears. Read a lot and read increasingly complex texts. Learn how to write well. Take the most advanced math that you can. No matter what your major, try to get in at least a year of calculus before you finish college, preferably one semester before you finish high school. If you develop yourself in these ways, your tech will be an extension of your highly developed mind enabling you to do things better and faster. If you don’t, your tech will do your thinking for you, and the only possibilities that you’ll ever be able to consider will be determined by the programming parameters of your equipment.


Technology and Higher Ed

higher-education-investing-in-technologyThere’s an amazing amount of babble in the news about technology and higher ed. Most of it is rather utopian, and most of the utopian rhetoric is coming from people who have a stake in selling higher ed technology, and almost all of this hype is coming from people who haven’t taught a day in their lives. Google has even recently dropped (wasted) a modest amount of money into researching the effectiveness of MOOCs.

I would like to suggest some sound thinking about technology and higher ed. Before I do, though, I’d like to tell you where I’m coming from.

First, I’m not a luddite. I love technology. I purchased an iPad 1 about three months after the initial release of the iPad and used it until purchasing an iPad Air late last year. I’ve been online since the early 90s (AOL 1.5? Maybe 2.0?) and have been creating webpages since the mid to late 1990s. I learned basic HTML back then, but I mostly worked in Dreamweaver. As a graduate student (I started Fall 1999), I worked as Coordinator of Enrollment Services, coordinating web-based projects among the offices of Financial Aid, College Admissions, and the university webmaster. I was responsible for putting the college catalog online and for helping to create online (and secure) policies and procedures manuals for every interested department on campus. One of my last projects was to create an online FERPA tutorial that all faculty and staff were required to take.

Since then, I’ve served as editor for two online journals, one of which was written up by the New York Times, and most recently I’ve started learning TEI and have become an editor for the Digital Mitford Project. I am committed to the advancement of digital humanities, which in my opinion is just an umbrella term for work that we’ve been doing since at least the 1980s. Digital humanities are not a fad: they’re a good thing, and they’re here to stay. I’ve also been teaching online since 2008 — not full time, but maybe one course a semester, maybe two or three over the summer — so I’m familiar with online education as well. I designed my current institution’s fully online Master of Humanities program and contributed several courses to it. Its enrollment has grown since then from about 70 students to probably over 200. And, as you see, I run this blog.

So please don’t try to tell me I’m afraid of technology.

Next, I’ve been a student at a variety of institutions. I have attended community college, a tier-1 research university, and small liberal arts colleges. I am mainly the product of small liberal arts environments with classes that were no bigger than about seventeen or eighteen students.

Finally, I am an educator. I’ve been teaching since 2001, and teaching full time since 2004 (Lecturer in English at Rollins College from 2004-2008 and then Assist/Assoc. Prof. of English at Tiffin University, 2008-present). I’ve taught a wide variety of college student populations ranging from prep-school students from fairly wealthy families, to adult evening and online learners, to community college students, to largely rural first-generation students.

Now here’s what I’ve learned about technology and higher ed: most thinking about it is misguided. One basic principle is involved here:

1. Students do not need to be educated by technology. Students need to be educated to use technology.

Do you see the difference? Most of our thinking about higher ed and technology involves finding some kind of magic bullet that will “fix” education cheaply. The dream here is that technology will educate students rather than teachers, or that technology will somehow supercharge regular teaching methods and make them more effective. Most of the hype about MOOCs is behind this magical thinking.

That just doesn’t work for most students. Sorry. Especially not the hordes of below average students being cranked out by our underfunded public education system. Studies seem to demonstrate that online education — especially the most highly self-directed of all online education, the MOOC — works best for students who are already highly educated or, at least, exceptionally high performing, mature, and self-motivated. I think that MOOCs are great when used as intended: as a free, non-credit means to self-education. They’re like high-powered books. MOOCs to educate the average incoming freshman student, however, has always been and will always be, at least for the foreseeable future, a failure.

I know this because I know how online education works, what students need to be educated, and because all experiments using MOOCs, or even just fully online classes, to educate this population so far have been dismal failures. What I’m saying here isn’t some kind of “defeatism.” It’s a refusal to succumb to ignorance of what’s obvious to any teacher who has spent any amount of time teaching these students. Maybe someday the technology will catch up, but I suspect this is further in the future than most people think, perhaps much closer to science fiction than science fact, and students need to be educated today, right now.

Why won’t these solutions work? For students to learn effectively in an online environment, especially an automated one, they need two qualities:

1. They need to be able to read, understand, and follow written instructions.

2. They need to be able to work on their own with little to no external compulsion. They need to be self-motivated.

Most students coming into college just aren’t there yet. If you’ve ever done any kind of text-based teaching, you may be familiar with this scenario: a student reads a line or two on a page and just doesn’t get it. You read the exact same words out loud and they completely understand. You might be tempted to think that video instruction can serve this purpose, and it may be more effective for these students than written instruction, but that’s not quite the same either. It’s too easy to zone out in front of a television or computer screen.

Seriously, many students leaving college still have a hard time with these two skills.

This will probably never happen:

Do you think that’s air you’re breathing? Heck yes it is. My mind has not, in fact, been jacked into a computer system.

And no, online education is not in its “infancy.” AOL started it all. The first online course started running in 1988. That’s 26 years ago. In tech years, that’s a very long time. How much 26 year old technology are you still using? Still using a 26 year old cell phone? A 26 year old car or television? A 26 year old microwave? Here’s some history:

Between 1990–94, AOL launched services with the National Education Association, the American Federation of TeachersNational Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, Pearson, Scholastic, ASCD, NSBA, NCTE, Discovery Networks, Turner Education Services (CNN Newsroom), National Public Radio, The Princeton Review, Stanley Kaplan, Barron’s, Highlights for Kids, the US Department of Education, and many other education providers. AOL offered the first real-time homework help service (the Teacher Pager—1990; prior to this, AOL provided homework help bulletin boards), the first service by children, for children (Kids Only Online, 1991), the first online service for parents (the Parents Information Network, 1991), the first online courses (1988), the first omnibus service for teachers (the Teachers’ Information Network, 1990), the first online exhibit (Library of Congress, 1991), the first parental controls, and many other online education firsts.

But before I move on, let’s make some distinctions:

We need to distinguish between “online education” in general and MOOCs. I’m not going to discuss hybrid or blended models that combine online components with face to face instruction: just fully online courses. Hybrid courses may be a very good solution for institutions that need more sections than they have available classrooms, but they have to be designed well. The courses that I teach online are capped at 25 students. These students had to apply to get in to the program, so that they meet some kind of minimal academic standards, and my university requires me to engage with the class as a group at least five days per week, to respond to discussion forums within three days, to grade papers within seven days, and to respond to emails within 24 hours. These courses are not self-directed by any means. I am teaching them. I also happen to be teaching courses that I created, so I have a sense of ownership over the material, but that’s often not the case with online classes. Right now, this very summer, I am teaching online sections of Literary Theory, Creative Writing: Poetry, the Comprehensive Exam class, and an independent study on Shakespeare. I designed and am running all of these courses. I’m watching my students’ work and am confident that they are learning.

MOOCs, on the other hand, for the most part, may enroll tens of thousands of students, do not have any vetting process for these students, do not have any meaningful, direct interaction between the instructor and these students (how can it with that many students?), and are largely self-running, self-paced courses. I’d like to repeat — MOOCs are great for people who want to learn informally about a topic. But because MOOCs can’t build in meaningful assessments, they shouldn’t be offered for college credit.

So not all online education is quite the same. In my experience, face to face instruction is the best, followed by online education with small classes and direct instructor interaction. If the online courses run on their own, great, but not for college credit.

I say this because education is not just about the dissemination of knowledge. It’s not some kind of programming for the human mind, no matter how cool that scene in The Matrix seems to be. The human mind cannot be programmed like a computer. It is never simply a passive recipient of information that gets imprinted upon it and then remains that way, unchanged, once imprinted. Human beings are more than data storage units: we have volition and emotion in addition to intellect, both of which are involved in knowledge acquisition, and most importantly, all knowledge is social. Knowledge exists in a social context, so that even scientific knowledge is value-driven and fueled by emotion (in science, the primary emotion should be curiosity). Because knowledge is inherently social, scholars in all fields publish their findings, write books, and have their work evaluated by others.

So we need to be not only given knowledge, but we need to be socialized into that knowledge. We also need to realize that the majority of business interactions are still face to face — just think about the number of direct human interactions the typical office worker might have on a daily basis. If our students never learn to manage face to face interactions, they will not have been educated for the workforce. Employers believe this too, at least implicitly, as of all the top skills desired by business owners and leaders, social skills are close to the top, if not at the top. Education trains the mind, the emotions, and the will, and does so in a clearly defined social setting that has a work and interpersonal ethic built in. Online education is not quite the same in this respect, and certainly not, for the most part, in terms of real time face to face interaction.

Beyond the socialization of knowledge, education also entails skills development: writing skills development, analytical thinking development, synthetic thinking development, creative thinking development, critical thinking development, reading skills development, etc. Skills development in education doesn’t have to do with what the student takes in, but with the quality of the work that students put out. This kind of skills development requires some level of personal mentoring. Imagine trying to become an Olympic figure skater and be entirely self-taught. No matter what your athletic ability, that may well be an impossible task. It might be hard enough to just be an average figure skater, and even if you could be, you’d learn much more quickly with a good instructor and can develop further faster.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying technology is useless as a means of instruction. But it is at best supplemental to the work of instructors. And to be honest with you, if you were to set up two literature classes with the same reading lists and gave one set of students nothing but physical books, notepads, and pencils, and another set of students any technology that they wanted, I seriously doubt that the tech-laden students would do any better. In terms of the development of their reading and writing skills, the teched-out students might even do worse, as they’ll have more distractions. The same may be true of math instruction too, but I think that math instruction may work better in computer environments because computers can do math. They just can’t read. Computers can’t understand what they are reading the way persons do. Computers don’t understand math either, but at least they can do it perfectly.

Why can’t computers read? Because, first of all, most words in most languages mean more than one thing, and words are reliant upon context beyond themselves for their meaning. So in order for a computer to really be able to read, it would have to have all conceivable knowledge of all conceivable social contexts throughout the history of the literature that it is reading, and then be able to choose effectively what contextual knowledge is most important to that literary text. While human beings don’t have this extent of knowledge, they do still possess contextual knowledge, and they are capable of making choices while reading.

In math, on the other hand, a number means one and only one thing, and that meaning doesn’t change from one era, nation, social group, or language to the next. And because human beings are not only intellectual creatures, but are also volitional and emotional beings, and all of our capacities — our intellect, our wills, and our emotions — are engaged in the acts of reading and writing in ways that they are not engaged in basic math (highly advanced math may be an exception, but probably less than a fraction of a percent of our population are capable of working at this level). We can and often do write with feeling, however, even if we have poor writing skills. It’s very difficult to add and subtract like we really mean it, though.

So what do students need? They need to learn to do things with technology. I would love for every student coming out of college to have one programming language and some basic instruction in HTML, .php, and maybe Python or Flash. Maybe some network instruction, and in their last year of college, advanced instruction in Microsoft Word and Excel, and I mean advanced. Students need basic instruction in word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs their first year and advanced instruction in the latest versions of these programs their final year. I want students to know how tech works from the inside. Tech isn’t going away. Learning how it works and being trained in it from the start means being able to adapt to its constant changes, and perhaps to even be an agent of change.

Now you might think that students already know how to use technology, so they don’t need to be educated in this area. Most students (and I mean a statistical average), though, in reality, know social media and their phones, but not how to use Word and Excel or Powerpoint very well, or really know much about the technology itself, or about networking. While social media savvy is useful for business environments, knowing social media doesn’t mean knowing how to use it appropriately for business purposes, and you need to know more than social media to be effective in the workplace.

You also might think that students will be more interested in the material if it’s presented via the tech of their choice, but if they’re not reading print books, they’re probably not reading eBooks either. Many students just don’t read books much at all, and reading Twitter and Facebook feeds just doesn’t cut it: reading unstructured and superficial short blurbs doesn’t require the sustained, organized attention that developmentally effective reading does. Tech won’t make old subjects suddenly sexy, and the fact is — students are interested in more than tech. Sometimes they don’t know it. It’s our job as educators to try to show them that this is true, however. And seriously — students who play action-based video games are regularly engaging characters, settings, and plot lines that have existed in literature sometimes for literally thousands of years. Superhero characters are more often than not based on Greek gods, for example. Students are already interested in this literature, and when they read it, they enjoy it. I’ve had positive experiences teaching even somewhat challenged students Homer’s Iliad and Milton’s Paradise Lost. A compelling story is hard for anyone to resist.

My emphasis on technology in higher ed — on students as users and creators — facilitates the development of creativity, problem solving skills, and gives them hands-on experience with the tasks they will be required to perform in the workplace. An emphasis on technology as a means of providing an education, however, slows down education (as teachers and students are continually on the treadmill of learning new technologies) and keeps students behind the curve educationally, as the technology used to educate students seldom resembles the technology students will be using in the workplace.

So to repeat: Students do not need to be educated by technology. Students need to be educated to use technology. No one here is rejecting technology. If we’re going to use it, though, we need to understand its limitations from the inside.

Michelle Moravec’s “Tales of an Indiscriminate Tool Adopter” provides very useful and practical advice for adopting technology for higher ed purposes.

You might also want to read about how one province in Canada seems determined to innovate in education even if that means using methods that have been proven to be ineffective in all previous trials.


The Five Most Important Things I Tell My Students

Since I’m summer teaching, I have just finished up one semester, entered grades, sat through a graduation, and am now starting up another semester. And just for the record, no, there wasn’t a one-week break between the spring and summer semesters. There wasn’t even a one-day break. There was, in fact, a one-day overlap. The summer semester started Monday, and spring grades were due the next day, on Tuesday.

Since the teaching cycle of one semester overlapped the teaching cycle of another, I’ve had an unusual opportunity to think carefully about the five most important things that I can tell my students about their college classes, especially with me. Something about a simultaneous beginning and ending brought these to mind. These five most important things are even more important than the knowledge that my students might gain in any of my classes, because they affect their relationship to their knowledge.

So here they are, in short order:

1. I’m not your boss.
2. You’re not my boss.
3. I never, ever grade you. I grade your work.
4. Doing the reading matters.
5. Writing well matters.

And now for the details.

1. I’m not your boss. You’re not working for me. Nothing that you do benefits me, personally, in any way, at least in terms of the content and structure of the class. I do manage to learn from my students most semesters, but that’s another matter.

When you come to class, you’re not doing me a favor, and when you complete assignments, you’re not putting out a product that I can sell at a profit. Universities are not widget factories, even though there are very powerful people who want to turn them into just that. Everything that you do — every reading, every paper, everything — is for your own benefit. When you participate in a class, you do it for your own benefit, and when you don’t, you don’t to your own detriment.

So when you don’t do reading, or don’t do an assignment, or don’t study for a quiz or exam, you’re not ripping me off somehow. You’re stealing from yourself. You’re paying for an education that you’re denying yourself. That is your choice, and I will allow you to make it, but you need to understand that you are the one making that choice.

In fact, when you don’t turn in your papers, that means I have fewer papers to grade. My life would be much, much easier if I had no papers to grade at all. But that wouldn’t serve you very well, even though I know you feel exactly the same way.

So the truth is that the teachers who don’t assign work and don’t hold your work to meaningful standards are doing themselves a favor at your expense. The teachers who assign work and expect you to do your work well are doing you a favor at their own expense. That’s the truth.

2. You’re not my boss. Everything that I do is for your benefit, so in that sense I am working for you. But most of you don’t understand the benefit of the study of this material, or the benefit of its structure, or the benefit of the assignments, in my experience. So while I’m not your boss, I’m still running the class, setting the standards, and guiding your instruction. I’m not your boss, but I am in charge of the class. What you need to understand, though, is that even that is for your benefit. I’m in charge of the class because I’m educated in this field, and I’m running the class in order to benefit you.

If you don’t think being educated makes a difference, why are you in this class?

If it does, then pay attention and listen to your teachers. The reputation backing your diploma is no better than the educational credentials and scholarly attainments of the faculty members whose teaching is represented by that diploma. Saying bad things about your college teachers, then, is massively stupid, as it undermines the credibility of the education that you paid for, and especially because they are there working for you, not you for them.

3. I never, ever, grade you. I grade your work. Do you see the difference? I’m not grading your abilities, your character, your mind, or your intelligence. You are not an A, B, C, or D student. You just happened to earn one of those grades on an assignment. When I assign a grade to your papers, I am grading your performance on a single assignment. Your final grade in the class is the cumulative average of your performance on a bunch of individual assignments. That’s all.

You know if you really spent a week writing that paper or if you did it three hours before it was due. You know if you just couldn’t wrap your head around the material this time (that’s okay). You know if you did your level best and still just got a C.

What does the grade mean, then? If you really tried, it just represents your development in this one area at this one particular point in your life. Think of your grade, if you really worked, as a marker of your progress so far and as an indicator of where you need to go. The rubrics I provide you articulate where you need to go.

So no… I never give you a grade either. You earn your grades, at least in my classes. You can see the grade book all semester. Straight points earned vs. points possible. I can’t think of a single student that I didn’t like last semester, but how much I like or dislike you has nothing to do with your grade in class.

4. Doing the reading matters. Where I come from there are two types of people: the people who do the reading and the people who work for them. It’s not always that way in the business world, but in places run intelligently, that’s how it is. That’s also the case in your humanities and science classes. Your education is exactly equivalent to the amount of reading that you’ve finished and comprehended. Every time you read, especially difficult material, you work out your mind. Every difficult book that you finish raises the bar for what constitutes a difficult book. Doing the reading is the single best favor that you can do for yourself. Sometimes your most seemingly useless reading — philosophy, poetry, literature, analysis of humanities artifacts — is the best for your mind because it works out your mind the most.

But let me tell you, reading literature is never useless. When you read a literary work, you’re confronting a representation of the behaviors of motivated individuals expressed through language. The literary work itself doesn’t tell you what that means. You have to figure it out from the behaviors represented and the words used. That’s just how it is in real life. Disciplines like psychology and sociology provide analytical tools for interpreting human behavior. Literature does the same while giving you an interpretable product that closely resembles the interactions of human beings in real life. Figuring out literature means figuring out people: how and why they behave like they do and what their language means.

There are very few professional fields to which this skill doesn’t apply.

5. Writing well matters. You wouldn’t show up for an interview in sweats and a t-shirt, would you? How you arrange your words is how well you dress your mind. Training your words is training your mind. Investing in writing well is a good investment, maybe even more important that the specific content of many of your classes. I’m an English teacher. I want to help you with your writing. I will be trying to help you over the course of the semester. My comments on your papers aren’t there to slap you down. They’re there, like everything else I do, to help you clarify not only your words but your thought.

That’s it. I’m on the verge of having a Jerry Maguire moment — “HELP… ME… HELP… YOU!” — so I’ll stop now. Just remember, though, that I am here to help you.