Analog rules in a digital world

Published in the October issue of The Underground

As technology advances, playing a bigger role in our lives, older, slower practices are replaced by digital ones. Instead of going to the bank to pay for a bill you can do so online. Instead of meeting someone in person you can swipe right on Tinder. It’s a similar situation in universities with students replacing note taking by pen and paper opting to instead type their notes. Using a laptop to take notes would seem to be the logical choice considering the average student can type 33-words-per-minute compared to the 22-words-per-minute of students who hand-write notes but taking notes isn’t about speed.

Research by psychologists at Princeton and the UCLA have found that students who hand-write notes tend to score better on tests and exams than those who type them out. These results prompted Rutgers law school professor Stuart Green to propose a ban on using laptops during classes, preferring that students focus on the material being taught. Green isn’t alone in his thinking.

Professor Waheed Hussain, professor of philosophy at UTSC, has been enforcing a no-laptop-in-lecture policy since 2009. Understandably, some students get upset about the restriction on their precious devices but Hussain believes it’s for the best. “It’s important to shut everything out and focus on material which can be very demanding and you can’t do that if you have one foot in the classroom and one foot in the lives of the Kardashians,” he said. “You’re never again going to be in a room where 500 people are really listening to you and your ideas, it’s a unique and important opportunity and it shouldn’t be taken lightly,” he added.

The Internet can be a tempting mistress and it’s negative impact on our brains has been well documented. According to a recent study, the average human’s attention has fallen from twelve seconds to eight since 2000. An attention span worse than a goldfish. Writing with pen and paper requires more focus than using a laptop and copying lecture notes word-for-word. “Students who were taking longhand notes were forced to be more selective and that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them,” explained Princeton’s Pam A. Mueller in an interview with NPR.

However, not everyone is convinced hand-writing notes is the way to go. Haykuhi Avdalyan, a fifth year human biology student from UTSC says she uses her laptop as an aid to access information. “Laptops are meant to make our lives easier by allowing us to take notes, download lecture slides, find references from the books [and] Google facts,” she argued. “By not allowing students to take notes in class, professors actually hinder the learning process.”

For some students writing notes by hand is too cumbersome, for others it’s too difficult to decipher their own handwriting. However for some students the challenges they face are more significant. For some students, having access to laptops in lectures is a must, some have even dropped a course because the professor wouldn’t allow the use of laptops. Not being able to use laptops in lectures raises barriers that can affect people with various mental or physical disabilities.

The SBA (Students for Barrier-Free Access) is a non-profit, student group that represents disabled students at the University of Toronto. In an email correspondence with Nadia Kanani and Gelareh Alaei, the advocacy/volunteer coordinator and SBA co-chair, respectively, they explained that different students have different learning and note-taking methods. “It is essential that post-secondary be accessible to people with all kinds of learning styles rather than asking them to conform to one style of learning,” they wrote. UTSC’s Accessibility Services provides students with disabilities various accommodations so they can get the help the require. For example, a student with a visual impairment will require typed notes that can be read using a screen magnifier or a screen-reading software.

However, not  all students who need Accessibility Services register for them. This can happen because the student is unaware of the Accessibility Services offered, don’t have the required documentation (learning-disability assessments can cost up to $2000) or other reasons.
Some students argue that because they pay (too damn much) for their education they should be able to take notes however they see fit.  Hussain rejects the notion that using social media in lectures is innocuous, claiming that people using the Internet in lectures is “insulting and damages the environment of the class.” Adding “you can pay money pay money to go and see a movie but that doesn’t mean you get to jump up and down and do a dance in the middle of the theatre.”