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Old 12-21-2010, 09:18 AM   #4
Fastolfe
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Device: Sony PRS-650
Maybe I can offer some insight on the issue of using computer tools in class.

I take evening classes to perfect my Spanish, and I have been running a little experiment for the past few months: I'm trying to spend an entire school year without using any paper at all - apart from test sheets, which my teachers can't accept electronically, and can't be printed in a test classroom without bothering those who take the test as well.

To try to achieve this, I bring a small laptop (a 9" Asus netbook) to class, as well as a portable A4 scanner, and lately, my Sony Reader.

I use either the laptop or the Sony Reader to display my textbooks, which I have scanned, and play the exercise tapes, which I have recorded in MP3 format. I use the laptop to take notes in simple Word or Excel files. Finally, I use the scanner to scan any paper the teacher gives - I have become quite good at scanning those papers and loading them into my notes on the fly without missing any of what the teacher says, but it takes some getting used to

My experience has yielded mixed results so far.

Pros:

- I have easily readable, easily editable, easily indexed notes;
- I can share my notes with other students;
- I always carry the same amount of stuff regardless of which particular classes I take that day, and which and textbooks I need to have with me, and I always have all my class material with me;
- I can say I saved some trees from turning into paper pulp.

Cons:

- Forget about using a tablet. A keyboard - and a good one at that - is a must for note-taking. Unless you're okay with taking notes on paper and just using the tablet for book viewing, but to me it sort of defeats the purpose of "e-learning".

- You'd better have a pretty good resolution and/or a large screen. I have found that lack of displaying real-estate is the biggest drawback when you need to view largish documents or textbooks, and when you want an overview of the notes you've been taking. To me, anything under 12" and 1280x1024 just doesn't cut the mustard. Sure, it's *usable* on a 9", 1024x600 screen, but it's just not nice, and certainly not as nimble to use as a pen and a notebook. I had high hopes for the Kno but it seems more vaporware than anything, so the next best solution I found is the laptop, supplemented by the Sony Reader. Definitely not ideal...

- Note-taking with a keyboard isn't for everyone. It definitely isn't the same as typing a document linearly; it's not the same workflow to record a live lesson, during which you need to get back to what you wrote 2 minutes earlier, then add things down below, all the while listening to the teacher and doing the assignments. It takes quite a bit of brain multitasking. I'm a pro typist by trade, yet I've become fully proficient at this particular exercise only recently. Add the scanner into the mix and it can make following a lesson quite a feat.

- Do I really save trees? After all, something has to power the plant that I recharge my electronic gadgets with, and the amount of cardboard and manuals that came with them when I bought them was quite staggering, and probably represented more paper than my Spanish textbooks and a blank notebook in the first place.

So in short, in my opinion, computers in class will only reveal their true potential if:

1) the curriculum material is formatted specifically for electronic displays, taking into account the page-flitting dynamics (or lack thereof), the linking abilities, the multimedia abilities, the smaller screen sizes and lower resolutions, and aren't simply printed books that have been converted to electronic versions.

2) teachers use the technology to give their classes, distribute electronically-formatted material to their students, and don't simply use the technology as a glorified blackboard and distribute unindexable scanned variants of their paper-only teaching material.

3) Students are given a thorough course in typing, or note-taking with a stylus perhaps (if this is even possible at all in real-life, but I suppose with a properly formatted curriculum, it could limit the amount of notes a student needs to take).

If those three conditions aren't met, I remain unconvinced that tablets in the classroom at anything other than a way to carry many textbooks without breaking the students' back, and not even very good textbooks at that. Not to mention, so far most such "computers for learning" initiatives have been nothing more than feel-good programs to convince governments that the future is here and they need to cough up more money, or to attract students.

I hope it'll work though: the technology is there; there's nothing futuristic about the devices needed to actually implement a proper "e-learning" environment anymore, it's more a matter of putting it all together intelligently. But that alone promises to be a multi-decade project, as the inertia in the world of education is quite formidable.
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