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The “Brave New World” of learning

I was sitting at a class in which I’m a teaching assistant, and I counted the number of students using a laptop to take notes and keep up with the lecture. Out of 30 students in the class, 27 of them had a laptop open (not necessarily to class-related materials) and an additional two had a tablet of some sort. Most of them were taking notes on the lecture or they were reading the lecture slides on their device. (One or two were viewing websites not related to class.)

In this class, the professor has a strict “no texting” rule, which I admire. In a ton of my classes, students are on their phones, completely divorced from what is going on in class. This is all fine and good if the purpose of the class is to learn information and later “regurgitate” it on a multiple-choice exam. You can learn that kind of knowledge outside of the classroom without a problem.

The problem comes when you’re being taught wisdom. That’s the case with the class I’m TA-ing. The students are being taught about professional epidemiological methods that they are sure to use if they go to work in a public health institution, like a health department. Furthermore, a lot of these methods require critical thinking and applying knowledge in a specialized way. You can’t just do an odds ratio calculation and think that you’ve figured out the cause of an outbreak. (Odds ratios said tomatoes were the cause of a salmonella outbreak when it was the jalapeño peppers that did it, causing a waste of time and tomatoes.)

The one student who wasn’t using an electronic device had a notebook and pen open, and they were writing down notes throughout the lecture. This student was about my age, and that was something else I noticed. About 90% of those using an electronic device were much younger than I am. (My wife has joked that I’m old enough to be their father… Almost.) That got me thinking about how those students have grown up learning.

When I was in kindergarten and elementary school, we had notebooks, pens, pencils and coloring pencils to learn. I remember an elementary school teacher who started us off each day with ten minutes of writing something into a little composition book he gave us. He would then spend the afternoon reading the books and giving us some sort of feedback. After I wrote about a series of bad dreams I had, he pulled me aside and asked if everything was okay at home. (I don’t know if he addressed this with my parents.)

Although I learned how to touch-type from using my mother’s typewriter, and some of my more affluent friends and relatives had video game consoles that included some sort of word processor, it wouldn’t be until I was in eight grade that I got access to a computer. Each class slowly built on the previous class, and we went from learning how to type (which I mastered quickly) to doing minor programming using MS-DOS and BASIC. Once I was in high school, we learned how to do more advanced things like running software for graphic design. And it wouldn’t be until my freshman year in college (circa 1996) that I got to know the world-wide web.

All through those years of exposure to computers and learning to be productive with them, I still kept my notes in a notebook of some sort. I would write out my assignments by hand before expanding on them in a word processor. To this day, I still sketch out my thoughts (with plenty of doodles on the margins) before committing them to MS Word or here on the blog.

When it comes to the students in the masters degree programs at the school, most of them are in their early to mid-20s. That means that they were born in the mid to early 1990s. Many of them come from affluent families as well, or they went to good schools with plenty of technology. While I’m sure that they were taught how to use pen and paper to keep notes, I’m also sure that most of them had exposure to some sort of a computer from the very first year of school.

Today, you can see a child as young as three years old pick up an iPad and start playing with it. They can play games that are certainly wiring their minds in a different way than games based in the real world would. I’m even wondering if a child born today will learn how to write with pen and paper given the recent leap, of sorts, with the Apple Pencil or the Microsoft Slate and its pen:

I call it a “leap” because the Apple Pencil has virtually zero lag between the moment you put the tip to the screen and when the ink appears on the screen. (The pen on the Slate has a slight and noticeable lag, but has other advantages such as reducing the parallax effect on the screen.)

So I’m wondering how these devices are going to wire the human mind for learning. Right now, humans learn better by writing down notes with their hands. But are we getting closer to learning better by typing notes on a screen? And how are devices like the iPad (and other tablets) and their associated electronic pens going to alter how we learn?

I’ve spent some time playing with the pencil and the iPad pro (a bigger, faster iPad), and I am very impressed at how similar to pen and paper it is. In fact, I wrote this last night:


I’ve written on an iPad before, but the process was quite cumbersome. The lag between the stylus and the ink appearing on the screen was too much. I was on the fifth letter by the time the third appeared, and it made it a pain to go back. This is not the case anymore, and — while the feeling is like rubbing a piece of glass with a stick — the perception is like that of pen on paper… Or pencil, marker, crayon, paintbrush on paper.

And that’s just now in 2015. I can only imagine what will happen in the next five or ten years that will make the interaction between our computers (including smartphones) and us even more personal. I see a world where we no longer teach students knowledge because it will be readily available in their pocket (or on their brains, if you believe those who think we’ll attack fully working computers straight to our brains). Heck, there might come a time in my lifetime where artificial intelligence emerges and has the capacity to gain knowledge at a phenomenal rate.

But where will wisdom come from?



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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

7 replies

  1. I’ve heard that schools no longer teach cursive writing, it’s block letters now, save for signatures.
    Just as well, considering my handwriting makes a 6th graders writing look good, damned nerve damage! Still, pharmacists loved my prescriptions, back when I was writing them in the Army.

    As for computers, well, I predate MS DOS, Windows 1 came out around when our children were infants. Still, we did have TRS-80 computers in school, as well as a DEC PDP 11-03 minicomputer (after graduation and an economic downturn, I joined the Army and found a similar PDP 11 computer programming tactical nuclear missiles).
    Later, I started with computers with an old Commodore 64 and later, Commodore 128 and a bulletin board system, which I customized the code and security system of. Users was certain it ran on a new AT computer.
    A bit later, I ventured into the PC world and networking, starting with ARCNET and moving to ethernet when it became affordable.
    Today, I take notes with whatever is available fastest, a computer or pen and paper. Just don’t ask to read my notes, I use a word or two to signify a concept or small diagram or even an equation. It makes sense to me, but few others.

    Technology and medicine has advanced immensely over the course of my life, so who knows what the future will bring? We may end up eventually inventing artificial intelligence, but I suspect we’ll have to figure out organic intelligence a lot more before that occurs.
    Still, as our understanding of the human brain increases, we may very well invent embedable technology that would augment our wetware with performance enhancing hardware. The potential for a technological singularity is present for when you reach my age, as I am indeed old enough to be your father and our technologies have advanced far more than I ever considered possible. Today, I own a personal computer that is a two inch cube, when I was a child, similar processing power, albeit much slower, would have occupied an entire office.
    Only hard work, creative thinking and perseverance will continue to advance our technologies and society.
    Let’s just hope that the far right in our political spectrum permits us to continue advancing.


    1. Well, those bozos want the end of the world (e.g. “Second Coming”) so much that they might push the button on the nuclear football the second they’re sworn-in.


      1. I’d not be surprised to see a preemptive strike during the inauguration if one of those jokers got elected.


  2. When my now 25 year old kid was in college (and high school), he would take notes on paper. To study, he would rewrite those notes more neatly. He felt that the hand motor motion helped him remember what was taught in those notes.

    Also, since he was a math major, equations and graphs are a bit more difficult to type into a keyboard. Though it would be interesting if something like the Apple Pen would work for folks like him.


      1. A few years ago I took an graduate level engineering math class. A few people used laptops, but most of the note taking was on paper. Other than the assignments on programming with Mathematica, the homework was done on paper.


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