The Benefits of Going Low-Tech in College

Low-tech tools

USA Today‘s College Blog just posted my article on the benefits of going low-tech in college!  In it, I explain why ditching your laptop may be good for your GPA.  There were a bunch of things I didn’t get to include in the article, though, so here’s some more advice about how to avoid the pitfalls of technology in the classroom.

      1. How to use slides.In my article, I caution against relying too much on the professor’s PowerPoint presentations, which are now commonly posted online.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them at all – they can make taking notes easier and faster, if you use them the right way.  Here’s one way to do it:
        • If the slides are posted before class, print them out and number each one.  Bring the print-outs and a notebook to class.  Write today’s date on your slides and in your notebook.
        • Take notes directly on the slide printouts as they are covered in class.  Flesh out the slide’s outlines with details and examples provided by the professor.
        • If you run out of space on a slide printout, write that slide’s number in your notebook and continue taking notes there.  That way, when you’re reviewing, you can easily match up the slide with the relevant section in your notebook.
        • If the slides are posted after class, take notes as you normally would and use the slides as a supplement.

The benefits of paper

    1. When in doubt, print it out. Many professors have joined the environmental movement by posting syllabi and assignments online instead of printing them out.  This is all well and good for Mother Earth, but it may not be the best thing for your GPA.  If you don’t print out important documents, there’s a much greater chance that you will overlook some key detail.  I observed this numerous times in my paper-free classes.  For example, when essay assignments were posted online, many of my classmates were unaware of essentials such as the due-date and topic.  During finals, they often lost points because they hadn’t noticed certain required readings on the online syllabus.  During meetings for group projects, I was often the only one who could clarify the requirements because I had the assignment right there in front of me.  Printing out documents saves you from having to turn on your computer and navigate to your course’s web page every time you want to check something. If your conscience nags you about killing trees, remind it that you can recycle the paper when the term is over.
    2. Books aren’t dead yet. Dr. Jakob Nielsen, a web usability expert, has some alarming things to say about how technology affects reading comprehension.  “The online medium lends itself to a more superficial processing of information,” he says. “You’re just surfing the information. It’s not a deep learning.” Although reading speeds on electronic devices have improved, they’re still not as good as reading on paper: in Mr. Nielsen’s study, the iPad measured at 6.2% lower reading speed than the printed book, whereas the Kindle measured at 10.7% slower than print. And if you’re even thinking about doing serious reading on your iPhone, I have one word for you: don’t. Reading comprehension scores are 48% of the desktop level when using the iPhone-sized screen. That is, it’s twice as hard to understand complex content when reading on an iPhone versus on a full-sized computer screen.
    3. Be more independent. Lastly, this week’s Time magazine provides more evidence that we’re becoming overly dependent on technology and losing our ability to contextualize information. According to Annie Murphy Paul in the article “Your Head Is in the Cloud”

      Research conducted by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, and published last year in the journal Science has identified three new realities about how we process information in the Internet age. First, her experiments showed that when we don’t know the answer to a question, we now think about where we can find the nearest Web connection instead of the subject of the question itself. . . . A second revelation: when we expect to be able to find information again later on, we don’t remember it as well as when we think it might become unavailable. . . . The researchers’ final observation: the expectation that we’ll be able to locate information down the line leads us to form a memory not of the fact itself but of where we’ll be able to find it.”

      Scary stuff. You can’t have an intelligent conversation if you have to look something up on your computer every 20 seconds. We must use technology with restraint, both in school and in our post-graduate lives.


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