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Digital tools still need to work with analog brains
Mon, 21st Nov 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

There is no doubt that digital productivity tools, delivered via laptops, mobile phones, and tablets, are useful in enabling users to create, share, and distribute their work efficiently. However, research suggests that there are significant educational benefits to some old-fashioned analogue skill sets that can be critical to the way we think and solve problems.

The power of the pen in the digital age

In 2015, the government of Finland initiated global debate when it decided to phase out the teaching of handwriting to Finnish school children. Although the decision was commonly exaggerated as the Finns stopping the teaching of writing – whereas in fact they had decided to phase out long-form handwriting while still teaching kids to print – it did seem to presage the coming of a new age.

After all, if citizens from toddlers to octogenarians are going to interact with the world through a keyboard, why waste valuable educational resources on teaching a skill that would inevitably go the way of candle making, blacksmithing, and weaving – at least in technologically advanced societies. Surely students would be better prepared for the world if more time was devoted to fine-tuning their keyboard skills?

However, while it seemed that the writing was on the wall (pun intended) for handwriting generally, recent research has indicated that humans approach problems differently when using a pen and paper, or the digital equivalent, than when they type on a keyboard.

Research comparing the knowledge retention of US students has identified greater retention several weeks' post-lecture when using a pen or stylus than when typing into a laptop. It seems that the routine act of summarising and annotating written notes helps us to remember key concepts. Students using keyboards type more text verbatim; those using pens (digital or analogue) summarise, doodle, and highlight their notes, promoting active learning.

In addition, the ability to sketch, scribble, draw, diagram, and annotate in a digital environment helps students to develop and communicate complex concepts and ideas. This can have significant implications when we consider the devices we use for learning activities, whether that be directly in education or later in the workplace.

At a recent education forum, Microsoft explained how its digital ink capability – an umbrella term that encompasses the hardware and software components capturing digital pen activity and turning it into content – provides a way to continue to stimulate that learning mechanism in a digital age.

With the combination of OneNote class notebooks and pen-enabled hardware, such as Surface tablets, K12 students and educators can collaborate, annotate, and assess assignments using a digital stylus as a pen and paper metaphor, yet still retain the benefits of rich digital learning media, resource materials, and administration.

Ironically, given that anecdotally at least the layout of the familiar QWERTY keyboard was specifically designed to slow typists down so that they didn't damage early mechanical machines, keyboards are a far quicker and easier way to create more than a few lines of text.

Few of us are likely to revert to writing a 20-page essay in long-hand anytime soon. But in a similar way to how our conceptual thought processes are influenced by our mother tongue, they are also influenced by the input interfaces we utilise. Ensuring that the wider cognitive benefits of the stylus, a technology with ancient roots, are not overlooked will ensure that we retain greatest flexibility in our problem-solving skills into the future.