3 December 2019 • Simon Burgers
Of paper, screens and education
The show The World of Thinking was recently on TV. This is a documentary about Princeton University, the academic institution that once employed Einstein and that still produces an impressive number of Nobel laureates. The documentary follows a number of scientists who are active there today, young and old, men and women. You see them present, writing with chalk on the large blackboards, solving ‘puzzles’ on paper and discussing with colleagues, again with a piece of chalk in hand in front of a blackboard.
There is something quite special about this documentary. There is rarely a computer in sight. The brilliant scientists at Princeton use very few screens. Even during their presentations they don’t use PowerPoint.
How odd. But why? Surely we can safely assume that the world’s best scientists know how to use a computer?
The answer is obvious. Working with computers doesn’t offer only advantages. It also limits your thinking, your creativity and your freedom. You only have to start typing a word and your software will determine where it goes on your screen. The screen literally boxes in your broad-mindedness. This also applies to finding connections and seeing the big picture. A screen can never compete with a 5×2 meter blackboard. At Princeton they know this all too well.
However, there are more reasons to question the use of screens. Scientific studies have shown that educational content is better understood when it’s studied in paper format. (See for example the research by Mangen and others from 2013.) People are also better at correcting their own mistakes when reviewing a text on paper than reading on a screen. And finally, when studying for an examination you can remember the content better when making handwritten notes than when typing on a laptop (research conducted by Mueller & Oppenheimer in 2014).
Perhaps at our university of applied sciences we should pay more attention to the ‘paper versus screen’ issue. In the last ten years paper teaching materials have quickly been replaced by digital resources. Students also spend less time writing by hand, including when taking notes during lectures.
These developments cannot be ignored. Of course our university of applied sciences has had to adapt in a number of areas, for example with the use of Smartboards, Powerpoints, information on Blackboard, the use of websites, digital practice materials, etc.
But we also shouldn’t follow all developments without questioning any of it. Our university of applied sciences is part of the social environment, we help shape it. As a university of applied sciences we can play a sensible role by ensuring an appropriate balance in the use of screens and paper. It would be limiting to only work with screens and digital files. To learn how to write and comprehend longer texts it’s important that students continue to feel comfortable with a paper-based environment.
After all, don’t we as a university of applied sciences want to offer our students the very best? Then let us offer them the best of both worlds. The paper and the digital world.
Simon Burgers is a lecturer with the Finance & Control degree programme