Is the pen really mightier than the keyboard?

There is an interesting debate currently going on amongst academics and other big thinkers across the internet about the effectiveness of our digital tools in adding understanding and recollection. So given that the internet allows us all to have our say, regardless of our level of expertise, I thought I would add my two cents to the conversation before we all get distracted by a new cat meme.

The debate seems to have started with some research out of the US suggesting that paper and pens were a superior form of notetaking than keyboards. The research titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking argues that people who take notes using pen and paper remember more and show a greater understanding of the subject matter than people who take notes on a laptop. It hypothesized that the ability to capture information faster on a keyboard led to greater verbatim note taking and as a result students had to exert less cognitive load in building understanding and connections between content. It was something the authors called ‘desirable difficulty’…which just might be my new favourite phrase to drop into conversations.

So in response Clive Thompson, journalist for Wired Magazine and author of Smarter Than You Think (which just might be my new favourite book title to drop into conversations) wrote a piece on Medium titled The Joy of Typing: How racing along at 60 words a minute can unlock your mind. Clive doesn’t question the science of the aforementioned research but rather suggests that although the ability to type fast might provide a negative outcome when it comes to capturing information it is a positive when it comes to producing it. Clive refers to what academics call ‘transcription fluency’, how quickly and fluidly you can get down the things in your head. To back this up Clive points to research that suggested not only are typed essays generally of a higher standard than hand written ones but that the fastest typists created better essays that slower ones.

So it seems that on one hand we shouldn’t be using keyboards for note taking but we still need top quality keyboard skills for content creation.

So, here’s my opinion…

Firstly, I would suggest that none of the above research is terribly surprising. Paper and pens have been our preferred ‘memory augmentation’ device for centuries and following a minimum of 10 years of formal schooling in Western countries it is perhaps expected that we have developed some fairly effective systems around ‘paper technology’. Similarly, the keyboard and word processing programs we use on our laptops have evolved from typewriters, a technology primarily aimed at formal content production but probably rarely used in the lecture theatre for note taking.

But so far we have only compared a 1980’s technology (keyboard/laptop) with an 1890’s one (mass produced pens and papers). When we look at the technology of the 21st century technology we are seeing new opportunities that bring the benefits of both these technologies together.

One of the advantages of touch enabled devices such as the iPad is the ease of non-linear note taking. Using apps such as the awesome iThoughts, you can tap into the advantages of digital (faster data capture and the ability to search, share and repurpose your notes) with the advantages of paper, the ability to capture information in non-linear ways and make connections between disparate bits of information. In fact there is significant amounts of research on mind-mapping and the benefits in terms of both information recall and building understanding (for a fairly thorough summary check out Mind Mapping: Scientific Research and Studies by Think Buzan.

This seems to be the classic and/or debate. When we get access to new technology we often see the decision as one of substitution, we get to have the flexibility of paper or the efficiency of a keyboard. But when we start engaging with technology more deeply we see that that we could have both. Our mindset shifts from one of substitution to one of augmentation and we look for ways to augment the flexibility of paper with the efficiency of a keyboard (for more on this you should check out the SAMR model showing the benefits of new technology in a teaching environment).

Personally I think that the worst thing we can do is assume that we already have it right, that there are no more opportunities for improvement. Rather than protect the ways that we currently work (which is often done out of fear or to justify why we haven’t changed) we should be always actively seeking to to improve on the status quo. And when the status quo for students and knowledge workers is a 150 year old technology then it would seem that the improvement opportunities could be quite significant.

Photo credit: Tools of the trade by Damien Pollet via flickr