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Posts Tagged ‘handwriting

There is a stock phrase for the slow progress of any change: Taking three steps forward, two steps back. But wonder what it would be like if we did not take steps back.

The Edutopia article above does a disservice to education by signposting how to maintain the status quo or even reverse progress of edtech integration. To justify this, the author cited the harm of screen time and the benefits of taking notes by hand. 

I am not saying that excessive use of a device late into the night is good, nor am I saying we should only take notes with more recent technologies. I would point out that the pen vs device question gets answers that fall on either side depending on the task. 

If you need to take a quick note, draw a diagram, or mindmap, then a pen (actual or electronic) might be both more efficient and effective. But if you needed to submit a legible essay, record an interview, or document phenomena, then a keyboard, microphone, and camera are better options for these forms of writing.

We should also point out the elephant in the debate room. The ultimate form of assessment — paper-based tests — favours handwriting over other forms of writing. In such a room, students cannot cooperate with one another, fact-check their work online, or express themselves beyond basic text and drawing.

Ultimately, the strategy of note-taking also matters more than the tool of note-taking (see video and sources here). In reviewing the video, I summarised:

It does not matter if you prefer to take notes by handwriting or by typing. It is how you attempt to quickly process what you see and hear before you record it. It is about your ability to analyse and summarise.

Rising above, I find articles that try to justify handwriting tiresome and passé. They live in the past in order to divide and conquer. They encourage the large camp of teachers who are wary of technology and thus maintain the status quo. They discourage the other group of teachers that leverages on technology by making them feel like they are doing something wrong.

What is wrong is wearing rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia and taking the short term view. If we are preparing our learners for the present and future, they need to use the tools of today and tomorrow. These tools include pencils and devices. 

We need a better debate. We cannot keep arguing that students should hand-write because exams are on paper. This might help students with a grade, but it avoids the responsibility of preparing them beyond the walls of the classroom. The use of all writing tools should not just be strategic and contextual, they should also be shaped by more progressive and authentic forms of assessment. What such assessment looks like and how to implement it are far more interesting and valuable topics of discussion.

If you read the actual research about the effect of handwriting, you do not need to try to get past this pay-walled “news” article. 

It is an opinion piece at best. And at its worst, it is disinformation based on poor foundations. 

What foundations? That the old ways are better than the new. That fear mongering is a more effective driver than forward thinking. That the argument is “either or” instead of “and also”. 

I need to explain the last one. This is based on dichotomous thinking of choosing one over the other (the pen or the keyboard). One result of such thinking is a side-based mindset: You are either for us or against us. 

This is not just unproductive, it is invalid. We can (and often do) use both. Whether we use a pen or keyboard is based on availability, need, and context. 

The fear that the headline tries to leverage on is parental and teacher anxiety that using tools with keyboards or screens will make kids less intelligent. 

Really? Intelligence as measured by what sort of tests? What other factors influence intelligence? What forms of intelligence?

The handwriting issue is not new. Looking back at my curated bookmarks, I first took note of it in February 2012. Since then I have reflected on more recent findings, like:

Back to the article. It is founded on dumb. I am dumbfounded that it was published. I take that back — it was relying on old strategies of using clickbait and providing information to further cement inertia. We need to be smarter than that.


Video source

This week’s episode focused on one example of supervised learning — how AI recognises human handwriting. This is a problem that was tackled quite a while ago (during the rise of tablet PCs) and is a safe bet as an example.

The boiled down basic AI ingredients are:

  1. Labelled datasets of handwriting
  2. Neural network programmed with initial rule sets
  3. Training, testing, and tweaking the rules

The oversimplified process might be: Convert handwritten letters to scanned pixels, allow the neural network to process the pixels, make the neural network learn by comparing its outputs with the labelled inputs, and reiterating until it reaches acceptable accuracy.

The real test is whether the neural network can read and interpret a previously unseen dataset. The narrator demonstrated how he imported and tweaked such data so that it was suitable for the neural network.

My takeaway was not the details because that is not my area of expertise nor my focus. It is the observation that the choice of datasets and how they are processed is key.

If there is not enough data or if there is only partial representation of a larger set, then we cannot blame AI entirely for mistakes. We make the data choices and their labels, so the fault is ours.


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