Many students request the use of laptops even when that has not been part of the teaching and learning plan. I don't blame them. For their generation the speed and fluency in one mode of print text - typing - often exceeds their speed and fluency in the other mode - handwriting.
When I wrote essays by hand (in school and as an undergraduate), I wrote notes, then a draft, and after that I used colours and numbers to help me label which material from the draft would end up in the final version. This was the drafting and editing process I found useful when my technology was paper and pen. As a post-grad student, with laptop in hand, I tended to follow a similar method, with a combination of typed and written notes before I started the draft. In almost all of my post-grad essays, I found myself handwriting an introduction before I started typing. And still today, when I read academic articles, I take notes by hand. The neurons I use for handwriting must stimulate my learning in some way. For many people my age, this may be true also.
When I choose not to handwrite, as I am doing now with this blog post, I use word processing similarly to the way I approached my essays. I love the fact that whilst I am word processing I can constantly review my writing; I use all the tools the word processor has to change and rearrange as I compose. This is the joy of drafting and editing with electronic text.
However, as I observed in a previous post, students do not use the many features of technology available to them. One of the consequences of students' constant typing is the way it has affected their understanding of the concept of drafting. Some younger students seem to think that drafting is just about fixing spelling and punctuation. As word processing helps students achieve this, they feel that if they are typing then those issues are covered. Consequently the first draft, because it is typed, is frequently the only draft. Certainly some errors are corrected such as changes to verb tense and paragraphing, but on the whole, students submit their first thoughts because it looks 'finished'. It would seem some teachers are so grateful to receive legible text that they also accept the typed version without demurring.
It is my job to help students learn to draft and edit, and use word processing more effectively. This means actively teaching students the tools for drafting and editing and possibly to balance that with the technology of paper and pen.
This was made apparent to me recently when students were asked to compose a short story as part of their study of narrative. Despite their incredible typing speeds and having used Word since they could read, not one of the students knew about the Review function, where they, or others, could add in comments on the text. After some planning of character, setting and plot by hand in their books, students began to type a narrative on the laptops. After the first lesson of typing, I showed students how to use the Review function. Following this, students physically gave their laptop to their partner whose job was to offer comments or pose questions about the story as it currently stood. (We had been working all year on peer editing so I knew they would be able to offer appropriate comments.) When their story was returned to them, the students had to save the version with comments and consider how they would take on board the feedback. Each lesson we worked on the story (12.5% time) the same process would take place. Thus students were learning how to use the technology to accomplish editing and rewriting.
Their stories were better for it.