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Smart Phones, Ubiquity, and Learning

Sweat soaked through my gray t-shirt as I walked briskly from Union Station to my hotel on the lakefront in Chicago. I was wearing a pack on my back, carrying a duffel bag stuffed with clothes in my left hand, and my Galaxy 7 in my right. Google Maps was helping me with distance and direction. It was very humid but picturesque downtown. I felt like I was missing things by focusing on my handheld navigator. I wasn't making eye contact with others, I was feeling somewhat detached, comfortable having a mobile guide, uneasy about not being fully attentive to traffic and other pedestrians.

The light was red at Randolph and Michigan, this gave me a chance to look around, to people watch. I came to the realization I was not the only one attending to a smart phone. Seemingly, everyone, had one hand extended out front to view their LED screen. There were no eyes for me to make contact with, they were all looking down.

The light changed, and I started counting people with phones until I got to someone without one. At ninety-four, I spotted a weathered man wearing a long beard and a sweat-soaked sleeveless shirt riding a skateboard, bright yellow shoes, a boombox, but no phone. He was the only person I saw among the thousands I passed during my thirty-minute walk without a phalanges phone attachment.

Let's forget for a moment that I walked thirty minutes to the wrong hotel. I used the Uber app on my phone to summon a ride in a matter of seconds. It took seven dollars and eleven minutes to get me to the correct Hyatt. Stepping out of the blue Prius and into the long, air conditioned corridors of McCormick Place, I was once again struck by the number of people walking along while attending to their phones.

Isn't it strange to call them phones? If you're like me, then talking to someone else ranks about fifty-first on my list of mobile activities. A few weeks ago, I had to put my phone into airplane mode just before taking off for San Antonio. Last week, I silenced my phone at the movie theater. We have a family expectation, no cell phones at the dinner table. Norms are being established for cell phone usage. Because of their distractive nature, some folks think we should ban smart phones from the classroom.

Recently, my blogging friend, Bill Ferriter, shared research suggesting the mere presence of a mobile device is enough to cause distractions, "impairing our working memory and fluid intelligence." This report, Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, by Ward, Duke, Gneezy, and Bos, indicates it's difficult for even the most disciplined individuals to resist the temptations of mobile devices. This divided attention robs us from using our full cognitive capacity.

"We all understand the joys of our always-wired world - the connections, the validations, the laughs... the info... But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs." - Andrew Sullivan (2016)

Ferriter and other educators are considering banning cell phones from their classrooms. According to the Pew Research Center, ninety-two percent of younger adults, age twelve to seventeen rely heavily on smart phones. I skimmed the Brain Drain report and came across this interesting statement; 

"As educational institutions increasingly embrace “connected classrooms,” the presence of students’ mobile devices in educational environments may undermine both learning and test performance—particularly when these devices are present but not in use."

Present, but not in use. What is the purpose of school? Some say it's to help students become "future ready." Some use terms like college and career readiness. Others say it's to prepare students for "the real world." I spent the better part of Sunday afternoon immersed in a reality where nearly everyone, sans a skateboarder, was using a smart phone.

What if the preferred one-to-one device was a cell phone? What if BYOD programs encouraged the use of mobile phones? What if the smart phone became a primary object of learning and instruction? Would this impact findings of future research? Could brain drain become brain gain?

During the past few days, I attended a conference with roughly one thousand enthusiastic educators. I had my smart phone and a backup battery with me every step of the way. I asked dozens of folks at Schoology NEXT-17, "what is your most essential piece of technology?" This response echoed what everyone said, "I may forget to bring or charge my laptop, but I wouldn't be caught dead without my phone."

There is more research needed in this area of concentration and distraction. Maybe we can better prepare our students for their future by encouraging them to make better use of the tools of their present. Would you let your kids walk the streets of Chicago, New York City, or Des Moines without a cell phone? How skilled would you like to be using your phone for navigation, photography, shopping, obtaining transportation, and finding valuable information in short notice? 

Because of their ubiquity, maybe we should consider a modern, dare I say, logical approach to using smart phones in the classroom. It seems many of us, including myself, could benefit from becoming adept users of our most indispensable technology. After all, they are called smart phones.

Related Reading

Gutierrez, Karla. "Embracing a Mobile Mindset for Learning and Development." SHIFT ELearning Blog. 25 July 2017.

Hertz, Mary Beth. "Digital Tools and Distraction in School." Edutopia. 17 Jan. 2014.

photo credit: pennuja Everyone Check Your Phones - NYC via photopin (license)


Aaron Davis said…
I respect what people like Sherry Turkle, Cal Newport and now the research that Bill Ferriter discussed. I totally agree with you about better use. I also feel that students need to learn how to adequately learn how to manage themselves and their devices. Maybe they will be distracted at times. Maybe their essay results might go down? However, if they become better citizens then isn't that a good thing?
Robert Schuetz said…
Thanks Aaron - agree. Like you, I find the research interesting. However, maybe we're distracted by our mobile devices because there is a gap in our education. I, for one, can reduce my carbon footprint, by eliminating devices and becoming better at using my smart phone productively. Digital contribution is a good thing!

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