Smartphones in education: there's more to smartphones than meets the smiley-face's eye

Jeffrey Pallak

Editor's commentary

Jeffrey Pallak

Online Editor

Everyone knows someone who goes out of his way to say—“I have a phone. It just makes phone calls; that’s what a phone is for!”—anytime anyone is talking about a smartphone. They are right. That is what a basic phone is for. Smartphones, on the other hand, are not.

Smartphones are not really phones at all. They are little handheld computers that happen to be able to make phone calls. They have the potential for so much more than mere point-to-point communication.

Instructors favorite excuse to go overboard

Most instructors have a tendency to overreact to the sight and sound of a student using a phone in class. They make huge productions of the event, acting as if some cardinal rule of humanity has been broken. They often try to shame the student into feeling guilty, as if the student who is texting during class is likely really to care.

I also am bothered by this occurrence. Not because another student is texting; what do I care if they are missing notes. The biggest distraction in the process, in my opinion, is the instructor having his or her fit. What does bother me is this behavior makes it impossible for me to use my phone in a manner that is actually beneficial to my education.

Smartphones are the busy man's best friend

My schedule is almost impossible to keep track of. Among homework assignments for my classes, deadlines for Wingpsan, picking up the kids from preschool, helping with medication and blood sugar timetables for my girlfriend, remembering appointment dates and times, returning to student services almost daily trying to get my financial aid locked down and getting my graduation application ducks all in a row, I need a little help keeping track of what is coming up. My phone does this beautifully. Entering all my responsibilities into my phone allows it to let me know automatically when important tasks loom on the horizon.

In the morning, it lets me know all the appointments and other deviations from my normal schedule that have arisen for the day and reminds me I have only four days left on that research paper assigned two weeks ago. You cannot program a watch to go off for a few dozen different reasons. Software and the mobile platform have greatly improved my ability to keep track of my tasks and the time they need to be completed.

The problem is I cannot enter assignments into my calendar on my phone when I am in class because, apparently, if I do, the Nazis will take over the world—riding on dinosaurs, no doubt—and the sun will explode. Sure, I can write it down in my notes, but then I have to take more time out of my day to transcribe them into the calendar and hope I don’t miss anything and end up not turning in an assignment or missing an ultrasound appointment.

I can check my assignments on Angel with my smartphone between classes, so I don’t have to duck into the computer lab and log on. From dictionaries to historical databases, countless tools are available for phones that could enrich the classroom experience. When an issue comes up in class and there is a discrepancy regarding the year that a trade regulation was passed, I can easily jump online using my phone’s browser and solve the issue; no, wait—I can’t do that because someone was texting smiley faces to their friends earlier. :(

A bright future for smartphones in education is possible

The market for apps on phones is driven by demand as well. Look at what happens whenever a market is tapped for software. As soon as demand exists, developers flood the market with tools and accessories.

All we need to do is accept the smartphone in the classroom and see what develops. If we come, they will build it.

Fear of technology in education is not new. When my parents were in school, you could be expelled for cheating if you were found owning a basic calculator. Now students are required to shell out hundreds of dollars for devices that can do calculus. Times change.

If we stop using our phones to disrupt class or ignore the people who don’t pay attention, we can stop fearing technology and embrace it. It can make life better if we allow it.