Smartphones might be dumbing us down

Mr. Willem Hillier

As anyone who has ever been in a modern high-school classroom knows, smartphones are very often used, whether the teacher wants them to be or not. Some teachers see them as a tool for learning, others see them as a hinderance. This debate between students and teachers, in all combinations, is something that is happening right now across the nation.

The way teachers view and control phones in the classroom could affect an entire generation of learners and thinkers. In a very practical sense, it will change the way the high schoolers of today work tomorrow, since students will inevitably carry the techniques they have learned and practiced in high school into the work environment. Here at CVU, it really is truly a mixed bag among teachers when it comes to smartphones.

Among the many who think the use of smartphones in classrooms have both pros and cons is Christopher Hood. He believes that these personal electronic devices can be used appropriately, and so far this year he has seen students “using good discretion” with their smartphones. However, he also cautions that there are students that can be irresponsible with their use, and he says that he sees students “checking their fantasy football teams” and “watching ESPN”, as well as using various social media services. These types of activities contribute to the sentiment of Polly Vanderputten. She has a policy of “Out of View, Out of Mind” when it comes to smartphones, and strictly enforces it. In her classes, students are required to place their phones into personal manilla envelopes before the start. Judging by the lack of smartphones in my French class, her method seems pretty successful! However, this method can be problematic when there is a valid use for a smartphone.

Nicole Gorman is among the teachers who actually actively encourages the use of smartphones in her classes. As a biology teacher, she asks students to take photos of things, which she says is a much more accurate record than a sketch or other drawing. Also, she says that they can make a good substitute for calculators since students so often do not have them.

Anne Wright Shank brought up an interesting point: that those students that do not have a smartphone feel excluded when the teacher asks them to use one. She recounted how once she was at some event for teachers, and the instructor asked them to pull out their phones for some exercise. Her’s was broken at the time, and she didn’t know what to do. It made her feel excluded in the same way that a student who didn’t have one would if a teacher asked them to use them. She also pointed out the diversity of economic status at CVU, and how smartphones should not be a “required item” on the CVU packing list.

I conducted a survey of the faculty and staff at CVU and the freshman class. The scope of the survey was far greater than I would have originally projected – there were a total of 155 responses. This survey presented additional views that had not previously been presented to me during face-to-face interviews. For example, one teacher believed that all smartphone use should be allowed in class, including watching movies and TV, and even playing games. They (referring to this particular teacher) said that “smartphones are a part of our culture and school is a great place to help students learn how to use them effectively.” In the other extreme are the teachers who believe that no smartphone use is acceptable. Below are teachers’ responses who seem to fit this category:

Any use considered can be accomplished otherwise (e.g writing). Once phones are out, control is lost.

Too distracting, not professional, not polite.

Class is a place for interactive learning and an opportunity to engage in learning– a cell phone takes away from the ability to actively engage in the learning process.

It’s a portal that leads you out of the class mentally- It’s hard to stay present, even when I use my own phone. Keep the issues in the hallway and deal with it after class.

There are other tools to use (calculator, notebook) and many students cannot stop at the limited use options (i.e.- quick text while using calculator, check/send snapchat after taking photo of board).

While these illustrate the extreme end of the “opinion spectrum” on this issue, the vast majority of teachers fall somewhere in the middle. Here’s what teachers had to say that fit into this general category:

There are some activities for which a smartphone is totally appropriate; there are others that are not and the phone becomes a distraction.

Appropriate use of smartphones in class should be allowed. In math class I regularly ask students to use different apps on their phone or so search on the web. Smartphones have enhanced our discussions around mathematical topics. I also believe that there are a lot of ways to represent mathematics and students also use their smartphones as a way to capture these moments. I have students access their Google docs where we have a shared folder with examples, videos, handouts and student work from the class. Whether it is a smartphone or some other device, having quick access to the web has improved the learning environment in my classroom.

It’s not a black and white issue. There is the potential for a smartphone to be a powerful learning tool and organizer. Also a great distraction.

There are many apps available that enhance education. A smartphone is a powerful piece of technology that can be used to create, communicate, problem-solve and collaborate.The challenge is to not be distracted by all the social stuff. One way to to do this would be to enable “do not disturb” but I acknowledge that this is challenging in classrooms.

They can be used as a quick research tool, to gather info, such as how much a $ in 1930 would be worth today.

Depends on the activity and the responsibility of the students to use it productively for the class. Now that there are 1 to 1 chromebooks though I think it is less necessary to have a smartphone in class.

I think it should be allowed for school purposes only (like adding something to your schedule, or homework/to-do list, using a calculator, or even looking something up for class).

Of particular interest is some of the freshmen’s responses. While the “curve” of how often freshmen think smartphones should be used in class is similar to that of teachers, the freshmen were generally skewed significantly towards more smartphone use (see figure 1 below). While most freshman seemed to agree in general with the majority of the teachers, many seemed to not even understand why teachers would not want to allow smartphone use. As one freshman said, “…I don’t see a reason not to allow it. And if you get bad grades from not paying attention it’s your own fault.”.

Another said that “sometimes we have free time in class, and when we have no homework there is nothing to do.

Still, there were students that seemed to think that close to no smartphone use is appropriate. Below is the most lengthy response to a question asking why they chose what they did on a 1 – 5 scale (see figure 1).

I believe the use of cellphones in class serves solely as a distraction, and the valuable time in which we have for classes is partially wasted on the teachers being forced to give guidelines and grounds for the use of cellphones in class. Additionally, despite the rules surrounding cell phones, I constantly witness those rules being abused. So personally, as there never tends to be any actual purpose to use them in class except to be distracted by social media or instant messaging, cell phones should be confined to lockers during class time.

We can quite easily draw a general conclusion from this survey: that opinions on smartphone use, both among teachers and students, is all over the place. The differing views of smartphones by teachers, especially locally at CVU, makes for a very confusing policy for students. When every teacher has their own view and their own rules, then students do not specifically know whether smartphone use is allowed in a given class, and what the boundary of that use is. This has probably contributed to students using them in classes that they shouldn’t, since they were allowed or even encouraged to in other classes. On the other hand, students sometimes seem surprised when a teacher asks them to add something to their calendar or take a photo of the board.

Looking forward, students hope that there will be clearer policies around smartphone use, or at the very least, an agreement that teachers make their own rules. Such a policy would substantially help with many of the issues surrounding smartphone use in class today.