Using Smart Phones in Smart Ways: Cell Phones as Economic Equalizers and Stuff

Before I drift too far into my dissertation research while on sabbatical this spring, I wanted to express some ideas that have taken root in my teaching philosophy regarding the equalizing power afforded by smart phones as computers.

If you had asked any student of mine between 2006-2010, you would have found out that I would give a “surprise quiz” if there was a cell phone that went off during class. I asked students to put them away and keep them away. And I meant it. NO CELL PHONES.

Then I thought about cell phones in a wildly different way; and my thoughts began to change while taking Classical Rhetoric in the spring 2012 semester then progressed further in the summer 2012 while taking a course in Advanced Issues in Composition. Both of these courses were taken with now emeritus faculty member Fred Kemp for my PhD program. He really got me to think about smart phones in a different, more productive way.

So, before I am beyond my ankles in dissertation research, I know there was some talk regarding the HW and CCC cell phone policy earlier in the semester, and I understand the resistance to letting students use them in the classroom.  But, this is was Fred Kemp had to say about it.

He remarked that cell phones (i.e., smart phones) contribute to lowering the bar of inquiry. What he meant by this is that if you want to know something, you can Google it on your smart phone in an instant, depending on your connection speed. You don’t have to look it up in the library or elsewhere anymore. While our student may not be able to afford PCs or Macs, I think I can’t be the only one who has noticed that our students have smart phones with operating systems capable of working like computers in the palms of their very real hands.

And I am sure I am not the first to articulate ideas like this regarding cell phones as smart phones being an economic equalizer, allowing students who couldn’t normally afford computers to access the same advantages.

And I embrace them now (well, not now, but when I am teaching I do).

I tell students that they are allowed to use their cell phones in class to look up words or do anything class-related, like checking to make sure they have access to the technology we use in class: Blackboard, Drop Box, Google Docs, etc.

And, mostly, with only a few exceptions, my students do use their phones appropriately. Yes, I am sure they check Facebook every once in a while, and yes, I am sure that they send text messages, too. However, by and large (and the vast majority of the time), I think the basic psychology of not making it a forbidden activity prevails here, and they use their cell phones to access the Google Doc I am working on during class in a room with a black box on the 6th floor.

On the first day of class, I have students download a free Quick Reference (QR) code reader called inigma to scan the QR codes I have made for the syllabus and other first day of class papers they need. No more paper copies for them (unless they specifically request one, and then I request copies from Reprographics). The QR code allows students the ability to scan multiple codes with links to documents (and a history of the downloads) to access documents on the train or bus or wherever.

And they use their phones to make sure they have access to documents they need for class on Blackboard or Drop Box; and they use their cell phones to clarify information during class. I think they use their cell phones to learn; however, I had to show them how to do just that: use the Internet and apps to learn and lower what Kemp called “the bar on inquiry.”

[I once had a group in class (during class) take a group selfie to send to a missing classmate and post it on Instagram; the missing classmate showed up for the remainder of the class sessions devoted to the group work.]

I do not think technology should drive our pedagogical choices. I’m not going to use the latest bells and technological whistles if they don’t fit what I am trying to accomplish in my classroom (and I strongly urge you not to either), but if there is a pedagogical function that smartphones afford us as instructors for our students, then I think we should try it out, at the very least.

And here are a few ways you can (along with some other accessibility tips).

  • Post everything on Blackboard or wherever (even e-mail attachments) as Portable Document Formats (PDFs). This allows students who do not have Microsoft Office and programs to open the documents on their smartphones.
  • Use Google Docs, if there is writing involved. Not only does Google Docs (when a user is logged in to Google) provide a history of their writing contributions, if they share the documents with you, then you can see who contributed what.
  • And, oh yeah: you can download a Google Doc as a PDF or docx or rtf. Students do not have to own, once again, Microsoft Office. There’s not only docs in Google, but spreadsheet and power point, too (or use Cloud On—another free app).

There are issues with privacy and Google owning content or whatever, but there’s so much on there (on Google) that I don’t think it’s a real worry, although I don’t (and would never) store private information on a Google Doc. I’m sure others are more knowledgeable about this.

You don’t have to use these, obviously; however, letting our students know they have access to free technologies to meet some of the writing demands (and via their smartphones) is worthwhile, I think.

I’m sure this may be contentious. I know there are some of us who will never welcome cell phones—no matter how smart they are—in the classroom. It is just as harmful to endorse as it is to reject all technologies, I think. If the technology fits your pedagogical aims for your students, it might be worth a shot, right?

Somewhere, in the history of teaching, there had to have been someone who consistently lamented the change from chalk to chalkless chalk to dry erase markers, don’t you think?

And even if you disagree, we know the job market our students will be entering, regardless of the current unemployment rate—it’s damn competitive. By showing our students smart ways to use their smartphones, we may be helping to be more competitive in the job market, thinking of using technology in professional ways to suit their learning needs.

Okay, now I return into the research recesses of my sabbatical (and I’m thinking about evaluating information, now . . . ).

5 thoughts on “Using Smart Phones in Smart Ways: Cell Phones as Economic Equalizers and Stuff

  1. Good stuff. Yes, I DO have students use their smart phones in class — just as the poster suggests: to look up info on the spot when someone has a question that’s beyond the scope of today’s lesson.
    I also have students use phone technology to improve their vocabulary. There are so many websites with word & grammar help.
    But, probably the favorite student use of phone tech in class is at the end, when I write the assignment on the board. They seem so *eager* to get started, that they take a photo of what I’ve written on the board, even though the same words will appear on Blackboard in a half hour.
    I wonder if Ephrem can schedule a hands-on session at the upcoming Technology Day (in April) to show us how to use Google docs, QR codes, and other things the above poster mentions in our own classrooms.

    • Hey, Lounge Lizard. KB isn’t a clever decoy. The poster is me, Kristin Bivens from the English Dept. Elisabeth Greer sent this info to ENG dept. faculty today, and I had heard this mentioned before, but never knew it.

      Quoting CDL:

      All City Colleges of Chicago students are eligible for a free copy of Microsoft Office for Windows or Mac, as well as tablets or phones.

      CCC Employees are eligible to get a copy of Microsoft Office for $9.95

      Regardless, I suggest posting PDFs for easier accessibility and portability.

      • Thanks for the info on getting MS office. I will tell my students. There are those who say they “can’t” do the HW b/c they don’t have a word-processor.

        I will take your suggestion about posting PDF’s for ease of access, even though they’re typically twice as large as .docx files.

        What I really want to know — for myself — is how to actually use the Google docs and QR codes you mention.

        Though I went through undergraduate school in the era of the manual typewriter, I embrace technology. What I (and many teachers my age) need is practical (and non-condescending) instruction on how to use it. Can you give a workshop at Technology day?

        • A few years ago, CAST had a session about Google docs. I agree that Google docs (Google drive now technically) is a great tool and should be highlighted at Tech. Day.

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