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 . . . ).

Website Wednesday

Website Wednesday is an occasional feature in which we highlight one (or a couple) of sites from the Billions floating around the Intertoobz that just might help you with your Herculean task of educating inquiring minds. Any and all suggestions for future editions are welcome.

Flowing Data is a “Data Visualization, Infographics, and Statistics” site that makes beautiful, fascinating pictures out of numbers. Want to see a visualization of “Where People Run” in a bunch of major cities (such as Chicago)? No problem. Want to see a poster with visualizations of famous movie quotes? No problem. Want to learn about how to make data visualizations or recognize liars or see some great ones? No problem. It’s all there.

Open Access Sting Reveals Peer Review Problems

Science Magazine recently wrote a completely bogus article about lichen extracts that combat cancer, came up with some fake scientist names, gave them some made up credentials, and then submitted the lot of it to 300 open access journals. Though many of the journals boasted peer review boards with prestigious-sounding names and titles, the article was accepted by over half of the journals. Some of the journals did ask for edits, but the authors claim the paper was so bad that mere editing would not have fixed the fatal flaws of the research, methods, data, and conclusions.

It gets worse. According to the authors:
The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and
Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious
academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted
by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which
the paper’s topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of
Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction.

So from whence did this problem arise? Is it merely the case that hucksters realized that academic publishing was a good scam, or is there a more nuanced take on it? According to Bauerlein, Grody, McKelvey, and Trimble’s recent We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research, greater access to publishing shares no small culpability. They suggest that increased access serves only to obscure truly brilliant work. Because so much work –much of it redundant, dim, or otherwise inconsequential– is published now, it is easy to miss the good stuff! The authors state that the amount of research makes it impossible to ensure that it is all accurate:

The surest guarantee of integrity, peer review, falls under a debilitating crush of findings, for peer review can handle only so much material without breaking down. More isn’t better. At some point, quality gives way to quantity (Par. 15).

I blogged here about the problem of open source journals demanding payment for publication, and there I suggested that students be told to use library databases instead of Google Scholar and the open internet. Because a new wrinkle has been added, I redouble my efforts here. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell your students to use the library databases.

Website Wednesday

Website Wednesday is an occasional feature in which we highlight one (or a couple) of sites from the Billions floating around the Intertoobz that just might help you with your Herculean task of educating inquiring minds. Any and all suggestions for future editions are welcome.

Behold, a list of the top 100 tools for learning, according to a UK survey of “582 Learning Professionals Worldwide.” There are no surprises in the top 10, but from 20 to 50, there are some interesting tools, and from 50 to 100 it’s like the Wild West. Check ’em out.

# 89 Learnist is one I hadn’t heard of before looking at the list. I’m not sure how or if I’d use it, but it looks pretty cool. Note any good ones in the comments.

(Oops…this was supposed to publish this morning. I guess I pulled the wrong lever. Sorry.)

PS: There’s an interesting discussion starting in the comments of the “Five Things to Tell Your Students about Cell Phones.” Might want to take a peek.

Pseudo-Academic Publishing, Astroturfing, and Google Scholar

According to the article “Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too)” (thanks Tom Higgins for the tip) appearing recently in the New York Times, there is an entire industry built around the appearance of academic qualification, “a parallel world of pseudo-academia, complete with prestigiously-titled conferences and journals that sponsor them. Many of the journals and meetings have names that are nearly identical to those of established, well-known publications and events.”

Unwitting scholars are solicited to publish in the journals and attend the conferences only to find after the fact that there are substantial fees for doing so.  Of course, while I am sympathetic to these individuals, I am more concerned for the net impact on academe as a whole.  For as the article points out, “[S]ome researchers are now raising the alarm about what they see as the proliferation of online journals that will print seemingly anything for a fee.”

The problem seems to lie in the abuse of the “open access journal” concept.   Open access journals are defined by Peter Suber as scholarly writing that is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”  While open access journals and their attendant online scholarly communities are a boon to the free flow of information and the collaborative sharing of knowledge–things I think most of us can see the benefit in—the open nature of the internet allows for abuse.  One kind of abuse stems from charlatans running vanity presses who seek to divest academics from their paychecks.  A much more insidious kind of abuse, I think, is the creation of academic seeming fora in which those who actively seek to obfuscate knowledge have a new megaphone to disseminate misinformation.  There is, for instance, no shortage of evidence about rightwing think tanks and pro-corporate forces trying to muddy the water of the science behind anthropogenic climate change.  If we have already witnessed well-funded think tanks astro-turfing (simulating grass-roots movements) for political causes, then why shouldn’t we expect similar assaults on academic discourse?

Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver, has developed his own blacklist of what he calls “predatory open-access journals.” He warns that their numbers are growing.   There were 20 publishers on his list in 2010, and now there are more than 300. He estimates that there are as many as 4,000 predatory journals today, at least 25 percent of the total number of open-access journals.  To be sure, not all of these sources are “bad” sources or even incredible ones.  The problem is that it is very difficult to tell one from another without a high degree of subject-specific knowledge and a savvy understanding of information literacy.  As the article points out, “[Researchers] warn that nonexperts doing online research will have trouble distinguishing credible research from junk….They will not know from a journal’s title if it is for real or not.”

And that, for me, is where the rubber meets the road.  I often hear teachers telling their students to use Google Scholar, and though GS is in no way connected to shady open access publishers, a cursory search on GS turns up a number of the journals listed on Beall’s blacklist.  Is all the information found in those journals wrong?  No, not necessarily.  But it IS suspect, and if our students have been told that GS is a good source, they are unlikely to realize that fact and evaluate accordingly.  I would caution that Google Scholar is never a substitute for a database search limited to peer-reviewed sources.

Urgent request for help! LIS 101, IAI, and what you need to do now!


We are sending this response to IAI in the next few days, so if you would like to add  your name to the growing list of endorsers and cosigners, please let me know today!

Original Plea for Help:

As many of you know, we have created a three-credit hour library course, LIS 101, to debut in the Fall of 2013.  I am thrilled that it will be part of a 12-hour cohort on global warming alongside Bio 114,  Phys Sci 107, and Eng 101.  Though we have struck articulation agreements with a number of our main feeder schools, we do not yet have IAI status.  They provided some reasons for their decision not to grant status, to which I have responded below.

Your endorsement of this letter could add meaningful support to the cause of information literacy courses state-wide.  If you agree with the letter below, please email me your name and title, and I will add you to our response.  My email is

The Letter:

Dear IAI Panel Members,

We were initially disappointed to learn of your decision not to create a new GECC category for our first LIS 101 course; however, we assure you that more LIS courses are forthcoming.  We feel confident of the value of LIS courses because fellow faculty members from across the curriculum are quite interested in building learning communities with us.  Not only are English classes signing up, but biology, physical science, and others as well.  Likewise, we have struck articulation agreements with a number of the schools our students most often transfer to.  After some internal discussion of the matter, we decided that this would be an excellent opportunity to discuss with you the merits of creating a new GECC home for Library and Information Science (LIS).  We wish to inform you about library and information systems and information literacy, in general; look to the future of the workplace; and to demonstrate that current measures for teaching information literacy are inadequate.

Your central objection to the creation of a new GECC category for LIS is that a course taught at a community college would be inadequate to prepare students for the information demands of a 4-year university.  It appears that your understanding of library systems is that the “basics” of library instruction would remain the same, but that students would have to “relearn appropriate processes” at their transferring institution.  On its face, this argument has some merit.  We certainly would not encourage students to take a course of such limited value.  However, all library systems are built upon the architecture of MARC records, Z39.50 protocols, and Boolean logic.  This means that all online public access catalogs (OPACs) and databases behave the same way.  Though individual databases and OPACs have different graphic user interfaces (GUI), the components are necessarily the same across all systems.  While it is true that students at a four-year university will very likely have access to a greater breadth of databases than their fellows at two-year community colleges because the databases must have the same architecture, our students will be prepared to perform research in their new environment with little or no assistance.

This scenario, however, depicts the role of the library and information literacy as being entirely functionary, e.g., the ability to retrieve information required for an assignment.  In our judgment, that is a very limited part of all that LIS encompasses.  The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) neatly defines information literacy as the ability to know when information is needed, to access information from a variety of sources, to critically evaluate the credibility and usefulness of the information, to use that information to accomplish a task, and to do so in an ethical manner.  These are complex skills, involving critical thinking and other advanced taxonomies.  The ability to perform a search in a database or OPAC is the least demanding of the skills listed by the ACRL.  Consider the uninformed student who goes to Wikipedia and thinks he knows all he needs to write his research paper.  Consider the student who starts with a thesis in mind, finds evidence to the contrary, and quietly pretends he never saw that evidence.  Consider the student who makes important academic or life decisions based on biased, untimely, or incredible evidence.  In our estimation, these are the more substantial concerns. Unfortunately, if librarians only get to spend one to two classroom hours with students, it is unlikely that we will be able to address them. Increasing librarian classroom contact hours will benefit students, better preparing them for their other college classes. June Pullen Weiss (2004), in her “Contemporary Literacy Skills,” notes that years of documentation have repeatedly shown that information literacy skills have a “positive impact on curriculum and student achievement in schools that have strong library media programs” (Pg. 13).  Furthermore, she ranks information literacy as one of the most important skills called for in economic forecasts for 21st century jobs (Pg. 14).

Information literacy has been a concern since the 1980s, and in recent years the drumbeat has only gotten louder for schools to prepare students for the information economy and for “21st century jobs,” or in our case at City Colleges of Chicago, to offer “degrees of economic value.”  No matter what we call these changing demands, we must respond to the new needs of job markets and employers.  As early as the mid-1990s, businesses were recognizing the importance of information literacy to future operations.  Business writer Peter Drucker (1995) correctly assessed that businesses in the future would be built around information, and that the sources of that information would have to come from within  the company as well as from outside. (Pg. 55).  Indeed, companies increasingly recognize the value of information literacy and the strategic value of their employees having access to “the right information at the right time” (Cheuk, 2008, p. 137).

However, in order for companies to work well in the new economy, they will demand certain skills from their workers.  In that regard, it is worth noting that Buket Akkoyunlu and Ayhan Yilmaz (2011) define digital empowerment as the ability to use digital technologies “in order to develop life skills and strengthen [one]’s capacity within the information society” (pg. 35). They further affirm that, “Possessing information literacy skills is essential to be equipped for digital empowerment” and that it helps determine the “competitive power of individuals in the business market, as well as their status and earning power.”  (pg. 37).    Likewise, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (2008) states that in order for our children to be prepared for the jobs of the future they must learn information literacy, media literacy, and information communications and technology literacy skills (pg. 28). These skills are needed because employees of the future will be looking for workers who can problem solve, make informed decisions autonomously, collaborate, and think critically (pps. 27, 29).  All of which are essential components of this and future LIS courses.

Finally, you state that we should continue to teach information literacy as part of the general education coursework students are required to take already.  Such an approach has not borne the best results.  As touched on above, there simply is not time to teach all of the necessary skills during a single classroom visit, which is the unfortunate paradigm of contemporary library instruction.  The weekly schedule for every class is full, so in its present form, we must cover the important field of information literacy only in the broadest of brushstrokes, and indeed, that does often limit us to the completely functionary role of database trainers. But when we expand our classroom contact to a full semester, we are then able to teach information literacy, search strategies, ethical research practices, news literacy, understanding bias, problems with historical representation, media ownership (and problems therein), the hidden web, data mining, the political misuse of information, copyrights, citation styles, and much more.  The scope of what we do borders at times on composition, historiography, psychology, sociology, philosophy, the sciences, and technology but remains uniquely and completely about information literacy.  All of these considerations comprise the cultural context of information that our students need to be prepared to inherit and interpret.

Though this class is important because it will prepare students for jobs that are increasingly dependent upon access to information, it is important for other reasons as well.  Not to be too grandiose, but higher education has always placed a premium on creating well-informed citizens of the world.  Vassilios Dagdilelis  (2008) unequivocally stated that, “Education is called upon to form the future citizens, who will utilize…new/digital technologies as active members of the society: to have a critical attitude towards the social messages, to actively take  part in the decisions that interest them, to become critical ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ of digital work” (pg. 31).  Information literacy is, of course, a vital component of this education.

Please consider the value of being able to sort the facts from the folly in the area of global warming, of being an informed electorate, and of understanding how to navigate the Internet not just to get an answer, but to get a correct answer.  This is not an area that can be covered secondarily in the classroom.  It is a matter of vital importance. Lewandowsky et al. (2012) discussed the societal cost of the influence and proliferation of misinformation and recommended that, “The processes by which people form their opinions and beliefs are…of obvious public interest, particularly if major streams of belief persist that are in opposition to established fact” (pg. 109). Increasingly, we must arm our students with the ability to critically evaluate sources as they seek the truth.  We ask that you reconsider your earlier decision and create a GECC category for LIS.


Sources Consulted:

Buket, A., & Yİlmaz, A. (2011). Prospective Teachers’ Digital Empowerment and Their Information Literacy Self-Efficacy. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research, (44), 33-50.

Cheuk, B. (2008). Delivering Business Value through Information Literacy in the Workplace. Libri, 58, 137–143.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting (2008). Preparing Every Child for the 21st Century
[PDF document]. Retrieved Online Web site:

Dagdilelis, V. (2008). Information Literacy in Greece: Some Considerations with a More General Interest. International Journal of Learning, 14(10), 29-39.

Drucker, P. (1995). The Information Executives Truly Need. Harvard Business Review,
73(1), 54–62.

Lewandowsky , S., Ecker, U., Seifert, C., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106-131.

Weiss, J. (2004). Contemporary Literacy Skills. Knowledge Quest, 32(4), 12-15.