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Teachers vs. Cell Phones
Mobile Devices Win

By Geoff Klock / January 2011

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Four hundred years before Christ, Plato argued that technology—the written word itself—is distracting students from learning. Teachers today wish students would read a book sometime. The irony is stunning.

Plato says that people who use writing as anything other than an aid to memory are simple-minded and ignorant. The written word, according him, is vastly inferior to dialogue. It gives the illusion of learning. It is mute when questioned. It can fall into the wrong hands. It has no way to defend itself when it is treated unfairly. (See the full quote at right:Plato, written 360 B.C.E; translation by Benjamin Jowett.)

The written word is so common that we do not think of it as an invention. But that is exactly what it is. It's a piece of technology.

There's a joke among editors that the second book off the Guttenberg press was about the death of publishing, but Plato's fear of the written word is genuine.

Paying Attention

As a professor, complaints that mobile phones distract from learning are ubiquitous. Text messaging, Facebook, and Twitter are the usual suspect applications. I personally hear these complaints from other professors, administrators, and a lot of people over the age of 40, the moment they learn that I'm a teacher. I understand them, and there may be some validity to their arguments, but based on my own anecdotal evidence, I couldn't disagree more.

The argument is: Cell phones in the classroom mean that students are not paying attention 100 percent. But how much less attention are they paying than when they put the phones down? I remember doodling and daydreaming, looking out the window, passing notes... and I got a doctorate. How different is a little electronic device? Is a mobile phone really more distracting for students than the cute girl or guy sitting next to them? Is it more distracting than thinking about the stresses of home life?

Student Concentration

I've written and published two books, and both were written largely while watching television. Perhaps I am some multi-tasking superhero, but I think it is simpler than that. Some people may work more efficiently than I do, but I work for longer periods of time. Looking at the grand totals of what we accomplish, I highly doubt that the efficiency people are doing any more work than I am. For me, work feels less like work in front of a Law and Order: SVU marathon, and so I work more hours.

Similarly, I believe that students learn more when we do not pretend the classroom is a special sanctum where they are to sit up straight, use table manners, put their personal devices down, and genuflect.

A student once fell asleep in my class for 25 minutes. This happens sometimes. I work at an open admissions community college. I have students who are attending school while raising children, working two jobs, learning English as a second language because they are new to this country, and integrating back into civilian life after a tour in Afghanistan. These kinds of pressures exacerbate the normal nonsense that causes freshman to drift off, like not scheduling time well so they do not get enough sleep. I am often reminded of the sign Oscar Wilde saw when he visited a bar in Colorado: "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best."

The class was 100 minutes long, and this guy was out at the 20-minute mark. After class, he said he appreciated that I did not throw him out, as he told me his other teachers would have. While 100 minutes of learning would be ideal, if I had thrown him out of class, he would have gotten 20 minutes of learning. Letting him stay, he gets 75 minutes of learning. Sure, he missed some stuff in the middle, but 75 minutes of learning versus 20—the math speaks for itself.

Cell Phones in the Classroom

Not raging against cell phones in the classroom means students show up more and leave class less often—at least in my experience.

When we teachers freak out about mobile devices, students tune us out. These are very personal devices, which students use as diaries, calendars, translation tools, fact-checking resources, and lifelines in cases of emergency, including child-care. Would you rail against a non-native speaking student for opening a pocket dictionary during class? Would you reprimand a student for searching her purse for a pen, or her watch, or her agenda booklet so she knows whether she has to bolt after class to make it to work on time? The professor who makes a big deal out of "phones" versus any other "distraction" is being irrational, and students will tune him out.

Personally, when other professors complain about mobile phones having a bad influence on students, for example, about text-speak in essay writing, I stop listening. Honestly, I suppose substituting "u" for "you" happens, but it's an easy fix. Frankly, what bothers me is when professors see text-speak as a symbol of "the failures of our modern world." Telling students over and over about how the classroom has degenerated since Ye Olden Times before cell phones and pasteurization puts you in a category with all those people who complain about kids these days with their crazy hair and music—and what is with wearing pants slung that low anyway?

Do you really want to be that guy? That guy is boring. Students don't listen to that guy. When students don't listen, they don't learn. And not being listened to because you're that guy is worse than students not listening to you because they are doing something on their mobile devices. Because as "that guy," you are a fraction of yourself. You are actively damaging yourself. You are becoming a cliché.

Plato should give us pause. Books are considered the height of learning now. Mobile devices, which cannot be separated from Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging, are the height of communication technology. Hell, wouldn't Plato actually prefer Facebook and Twitter and text messaging to books since at least you can ask questions and get a reply? Isn't communication sort of the whole bag?

I would love to know the percentage of professors I hear complaining about text messaging who have never sent a text message. A lot of teachers' concerns stem from the most fundamental fear we have: fear of what we do not understand. But it's not insurmountable. Facebook is not that hard to get a handle on.

And even if we want students to avoid Facebook specifically, shouldn't we take advantage of other mobile device applications? Students have at their fingertips email access, calendars, to-do lists, note-taking applications, the ability to view and edit documents, Wikipedia, Google, dictionaries with audio files for correct pronunciation, teleprompter applications, calculators, clocks, debate timers, speech-to-text apps, the ability to use a camera to make a digital copy of text or an image, and a video camera! We want students to use these tools to help them learn. And these are things we lose if we tell them, "No cell phones in my class. It's disrespectful, mister!"

Cole Camplese noted that in 1800, the chalkboard was considered a disruptive technology in the classroom because it put teachers' backs to the students (as cited by Laurie Rowell in "Capture the Back Channel," eLearn Magazine, August 6, 2009). Before the data comes in from those avant-garde teachers who want to try this backchannel cell phone madness out, let's at least put a stop to the griping. We are doing ourselves and our students a disservice. We are turning our backs on them.


  • Fri, 23 May 2014
    Post by Madhavi Vaidya

    I also asked my students who are adults (UG)to make use of the cell phone for solving practical problems. For ex. I teach Linux Operating Systems as one of the subject to Third Year students. Most of the students have Android mobiles, so i asked them to configure linux environment and execute the basic commands and shell programs on it in the class when it was conducted. I found that students did well in this subject. So my experience was good when they used the mobile phones in the lecture.

  • Thu, 14 Apr 2011
    Post by Andrew

    Come on, cell phones should be allowed in school. Yes education is important to have, but us students have our rights too. They should at least be allowed at lunch or in the hallways. They shouldn't be allowed in class because we will cheat. We will do stupid stuff.But, what if a serious problem happens in school? What if you need to contact someone for a situation? Like if you were held as a hostage, you would wanna tell someone from the outside what is happening or maybe even tell the police. Phones can help in wayts at school.

  • Fri, 21 Jan 2011
    Post by Benjamin Thornton

    I agree with you that cellphone use in school will not destroy education. However, there is an issue with cellphones that does not occur with doodling, looking out the window, or - in most cases - sleeping. None of the other situations that you mentioned in the article involve activities that affect others. (I say sleeping in most cases, because if I fell asleep, I would disturb everyone in the building.) If you are distracting other people in the classroom by having a conversation with them verbally or electronically, you are not just affecting your own education.

    Also, having a live person on the other end of the distraction can cause people to become more distracted. Yes, I have doodled in class when I was feeling bored or that I needed a short break. When I feel like paying attention again, the doodle doesn't poke me and tell me to continue on it. Getting additional texts or facebook messages is a different situation. Do I feel cellphones should be banned from the classroom? No. There are plenty of ways the cellphone can be used appropriately. But social feeds should be off limits while a discussion is going on.

  • Wed, 19 Jan 2011
    Post by Douglas Finnigan

    By the way, there is a world of difference between finding ways to use these technologies (mobile phones, twitter, facebook, etc) as part of constructive learning, and allowing unbridled use of them in class!

    Reading is good, but I wouldn't be keen to let students read the latest vampire novel while in a computer programming class, for example. If they're vampire freaks, I might try to find a way to incorporate vampires into the teaching materials, but only in a controlled way.

  • Wed, 19 Jan 2011
    Post by Douglas Finnigan

    I'm with Liz. I'm sick of the current "digital natives" and "young folks these days are multi-taskers" arguments.

    These so-called digital natives use their technology in a very narrow context of gossip and entertainment. Most of the time it's not even gossip, but simply inane messages posted to relieve boredom or seek attention. They do not use the technology for any constructive purposes. Mobile phones, Twitter and Facebook have facilitated and amplified this babble. In education, the medium is not the message. Any message, be it printed, video, online, or mobile, that requires concentration and thought is treated lightly or outright rejected.

    The key problem is lack of concentration. Students seem to be increasingly unable to concentrate and focus on a task for any length of time. Mobile phones are not designed for periods of concentration. Twitter and Facebook are not designed for periods of concentration. Even surfing the Web (eg. Wikipedia or other forms of research) is borderline. The distraction may already be there, but these technologies feed it.

    Students must be able to sit down and focus on a task for more than 5 minutes at a time without being constantly distracted or seeking distraction. You may ask why? Why not let them be distracted, as long as they eventually get the work done? The problem is that they are not being trained to concentrate, so when concentration is required, they can't cope. And often, extended periods of concentration are needed to get something done. Also, weaker students who are constantly distracted may *never* get the job done properly.

    If we encourage this in our eagerness to appear trendy and with it and progressive, or as a way to avoid throwing in the towel, then we have failed as educators.

    As far as the multi-tasking goes, yes, young folks can multi-task when they are doing trivial things, like watching tv, posting messages, online chatting, youtube-ing, playing games, listening to music, twittering, etc. But they cannot multi-task when they have something important and difficult to do, like studying or doing their project work. If allowed to, many students will Facebook through a whole class. If the tutor is strict, many students will spend half their class time playing cat and mouse, alt-tabbing backwards and forwards depending on where the tutor is in the room.

    Better just to remove these distractions wherever possible and help the students understand that learning requires concentration and thought. If I really want to learn about matrices, for example, I need to bury my head in a math book for an hour. I may use the Web (perhaps via my handphone) to check facts or do some additional research, but if I start messaging and twittering and Facebooking, then that concentration dissipates. I don't think that this is just about me and my learning habits - I believe most things need concentration to be learnt properly.

    I have no problem with students using handphones and online technologies to augment their learning, even in class, and have developed Facebook pages, blogs and other resources in an attempt to guide them towards this. However, these technologies are designed and marketed in complete opposition to this form of use, and so most students are usually unresponsive. Like I said, it's the having to think that switches them off, not the medium of communication.

    Apologies for the length of this post - please feel free to read in Twitter-sized bites :-)

  • Thu, 13 Jan 2011
    Post by Priscilla Nunes

    I was a little disturbed to see credited to Plato a view that is actually from Socrates (Plato wrote it, then his personal opinion should be a little different) but ... apart from that, I liked the post! "Trust is cheaper than control" - and usually more productive too!

  • Sat, 08 Jan 2011
    Post by Kathy

    I am also a computer teacher in Australia (among other subjects) and I teach adults. I actively include mobile phones in my teaching. This is the technology that almost everyone has and it is the technology students will be expected to use in the workplace,so it is my job to understand it and model appropriate, innovative use. Phones are a tool - they have no inherent moral qualities. They are not "good" or "bad" they just "are" and teachers should use their powers for good instead of evil. Try reminding your students of important points via twitter; ask students to take photos/screen shots on a particular subject then upload them to a class blog; make students put reminders in their phoen diaries of due dates. And for those students who take extra-long class breaks, set their phone timer to ring when it's time to come back to class.

  • Thu, 06 Jan 2011
    Post by Haitham A. El-Ghareeb

    Geoff, this is really so insightful. I enjoyed reading it a lot. Seriously, I'm caught with the idea of technology in education and I completely understand what you mean in your article. I completely agree, and I don't agree with Liz's policy regarding mobile phones (Sorry to mention that here, I'm not sure if I'm allowed to comment on replies though).

    I have been teaching for 5 years now. I tried different rules, as a student, and as a teacher. What I found out was: - Preventing mobile phones can be really so distractive. I can't imagine being in a lecture, missing an important SMS informing me about some news I have been waiting for a while, or informing me that someone close and dear, successfully went through surgical operation (Seriously I know students who can skip lectures for such reasons). - When you help your students, they help you. Mobile phones can be so distractive. You can make that clear to students. I allow students to answer phone calls, as long as they don't interrupt the lecture/lab and as long as they keep the respect for the teacher, their colleges, and the lecture/lab itself. You will be really surprised that students starts amazingly to understand that, as long as you are clear, and you are not adding extra rules, just to add rules to be formal (back to the amazing part of Geoff's article about meaningless formality). - Back to Liz comment, and inspired by Geoff's article, to get the most out of Technology in Education, Computer Scientists and Educators must have long sessions, talks, and discussions. I hate most of the (Products' lead market) we have to go through at the e-Learning research area. Honestly, e-Learning is a sensible important field that touches all of us, and it is really open -- within pedagogical frameworks. Using mobile phones in classroom can enhance the lecture itself, the students' focus, and presents a new interactivity that might have been missing.

    This is a much talk. Sorry for the long comment. I enjoyed the article. Enjoyed the comments.

    Hope to continue discussing this issue.

  • Wed, 05 Jan 2011
    Post by liz

    You have got to be kidding...computing teacher here...currently teaching senior students in Australia...if I walked into my classroom and said 'guys, we are going to learn to use our mobiles in an educational way"...I would never be taken seriously again, by the students or by my teaching are very skilled with their electronic devices...but are very unskilled with literacy and numeracy, because "educated' colleagues are introducing devices that will ultimately reduce their time in meaningful learning. Devices are exactly that, devices and also distractions...we have policies to keep mobiles out of the classroom, to reduce distractions, text bullying and unauthorised video taking of teachers and other students. Give the kids more use of these devices will only create a less tolerate generation of others and antisocial behaviour.

  • Tue, 04 Jan 2011
    Post by Bruce

    Besides Plato, the reference to the distraction of the chalkboard was classic! Geoff is WRITE ON! Telling students, whether in college or adults learning in corporate classrooms to put these tools away is a waste of air. This is possibly only different for tests/exams or certifications (cheating?). How about displaying immediate Twitter-style feedback with comments, questions, and opinions DURING the class? That will get better interaction and more involvement, especially in classrooms with more than 20 attendees! If teachers don't want the interaction, then create a video and play it for the students while you go get a cup of coffee! Some teachers' first mistake is taking themselves too seriously.