Dumb things you can do with smartphones (1)


or not…


Personal messaging, king of the classroom

On campuses from sea to shining sea, it’s that time again. Your children are in a classroom somewhere, staring intently into the iPad you bought to improve their minds. You fondly imagine them looking up course terminology in Wikipedia while they listen to lectures, take notes and flip through coursekits. My kid, the multitasker, one step closer to law school thanks to Steve Jobs.

Dream on, sucker. Your kid’s on Facebook, not Wikipedia… or whatever messaging platform they prefer for keeping in touch with all their friends, all the time, no matter what.


LT, shown here using the Skyward grip, keeps the gf's happy with her lightning response times


The inappropriate use of mobile phones and other digital devices is gaining attention. Last week FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski counselled a back-to-school gathering of students to be “moderate with digital media.” He cited research according to which the average teenager consumes 11 hours of media content a day, and sends a text every 10 minutes he or she is awake (reported by NYT; pdf of speech here). Genachowski mentioned the dangers of texting while driving, as well as less lethal practices associated with academic performance: “How many of you use the Internet to do things like check your Facebook page or play video games, which keep you from doing your school work?”

200 million: the number of text messsages Canadian mobile phone users send every day (source: CWTA)

That’s the first mistake made by well-meaning authority figures: assuming kids believe their “distractions” are actually distracting them from anything, schoolwork included. This is, after all, the age of multitasking and nobody has embraced that lifestyle choice more than teens and young adults. What they don’t know or won’t acknowledge is good research has shown convincingly that our brains don’t like multitasking. Chronic multitaskers who think they can message, compute, listen, socialize and watch TV all at once are living in a fool’s paradise, and we’ve got the brain scans to prove it.

Before we talk about the myths of multitasking, some personal and institutional context. The “cell-free” message over the skull’n’crossbones you see above is now the first image my students see on their first day of class. When I started teaching at York six years ago, cellphones were a non-event. In the intervening years, they’ve become a plague on campus from which there is no escape. Today, a student without a mobile phone is the very odd exception; their mobile devices are increasingly of the smartphone variety; and said devices turn up shamelessly on classroom desks as though they had a vital role to play in the learning experience.

As I began to realize last year, you can’t ask students to renounce Facebook and personal messaging just because they’re sitting in your classroom, clearly unable to text, listen and take notes at the same time. For some, ubiquitous, 24/7 personal messaging is an entitlement. For others, it’s a growing behavioral addiction – or so it appears to be in the UK, according to Ofcom’s annual state-of-the-union report released in August. Indeed, Ofcom chose to headline this year’s report with the alarmist message that the UK is a “nation addicted to smartphones” (see the html material and downloads here).

Getting unconnected to understand connectedness

As my students have discovered this past week, I’ve chosen not to be upstaged by a bunch of clacking mobiles half-hidden under desks while I try to teach. But you have to play bad, bad cop to turn back this irrepressible tide. I’ve applied a ruthless combination of grade penalties, partial confiscation and emotional disclosures. Getting students to put their phones “away” is a mug’s game, since that simply lets them text from inside a bag, pencil case or book. So at the start of every class my students must place all their handhelds on a shelf between the desks, powered off and left in full sight. Penalty points are taken directly off a student’s final course grade and are not retrievable by extra credit work. No sanctions, no motivation.

To me the important part has been making the effort to explain why this behavior is so poisonous, despite being universally taken for granted. You can’t just get pissed off without some explanatory framework; by the same token, you can’t explain politely to students why they should give up all access to personal messaging for an entire three hours. So I offer both. The technique is captured by one of the slides I screen to provide a sense of how constant inattention in the room makes a hard-working instructor feel angry and unappreciated: “Hey prof, go fuck yourself, I’m busy texting.” As I describe how the unwanted behavior undermines the pedagogical effort, I drive home the point by acting… angry and unappreciated.

53.5 billion: the number of minutes U.S. Internet users spent on Facebook during May 2011, more than three times the reach of the #2 brand, Yahoo! (source: Nielsen)

And it gets weirder. I teach a course about digital communications technologies, including social phenomena like connectedness. The two sections of my course meet in York’s all-Mac computer lab, housed in the Technology-Enhanced Learning Building. Great. But for the time being, the only digital device in operation is my MacBook Pro, with screen and overhead projector. The brand-new iMacs all stay turned off and notes must be taken using pen and paper. No laptops, because the instant students are online, they are statistically very likely to head for one of the three most popular kinds of Web destinations: social networks, which along with blogs represent by far the greatest proportion of time spent online, at 22.5%; online game sites, which account for 9.8% of time online; or an email platform, emailing being in 3rd place at 7.6% (U.S. data, source – State of the Media: Social Media Report, Q3, 2011, Nielsen/ NM Incite). The course notebook is worth 20% this year, so everyone is highly motivated to keep scribbling. It’s a bitch getting there, but oh what a feeling: two dozen minds all more or less connected with each other in real time, in one space, and no bruised thumbs. Needless to say, we’re not all experiencing this groovy feeling in exactly the same way.

Up next: how end-users feel about their smartphones and being “addicted”