I read a blog post recently about the use of smartphones in the classroom, and it was thought-provoking enough to make me want to flesh out some ideas.  I submitted them as a comment two weeks ago, but they didn’t appear on the blog.  My inquiry about whether the comment was rejected or simply lost in the ether also went unacknowledged, so I thought I’d post it here.

Smartphones Work Well In My Classroom For…

I really appreciate when students take photos of the board, so they can pay attention and join the conversation instead of copying what I’m writing.  A document-scanning app (e.g. CamScanner) can correct parallax and improve contrast, making it look like you own a scanner the size of the whiteboard.

If students are working on team-sized interactive whiteboards, it can also be a great way to capture what they’ve come up with as a group, instead of having to re-copy it into their notebook.

Tablets are extra-useful for this since the larger screen makes it easier to read and annotate the photos — especially useful are EzPDF and Freenote, although obviously cross-platform support can be an issue.

I also like having students take videos of themselves solving problems or demonstrating experiments — a big help when I don’t have time to see each person or group “live.”  Plus, hearing their voices as they describe their thinking gives me a better feel for what they’ve understood vs. what they’ve memorized.

Digital Natives?

The interesting thing is that many of my students, contrary to the received wisdom about digital natives, are surprisingly reticent about this.  It takes a significant amount of direct instruction for students to try these approaches, even when it seems to me that it would be a huge time-saver.  If I give an online and a conventional option for an assignment, the students overwhelmingly choose the conventional route (using a paper notebook instead of a blog so that their essay research is searchable… or submitting written assignments instead of screencasts… or typing instead of using speech to text for dictating papers, for example — even Windows 7 has native support that is reasonably good).

My students, for various reasons, don’t have much time for adjusting or troubleshooting their devices (figuring out where the camera stores its pictures so that the pics can be attached to an email, for example) and often do not understand that folders are hierarchical.

But I Can Drive Without Understanding Engines, Right?

The good news is, teachers who fear that their students far outpace them in skill probably have less to fear than they think.  The bad news is, I suspect that we (including the students) tend to overestimate the degree to which using technology (as opposed to understanding it, or directing it) is inherently useful.

It’s a bit like knowing how to drive a car but not understanding that pressing on the accelerator is what uses up gas and increases the braking distance.  You can make the car go fast, but you probably can’t figure out whether going fast is a good idea at the moment.  Maybe you follow the speed limit diligently without being able to judge whether it’s prudent under the conditions; maybe you don’t follow the speed limit because you don’t know of any reason for its importance.  Besides being dangerous, both approaches are unthinking — abdicating responsibility to either the rule-makers or other drivers.

Making Vs. Using

One approach that seems to be having a lot of success is systematically teaching students to become makers and fixers of classroom technology instead of users/consumers.  I’m also excited about making programming accessible to kids.  Besides improving conceptual understanding and critical thinking, this approach can help us broach the idea that it’s not good enough to be a “native” of a society in which someone else holds the reins of power.  My question to them is not whether they are “digital natives” but whether they are “digital serfs.”  In other words, time to start paying attention to who are the programmers, and who are the programmed.

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