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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 24, Number 4, January/February 2012  

Smartphones dehumanize users 

By Joy Penner  

As the push for cutting-edge technology in the classroom grows, and the available resources shrink, educators are looking for ways to exploit what is available without depleting valuable resources. This is where the smartphone can add value, but the question needs to be asked, “Is it a value we want to promote?”

Smartphones have been around since 1993 (Reed 2010). IBM’s Simon was the first smartphone, affordable only to industries. Subsequently Palm, Nokia, and Blackberry each developed their own versions. In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone to the mass market. Today, the smartphone continues to develop with the introduction of android—open sourcing technology. Essentially smartphones are mobile computers, and as such they have great implications for education.

Traditionally, administrators and teachers have fought hard to keep phones out of schools, with offenders being punished. Concerns are many—distraction, cheating, Wi-Fi funding, privacy, equitable access, and politics. Proponents cite as many positive outcomes—promotes interest and interaction, no training required, no technical support needed, relatively inexpensive, kids take charge of their own learning, and utilizes students preferred mode of communication. In a recent poll, students considered banned technology to be the biggest obstacle to learning (Project Tomorrow 2010).

While technological determinists will continue to battle over the positive and negative effects of the use of smartphones in the classroom, here I will briefly consider some psychological and sociological issues. Firstly, what does the designation smartphone imply? If the phone is smart, what of the user? If our students use smartphones, does this infer that they have eschewed “smartness” in favour of a brain that dominates their brain? And what are the psychological implications for the many who find smartphones too “smart” for them?

If we assume that the user is smart and dominates the tool, what are we to make of the dehumanizing effects of this tool? Students send on average, 80 texts per day (Haffner 2009). To be efficient, well–crafted writing is avoided in favour of “text-speak.” Here is proof of a motivating factor and educational value, because in a remarkably short time, students become fluent (unlike any language course) in this second language. New Zealand caught onto its “educational value” when in 2006 its Qualification Authority allowed students to answer their national exams in “text-speak.” Ironically, principals are now questioning this decision, especially as it relates to English exams. Students may also text in full sentences but the “smart” tool auto-correct often controls the words, resulting in rude, unintended comments.

Smartphone use has also led to a decline in judgment, followed by health. Students have, in the name of communication, given up their ability to think wisely in terms of what is harmful to them. Physicians and psychologists are now concerned over the increase of texting, which is leading “to anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury (Blackberry Thumb), and sleep deprivation” (Haffner 2009).

So while the use of smartphones in the classroom sounds reasonable to many, it is also a tool that dehumanizes. A student hunched over her/his phone, thumbs rapidly moving over the keyboard, texts issuing forth akin to grunts, feels like a step down the evolutionary chain in terms of actions and intelligence. There are valid uses for the smartphone in education, but we must certainly consider carefully all the ramifications of using this technology in our classrooms and take steps to avoid fostering dehumanized users.

Joy Penner, master’s student, UBC 


APA. (2006). Officials: Students can use 'text speak' on tests.. USA Today. Retrieved on October 5, 2011 from http://www.usatoday.com/news/offbeat/2006-11-13-text-speak_x.htm  

Haffner, Katie. (2009, May 25). Texting may be taking its toll. New York Times. Retrieved on October 6, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/26/health/26teen.html  

Project Tomorrow (2010). Creating our future: Students speak up about their vision for 21st century learning. Retrieved from http://www.tomorrow.org/speakup/pdfs/SU09NationalFindingsStudents&Parents.pdf  

Reed, Brad. (2010). A brief history of smart phone. Retrieved from http://www.pcworld.com/article/199243/a_brief_history_of_smartphones.html  

Smith, Mandy. (2006). Principals oppose text language in exams. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10409902  

Smyth, T. (2011). Smartphones in the classroom: Are we ready? In Proceedings of Global TIME 2011 (pp. 54-57). AACE. Retrieved on September 27, 2011 from http://www.editlib.org/p/37056 


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