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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Is the Cell Phone the New Pencil?

Jeff Grabill

I am a writing teacher and researcher at Michigan State University.

It is commonplace to bemoan the poor writing skills of students today. Yes, there is no question that writing effectively is difficult. Yes, it is true that we don't provide enough high quality writing instruction (writing is known as the "forgotten R"). And yes, the demands of a knowledge economy require excellent writing abilities. But the students we teach today write more than any generation in human history, and one reason for that is the pervasiveness of writing technologies in their lives.

My colleagues and I recently conducted a large survey study as part of our ongoing efforts to understand the writing lives of college students in order to better support student learning. We have identified writing practices (e.g., texting) and values associated with writing practices that have raised new questions about what students write, why they write, for whom, and using which technologies. The findings that have captured most people's attention concern writing practices like texting and the importance of handheld devices like mobile phones as a writing platform.

Some Results from the Study

The findings from the survey suggest that writing is an important part of U.S. college students' lives and include the following:

  • SMS texts (i.e., texts using short message services on mobile devices), emails, and lecture notes are three of the most frequently written genres (or types) of writing.
  • SMS texts and academic writing are the most frequently valued genres.
  • Some electronic genres written frequently by participants, such as writing in social networking environments, are not valued highly.
  • Students write for personal fulfillment nearly as often as for school assignments.
  • Digital writing platforms -- cell phones, Facebook, email -- are frequently associated with writing done most often.

We weren't surprised at the amount of texting reported. We expected the frequency. That participants valued texting surprised us (and they didn't value all new writing technologies and platforms). As writing teachers, we were also surprised at how highly students reported valuing their academic writing. This finding runs counter to much writing teacher lore, and our current study attempts to understand why.

But mostly, these findings point to the pervasiveness of writing in the lives of students and to the importance of handheld devices (like mobile phones) as a writing platform. Digital forms of communication are clearly commonplace in students' writing lives. While some readers might find this fact horrifying -- and others might find it loaded with possibility -- one thing is clear: cell phones have become a writing technology. Students use phones for texting, sure, but they also use them for a range of other writing practices, even occasionally for academic notes and papers.

The Cell Phone as the New Pencil?

There are ways that the analogy between the pencil and the cell phone doesn't work, and our data on the use of the phone as a writing technology is layered and complex. Still, the question indexes some interesting changes in the technology itself over a short period of time. I rarely talk on my "phone." I have a colleague who has never set up his voicemail. For both of us, the device is much more valuable as a writing technology than a voice technology. We talk on the phone when we must, but the device enables a number of other communication and coordination functions that we generally find more useful. The techno-cultural dynamics around this single device are worth attending to, but I also think that they are relevant for understanding writing.

The relevance is associated with the fact that, for many of our study participants, writing is an ambient activity, and our focus on phones and texting have allowed us to see this more clearly. For instance, our participants use writing to coordinate social practices that haven't always been coordinated via writing, such as their personal lives and a growing number of learning activities. This is possible because many of us now carry a powerful writing device in our pockets that is connected to a computer network. This is also possible because cultural practices have changed in ways that make writing our way through the day acceptable.

What does this mean for us as teachers? It isn't clear to me yet. One possibility is that studies like this help us pay attention to the fact that our students have writing lives, that they routinely engage in writing-intensive work that is complex, and that it is useful to engage our students in conversations about how writing works in the world. I am hopeful that you will share your thoughts.

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M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

It's very rare that people who text observe correct writing conventions, so how can this serve as a useful tool for teaching writing?

Why would you, as a teacher, want to allow kids more access to cell phones when there's an abundance of research about the negative effects of electromagnetic fields being generated by these devices?

It's funny, I'm sure many of you who are married to your cell phones are the same people who ride high on the global warming bandwagon, an advocacy that's riddled with fraud and misinformation. Yet, you're simpatico with frying your brains with non-stop cell phone usage (because everyone else is, i.e. the collective, so that makes it OK).

Chris Miraglia's picture

This topic embodies the very struggle I have as a middle school teacher. I find it necessary to develop the students use of mobile devices in such a way that notetaking, social bookmarking and the use of platforms such as Edmodo become part of the students' repertoire. I also stress academic writing which is the basis of most of my performance assessments. Being that writing in a history class is an unnatural act for most students I can only challenge them to improve each assignment. However, teaching the students that the device in their hands can be a powerful educational tool can be challenging as they must see the relevance to their lives. Thus lies the battle.

Mario Gomez's picture

Mr. Hauck,

I didn't realize this was a political forum to express your right wing agenda. The author was simply stating that maybe using cell phones as a writing method is valid, or the very least, exploring the issue in an educational setting. Your statement regarding climate change (global warming) has zero relevance to the issue regarding cell phones. I'm sure you gather your fraud and misinformation facts about global warming through such reliable sources as FOX news, that's just like you, fair and balanced. But, since you brought it up I'm guessing the current heat wave that has penetrated our country is a result of natural climate and has no connection to climate change. Thank you for the article Mr. Grabill and I challenge Mr. Hauck to keep his remarks relevant and on topic.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Mario: You've missed my point completely. Let me further clarify.

The point made about global warming, which is, in reality, not conclusively proven to be based on man-made factors, is of greater importance to many people than the effects of electromagnetic fields on the brain when using cell phones.

I'm citing the hypocrisy of the expressed attitudes toward the former advocacy, which is currently fashionable, and the latter advocacy, which is not. Environmental issues attract a rabid and often hysterical base. Cellphone addicts, on the other hand, don't want to know about the dangers of their much beloved devices. It's the very same situation with video game addicts. No one wants to discuss dopamine release addiction and the harm it can cause. That's sad and very indicative of the twisted mindset that permeates education and our FAST, EASY, and FUN society at large.

People generally would rather scrutinize and complain about powerful institutions rather than apply the same scrutiny to that which provides them pleasure. This is a tragic error in judgment.

Human behavioral and motivational choices are always at the root of all my complaints about teachers in my profession. These choices are rarely consistent, well thought-out, rational, and often influenced by the most superficial philosophies, beliefs, or subcultures (i.e. pop culture).

By the way, Mario, I don't watch ANY 24/7 news nets. They are all about entertainment, not objective news reporting. The political process has been trivialized and dumbed down to a slate of cheesy and unwatchable TV programs. I consider 90% of all TV to be garbage anyway, as it caters to same lowest common denominator and influences poor behavior.

Not surprisingly, this is the pool from which we select those placed in charge of mentoring future generations.

That should be a chilling revelation to anyone.

Mario Gomez's picture

You're obviously an educated man. You're well spoken, have your beliefs and values supported by viable reasoning. I don't believe I missed your point, which was cell phones are evil in the classroom and they have zero value in the writing process. I simply believe we need to adopt a 21st century approach in our educational system and get away from teaching our kids in an assembly line manner. If we are to educate the masses, then our approach has to change significantly. We are too caught up in teaching google facts and rote memorization, which is causing our youth to continue to fall behind in creativity and ingenuity, which is the manner in which our country came to be great in the 1st place. We rely too heavily on testing and refuse to abide by common sense. However, should we hold more teachers accountable? Absolutely. How so? Through test score averages, which leads to even more teaching to the test. Our system is broken, that is something we can agree on. How can we fix it? Several ideologies exist and all I am saying is, lets keep an open mind.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

It would be refreshing for a change if someone advocating on behalf of the so-called "21st Century Innovation" education movement would make their case without listing the same series of talking points that have been repeated on dozens of blogs by dozens of teachers. If one were truly to analyze and dissect those talking points, they'd arrive at the conclusion that the idea is a mirage or better yet, a handful of cotton candy. it may look good and taste good, but "there is no 'there there'" (to quote Gertrude Stein).

What research statistics or studies are available that proves that the USA has fallen behind in "creativity and ingenuity." These seem like things that can't be easily quantified via research.

The so-called "assembly line" approach to education worked very well when the USA was the world's primary superpower. The slide began when a cabal of educators and leaders decided to tinker with a good thing. I would point to this gradual decline beginning in the 1960s when university faculties became more radicalized, more pro-Marxist, and more invested in tearing down America's institutions and traditions that made them the best in the world.

Now, many teach that being the "best" isn't proper. Many have adopted the egalitarian mindset that no one is inferior or superior to another, which includes any country, culture, philosophy, belief, etc.
We have leaders as well as educators who delight in witnessing the USA being brought down a few notches to fall more in line with other countries who follow the socialist model of society (i.e. the Euro zone).

It's easier to blame standardized tests and NCLB for the decline in education quality than it is to blame the ill-equipped and woefully unprepared generation of kids coming out of our institutions of higher learning, where they've been brainwashed into embracing a values-neutral non-judgmental world. They tend to believe that it is preferable to try and understand why some nation or culture wants to bomb and kill your fellow citizens rather than simply neutralizing them first by force.

If you want to build a better America, you don't put cell phones in the hands of school kids.

You start by instilling a sense of pride and exceptionalism. America is and was never perfect, but what it represents is still the best alternative in the world to other countries with fewer freedoms, fewer liberties, excessive taxes (plus cradle-to-grave entitlements), and a willingness to surrender their sovereignty to anti-American world courts such as the United Nations.

As Machiavelli once stated, it's better to be feared than to be loved.

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