It’s Not Really a Phone

I imagine what I would have thought if, a quarter century ago when I started teaching, someone had told me that some day the students in my classes would be bringing with them hand-held computers with which they could keep their schedules, take notes, and, best of all, have instant access to a world-wide interactive network of information. I would have probably said something about people in hell wanting ice water and dreamed about what might be possible. This came to mind again the other day when my local school district decided to lift the ban on cell phones in some of the high schools. Of course, because the issue is framed by the word “phones” there was a predictable outcry about sliding standards, distracted students, and the glories of life in days past.

Apple, always the savvy marketers, got people to start buying smart phones by continuing to call them “phones.” Phones are cheap, phones are utilitarian, phones feel like a necessity. Had they called them “computers” people would have thought of them as something they might not need in their daily lives, or have been skeptical about what they could use them for. But, the reality is – and I’m far from the first to say this – that they are used more as computers most days then as phones. I applaud the school district for recognizing the use, and the potential, of these devices and giving teachers a chance to work with them rather than to have to police whether students are breaking the rules.

That said, what we call things makes a difference. I’m guessing I can’t get people to call them “computers” rather than “phones,” but I’m going to keep pointing it out and asking them to think about how the label and the use might change how they imagine using them and teaching with them. What’s more, it’s always important to remember that material technologies change practices, create new ways of considering knowledge and communication, and create new relationships of the social and identity (to borrow from actor-network theory and anthropologists like Daniel Miller.) So, using hand-held computers in the classroom is going to start changing relationships, practices, conceptions of knowledge in the classroom. We can’t just layer them on top of what we do; even trying to do that – bad idea that it is – would be doomed to failure as practices would emerge and escape through the new technology and networks. What do we do, then, when our students walk into class tomorrow, hand-held computers at the ready?


  1. Last semester, I was surprised when students in my History of English Language class began taking pictures of our whiteboard notes with their phones. If we generated lists on the board, someone would capture the image and circulate it to everyone in the class.

  2. My business writing students took photos with their phones this past summer, too. I thought it was a great way to archive the white board and power point notes that they found too wordy to copy.

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