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Permanently Disrupting Education. With Smartphones.

student-smartphone-usePermanently Disrupting Education. With Smartphones.

by Terry Heick

The concept of disruption is an apt one in our fluid, digital, and almost destructively social world.

In response to the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it’s not surprising to see that trend continue now that technology has caught up with our inherently rebellious ways. The Information Age is as full of change as it is spectacle, with access an integral component.

Access for everyone to everything, a principal the Khan Academy is built on.

While on a macro and truly global level we’re from far from reaching this utopian view of universal accessibility to platforms, information, and thus opportunity, the groundswell is indeed pushing for that.

Of course, with this kind of access comes disruption. Formal education is built on principles of standardization, uniformity, and compliance. The lack of diversity in proficiency assessment is rivaled only by the relative apathy of many learners, perhaps aware of how little control they actually have over what they learn, when they learn it, and what they do with that information.

Modern smartphones have the chance to change all of this.

See also What Students Don’t Know Is More Important Than What They Do

Disruption isn’t always a comfortable process. The root rupt means to break¸ after all. Essentially by disrupting, one is breaking a pattern or system. In lieu of incremental change in public education, and in spite of a tsunami of technology outside of classrooms, learning environments aren’t far removed from where they were when Cassius Clay was disrupting how America thought of sports figures, or Billy Jean King notions of gender performance.

In classrooms across the globes, learners are being educated in information-scarce environments. A common counter-argument is that the students simply “can’ta process” that much information.

Can’t analyze.

Can’t evaluate.

Can’t synthesize.

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If this is true, is the proper response to stop trying—to limit the amount of information, and to shackle the relative access to information?

In the pocket of learner’s everywhere are devices that offer them access to recorded human history, but to adhere to patterns, systems, and protocol, we insist that these “channels” be muted. Put away. Out of sight.

Of course, learners are human, so they rebel. They text. They facebook. They tweet. They mock the systems that are restraining them., not because they fully understand that restraint, but they sense it.

Through smartphone implantation, power, pace, and patterns are decentralized, from institutions and educators to individual learners. While raising-your-hand-via-text is one way to look at it, here’s another: stop hording pathways to information. Stand aside and help them sift—help them analyze, evaluate, and synthesize.

There are many factors at work here that offer potential.


1. Access

While iPads are much ballyhooed for their planet-in-your-lap potential, smartphones have the majority of the same potential, but with far increased mobility. Learners can access other learners, information, experts, and mentors at any time—their own pace, through their own chosen social media platforms, in a way that is comfortable and useful to them. This not only reduces the constant need to teach procedural knowledge, but provides a base of prior knowledge that offers at initial access to every task a learner can be expected to complete. Every time, they’d at least have an idea where to start.

2. Native Tech

Rather than insisting on school-provided hardware and software, students themselves will use the technology that is native to them—the phones, the apps, and the mobile operating systems that they use day in, and day out.

And when there is an app they need but don’t have, it’s imminently affordable to address at home. Further, by bringing these mobile platforms home, parents and families are immediately brought into the conversation on a more consistent basis. The learner’s primary learning tool in the classroom is available in the palm of the hands of the parents.

3. Transparency

Perhaps the most potent factor in this disruption would be in increased transparency. While administrators everywhere undoubtedly read these ideas and shudder at the concept of a students “facebooking” during “Class,” reconsider the notion of class. In a digital environment, everything can be made transparent—not only for learners, but for teachers, families, and community. It would no longer be entirely up to an overworked assistant principal to police “social media drama.” By giving every student a can of spray paint (smartphone), the graffiti should be visible to all.


Of course, there are barriers. This is disruption after all, not slow, top-down, organized change.

  1. Policy

The above ideas would violate 99% of school policies ever written. The response, of course, is not new policies, but new thinking and learning models. New notions of family involvement. Disruption doesn’t wait for ideal conditions, it forces change.

2. Disparity in Technology

Not every student has a cell phone, much less a smartphone. And those that do often have very different hardware—some powerful and elegant, others rickety and crude. This is not a disparity that needs muting—this is reality, and itself not a powerful counter-argument to the use of smartphones in the classroom. How much do used Android smartphones cost compared to iPads or laptops?

3. Privacy

With issues of bullying, identify theft, and other digital dangers, open smartphone access for minors during “school” sounds like a nightmare.

And given modern formal learning settings that don’t easily accommodate students having unmitigated access to all that can be made digital, but therein lies the rub: giving students ‘keys’ to modern communication and information sources would shred old paradigms of what was happening in “classroom” beyond recognition, not to mention clarifying the sheer impossibility of policing it all to begin with at an institutional level.

Undoubtedly, placing an Android or iOS device into the hands of minors doesn’t sound particularly useful, much less pedagogical or transformative. There would be countless barriers for implementation. And that’s the point of disruption—to reset power distribution and patterns to create new circumstances.

For personalized learning, community involvement, and digital integration to full occur, it will have to be in the hands of learners, with re-considered roles for teachers, community mentors, and academic institutions.

The tool for starting a revolution is sitting quietly in the pocket of millions of learners everywhere.

Permanently Disrupting Education. With Smartphones; image attribution flickr user toehk