When I started at the University in fall 2008 I was sporting a trendy Samsung flip phone. However, by Fall Break I realized how much I could benefit from receiving my e-mail on my phone and made the switch to a BlackBerry. With my new phone I could receive CTools notifications (to avoid being the only student to show up when a class had been cancelled), reply quickly to professors’ e-mails (to avoid getting back to my dorm only to realize that my professor was free to meet 20 minutes prior) and feel more connected on a campus as large as the University’s. Now a recent iPhone convert, I can do more on my phone than my Samsung-equipped self ever thought possible, but it’s hard to say whether or not this ability is beneficial to me as a student.

Leah Potkin

While the iPhone is undoubtedly an incredible device – equally entertaining as it is educational – its ability to connect its owner with everything and anything has been a recent topic of debate. One of Newsweek’s ‘31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012’ was to “toss your smartphone,” while another was to play Words with Friends, a popular Scrabble-like application — contradiction at its finest.

This contradiction is nothing new, as the advances in smartphone technology and their proliferation on campuses has created a conundrum for college professors. In the past, most college professors have permitted laptop computers for the sole purpose of doing class-related activities, despite knowing that these computers (read: communication, gaming and web-surfing devices) often hold the attention of students, myself included, better than a professor’s lecture slides.

As far as phones go, however, most professors draw a line in the sand and strictly prohibit their use during class for any purpose. With improved technology, device discrimination becomes an issue, as smartphones double as computers for some students and therefore have equal abilities to benefit and distract in the classroom.

With these similarities in mind, the line dividing acceptable classroom electronics becomes blurred, as smartphones could arguably provide the same advantages as computers now do. In this sense, if teachers allow students to use computers in the classroom, they have little reason to ban phones — particularly smart ones. In the past, teachers could argue that phone use was strictly social and non-academic. But now, in the same way a teacher doesn’t know what a student is doing on his or her laptop (many students have mastered putting on the inquisitive note-taking face while really Facebook chatting), the teacher doesn’t know whether what a student is doing on his or her smartphone is class-related. And many students do prefer to take notes and read documents on these smaller devices in an effort to be environmentally friendly.

A related issue is the question of responsibility and whether professors should be charged with the task of ensuring their students are paying attention. Ideally, the classroom will reach an ultimate utopian balance between electronic intervention and self-control, but as people struggle to find technology’s appropriate place in the classroom, I believe it is up to students to pull on their big boy or girl pants and exhibit self-control when necessary. If a student chooses to spend his or her class time hidden behind a computer screen or looking at his or her phone for non-class related purposes (assuming such actions do not negatively impact other students’ ability to pay attention), such students should endure the consequences of their actions. And while some may argue that electronic devices are better left outside the classroom to avoid the inevitable temptation, there is no denying the advantages associated with allowing computers, and potentially now phones, in the classroom.

I am by no means advocating spending class time wandering in cyber space, but as computers and phones now share equal pro and con lists, it seems only logical that their use be equally treated. And when it comes to the matter of self-control, it’s both the student’s responsibility and decision whether to pay attention to a screen or a professor. While the contradiction surrounding smartphone use in class continues to be debated, at least if a student chooses to occasionally engage in a tense game of Words With Friends during class time they’re exercising their brains.

Leah Potkin can be reached at lpotkin@umich.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @LeahPotkin.

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