Moving Away from the Digital in a Smartphone-Altered Universe

Skinner teaching machine.
One of B. F. Skinner’s teaching machines. Silly rabbit [CC BY 3.0 (
Never were online courses adequate substitutes for face-to-face teaching. Like correspondence courses before them, they do fill a need and they can provide motivated students with a viable alternative. But they should never have been preferred or seen as a blanket equivalent to direct interaction with a professor. That is more true today than ever before, primarily because of the stunning success of the smartphone

Yet, because they are cheaper and because they reduce the power of the faculty, online courses are still beloved by administrators and funders. They simplify educational structures and remove vexing questions of space utilization. They also reduce responsibility: When there is no direct oversight, the distant overseer can step aside from blame when student fails.

Yet, when digital platforms for learning were digging their claws into educational structures–far too deeply–the milieu in which education operates was also changing. Changing to the point where, paradoxically, the new smartphone milieu is standing the assumptions of educators dedicated to the digital on their heads.

Soon after developing his teaching machine (maybe even before), B. F. Skinner realized he was not creating a replacement for instructors but a new tool for them. He always appreciated the need for direct human interaction as a part of teaching. Education administrators who have bought into the various digital-platform models, on the other hand, have long seen their avenues of digital instruction as a way to reduce reliance on teachers by regularizing curricula through digital replication and turning the teachers into overseers, people there simply to solve problems as students take more and more control of their education. The digital, these people dreamed, could make most teachers redundant.

Though student control of their own education is a laudable goal, that’s not the only goal of those pushing online education. Cost-cutting and streamlining are even more important ends. Producing a workforce augmentation implemented seamlessly also is.

The growth of the student as a person and a citizen is not. Education, as we have defined it in the United States (until recently), is not.

Thing is, the digital landscape our students inhabit has changed dramatically since the old assumptions about digital utility in education were formulated. The smartphone has become student interface with much of the world, including families and, yes, classrooms. Anyone simply looking around today can see that the smartphone should be changing all of assumptions about utility of digital tools–but it hasn’t.

It will. It is starting to do so, but the process is a long one and the older digital educators are going to resist it as strongly as they can. As a first step, we need to stop thinking about digital realities in the ways that had become standard before June 29, 2007, the day that Apple introduced the iPhone and (I am not overstating this) changed the world. We must abandon platforms and digital environments like Blackboard and Second Life in favor of more flexible app-based strategies that can be adapted easily from course to course and semester to semester.We need to start thinking of the relationship between the digital and education in ways that concentrate on what the students have in hand, not what sits on university servers or at the center of the classroom. The smartphone world requires decentralization–even in the classroom, where we have become used to digital tools under the control of the professor.

It requires returning to a classroom environment that does not rely on digital tools, centralized or otherwise, for class activities.

Students are already using their smartphones in the classroom, of course. All of us who teach see this every day, even when students try to hide their phones. What we need are strategies that can turn what students are already doing with their smartphones to education.

We need something more, too. The smartphone has invaded an ever-broadening array of daily activities. Because of the success of the smartphone, we need to start reducing the impact of the digital in teaching. Students no longer need to be taught how to negotiate the digital. They are living it.

Before the introduction of the smartphone, digital education required learning to command digital tools and how to operate in digital environments. Recognizing this, educators allowed platforms like Second Life and especially Blackboard to become hefty elements of digital education. Today, though, these are unwieldy antiques attempting to adapt themselves to an age they were not designed for and that doesn’t need them.

The personalization of education students need in the smartphone world won’t occur through technology. Even though the smartphone itself has a personalizing effect, it remains an interface and a barrier. This interface/barrier has become so strong  that it dominates nearly everything students now do. For the sake of these students and their education, it needs to be partnered with a renewal of face-to-face learning that leaves the digital aside–on the assumption that students have already mastered it.

Once we needed to augment the student/teacher relationship through technology, teaching students to negotiate a changing environment that included more and greater digital tools each day. Now, with our students immersed in the digital, we teachers need to be instructing them back to the human–the human sans interface.

As I write, behind me, in a room full of desktop computers (not to mention their personal laptops, tablets and smartphones), my students are quietly talking and working in groups of three or four. Technology is part of their activity, but it is not the center; students of the smartphone generation need just this sort of environment. They need to actually talk with each other–and with me. They need to be drawn into interactions where the desire to sneak a peak at the phone is dampened by actual discussion with the people across from them.

This skill, today, has to be learned. Just as, a decade or so, students had to learn to negotiate the digital world.

If we let machines dominate our interactions, we become machines, and function only as cogs. If we learn that the new and exciting comes more easily and directly from one another, we will become more fully integrated and stable human beings–and that needs to be the focus of education in a world dominated by the digital.

The digital, today, offers less and less to educators, for students are already full citizens of its environment. In face of this, we need to be helping our students become, also, full citizens of the world.

We need to be helping our students move into a new world, not of the post-human but of the post-technological. For that’s where they can settle most successfully.

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