Though school began only six weeks ago, senior Matthew* already finds himself stressed out with a busy workload. Whether he is busy with soccer practice or just wants to watch a movie on TV, he realizes at midnight that he no longer has the time to study for his science test the next day.
Not wanting to deal with the trouble of pulling an all-night study session, and wary of bringing home a bad grade to his parents this early in the school year, he decides upon an easier route that he had originally tested out in Spanish the previous year: using his new smartphone to get an edge.
Matthew proceeds to take a picture of his study guide with his smartphone and then downloads several apps, such as Wolfram Alpha, an app based on the popular website that creates answers from search engine queries. At 12:20 a.m., he packs up his backpack ready to tackle tomorrow’s test.
Three days later, Matthew gets his test back with a B- and no incentive to do anything different the next time.
This scenario is just one example of how mobile phones have changed the game of academics, allowing new capabilities for students both in and out of the classroom; however, the recent popularity of smartphones, with their unrestricted access to the entire Internet and user-friendly interfaces, has raised more issues than its predecessors.
A Lesson in History
The smartphone industry, although recent and instantly popular, did not get to where it is overnight. In a 1992 article in USA Today titled “Big Blue Unveiling,” John Schneidawind reported on the first smartphone ever built; it came from IBM and was named Simon. The phone had the capabilities of a cell phone, pager and fax machine, among others.
Smartphones today have progressed significantly from their humble ancestors. Standard features on smartphones include all the abilities of a phone, personal planner and the ability to download external applications, dubbed “apps.”
The most influential developments came later when Apple, Inc. announced its intention to release its first phone, the iPhone in January 2007, and later that year when Google announced its own mobile phone operating system, the Android.
Recently, the Android, Blackberry (made by Research In Motion) and iPhone have been the largest smartphone competitors in the United States.
According to a report by NPD Group, an information technology research firm, Google’s Android operating system was the most sold smartphone in the United States in the second quarter of 2010, with 33 percent of sales. It was the first time that any competitor had beaten Research In Motion’s Blackberry operating system which finished in second with 28 percent. Apple’s iPhone finished in third with 22 percent of sales.
According to the Gartner research firm, worldwide mobile web device sales totaled 325.6 million units in the second quarter of 2010. This was a growth of 13.8 percent on a year-over-year basis.
Into the Schools
With the incredible growth in popularity and in the press, it was only a matter of time before high school students got a hold of them.
Senior Erik Krause saw the appeal for such a phone and bought one: the iPhone.
“It’s an extremely useful tool. When I need the web, I have it,” Krause said. “[There is no longer] a need to remember [to look up something] for when I get to a computer.”
Although sophomore Alex Harris does not have a smartphone, he has noticed an increase in their prevalence.
“I have noticed a lot of my friends coming to school with [new] smartphones,” Harris said.
The appeal goes beyond the web browser. The market for applications has grown quickly in recent years, and at Apple’s most recent event, CEO Steve Jobs announced that the store has over 250,000 apps and more than 6.5 billion downloads of those apps. App downloads on other platforms, such as Google’s Android operating system are harder to track; unlike Apple’s iTunes app store, they are not conducted through a single outlet. Tech Crunch, an online news website, reported on July 30, that Android Market watcher AndroLib estimated that more than 100,000 apps had been submitted to the Android market.
Many of these apps have specific purposes that students find useful.
“The biggest appeal would be GPS, especially [as] a new driver,” Harris said. “Many of the apps and games, in particular, are designed for a younger audience, like [us].”
Krause’s reason for getting a smartphone was primarily the fact that it served as a multi-tasker—many devices in one.
“I use it to listen to music, text with friends and get on the Internet when I want to,” he said. “I prefer it to carrying multiple [devices] around.”
The Social Aspect
One of the most common uses for smartphones, especially among teenagers, is social networking.
Freshman Victoria Bish has multiple friends who recently purchased iPhones, and has taken note of their increased use of the devices.
“Most people just want [a smartphone] because it has Internet and they can use Facebook with it,” she said.
Psychology teacher Doug Rinehart said such constant use is not good.
“It seems that students are becoming so obsessive with this technology and they cannot put it down,” he said. “I have seen students standing in circles and instead of talking to each other they are standing there all using their phones.”
That is what makes the use of
social networking so problematic for many teachers and administrators.
Social networking is a system that derives its usefulness from frequent updating and checking.
Principal Kip Greenhill is not surprised by such uses, but he encourages students to use their phones at appropriate times.
“It’s just a part of being social,” Greenhill said. “Facebook, Twitter, there is no problem with it. Students just have to know that they can’t use it in the classroom.”
Some students seem to think that other, older cell phone uses were more common, such as texting. This may be so because of the fact that many students have not yet upgraded to smartphones.
“I’ve noticed people using phones, but mostly for texting, instead of a lot of the ‘smart’ features, like the Internet,” Harris said.
Krause said he agreed that texting is a more popular reason for using a
phone during class.
“Way more people text during class than hop on Facebook [on their phones],” he said.
The use of smartphones for the purpose of social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter is particularly common, because the act of social networking is something that drives users to frequently check for updates.
And although many students comment on its use now, Krause gave a reason why it may grow in the future.
“I may get alerts about social networking [on my phone], but because most of the activity is done on computers at home, it is useless to do it on my phone at school,” Krause said.
With smartphones on the rise, more students could gain access to social networking at school. And as more students are able to use the websites during school hours, the networking effects of websites like Facebook and Twitter would increase, and students like Krause may find more use in them.
Although students may be more prone to using these devices in school, Greenhill does not want to ban phone use in the school.
“We don’t want to be restrictive,” Greenhill said. “Technology enhances learning. Just don’t take out smartphones during tests.”
Cheating Made Easy
Greenhill’s sentiment mirror one that many have. Like most technological breakthroughs, smartphones can be used for many controversial purposes. Stories like that of Matthew are not uncommon at the high school.
“[During a class last year,] other kids in my class would take pictures of notes and definitions and look at them while taking tests,” Matthew said.
Other forms of cheating however are exclusive to smartphones, such as downloading apps that can help students access information that can help them during tests.
“There’s not even a need to go to the restroom,” Matthew said. “You can bring up a browser on your phone under your desk.”
Cracking down on this type of cheating is not easy, and often, teachers do not know how much of it is going on.
“Honestly, I don’t know how much cheating and smart phones use goes on,” Rinehart said. “The problem is that teachers don’t know much [about technology], and some may need to catch up. Staying up-to-date is hard, and older individuals are resistant to new technology.”
In fact, many students see that some teachers are ignorant of the extent to which test-takers can use technology. Although teachers may split up the desks, that does nothing to stop students from reaching beneath their desks to text each other.
“[Teachers] are usually distracted at their own computers and they ignore the test takers,” Matthew said.
Matthew said that if teachers are really going to try and stop smartphone cheating, they will have to be much more technologically-minded, especially with the innovative ways students cheat with smartphones.
Krause is not sure that it is possible to allow both smartphones and not have them be used for cheating.
“[Teachers] would have to constantly be looking over their shoulders,” he said.
In order to have a cheating free environment, Matthew said he believes a lot would have to change.
“To stop it, [the administration] would have to impose very, very strict punishments,” he said. “Currently, they either don’t care or they have blind faith in students.”
Outright banning is not always the best road to take though. Many admit the powerful tools that smartphones can be.
“It makes it much easier to obtain information faster and do in-class work if the devices are allowed,” Krause said. “Of course, it is hard to keep the devices from being used for other distracting purposes which most students probably would do.”
Krause assumes that the administration will continue to treat them exactly like normal cell phones, as he said the alternative seems implausible.
“The gray area is hard to enforce,” he said. “No one can always know when students are using them and what for.”
Rinehart realizes the need for specific rules for smartphone use, but suggests that the administration and teachers focus on the issue of cheating in all its forms.
“Obviously, there need to be consequences for using phones at the wrong time, but cheating has happened forever,” Rinehart said. “When I was in school, students used to pass notes. The problem is less with the phones and more with the students’ attitudes.”
Instead, appropriate use should be promoted, he said.
“They need to be responsible and realize what is and is not OK to do. There are many websites, videos, pictures, that are [blocked by the school’s filter] that students can see on their phones, and that is an extremely useful resource. Not only for entertainment during downtime, but also for research. Students should be able to use these resources and take advantage of the things they have at the appropriate time.”
He also stated that responsibility falls on the shoulders of students when they are using smartphones. According to Greenhill, cheaters will be punished the same as they always have been—with a zero tolerance policy.
“In an ideal world there would be no [problem,]” Greenhill said. “However, it can’t be that way, and inappropriate usage will be dealt with on an individual basis.”
It remains to be seen how the current Academic Misconduct policy with regards to smartphones will work as more students begin to use smartphones. Just as with standard cell phones, as more students gain access to the devices, they gain access to the ability to cheat as well as the opportunity to benefit from the tools. •
*Denotes a source who requested anonymity.